My Amazing Discipline Trick!

One of these days, I’ll have to tell you about my oldest son Noah. He was really something. Even my mom didn’t want to watch him. And she had 9 kids. But that’s a kind of long story for another day. Suffice it to say he was challenging.

One of the things which made Noah particularly difficult is that he simply wasn’t responsive to punishment. He wasn’t vulnerable to any sort of trickery. “Flattery will get you no where” may well have been his first complete sentence. Time out was me dealing with a two hour fight and I’m sorry, you don’t get to just make me miserable for two hours straight like that. Day after day. Just . . . nothing I tried really worked. He was getting better over time, but good Lord, at the rate we were going he was going to be having temper tantrums on his honeymoon.

I think it was while reading some book on positive parenting that I came across the idea which actually worked. And it’s the discipline trick I’ve turned to almost exclusively with all my other kids. Because it works. AND it teaches them skills that they need to be good, healthy people. But it’s so simple, you might think I’m crazy. Continue reading


Great Power and Petty Beligerance

Yesterday, I wrote about how the changing role and nature of authority in our lives demands that we change the way we parent our kids. Which is why my first rule of parenting is to raise good men and women, not good children.

Of course, as the existence of our prison system and the IRS demonstrate, authority still exists. Our kids do need to know how to submit to some authority other than their own. Even when they disagree with it. So it’s not that I’ve give up all authority over my children. Especially with five kids, there’s no way our family could function!

Which leads to my second rule of parenting: great powers do not respond to petty belligerence. Especially in Christians circles, a great deal of weight is placed on establishing and maintaining the near absolute authority of the parents. The idea seems to be that the parent’s authority is under constant threat from rebellious children. Therefor, resistance to a parent’s authority must be dealt with as the threat it is.

I think this is ridiculous. I’m in charge. I know I’m in charge. My kids know I’m in charge. I don’t need to waste my time proving to them that I’m in charge. Nor do I need to force them to continually reassure me that they still recognize my authority. Great powers can tolerate protests, complaints, petitions for change and challenges without fear. Only insecure powers feel that they must respond to and crush every petty belligerency.

A great deal of conflict, stress, resentment and drama is created in families by parents who take their kids behavior as a threat to their authority. It’s a very ugly dynamic that I’ve seen lead to terrible parenting and destroyed relationships. And it’s completely and totally unnecessary.

I refuse to take my child’s behavior that personally. They behave the ways they do for their own reasons, not to see if they can knock me off my throne. Even when they are deliberately testing boundaries, it’s no threat. And I let them know that. If they go too far, I will put a stop to it, but otherwise, they enjoy a great deal of freedom. And they are allowed to renegotiate the boundaries from time to time. I’m in charge. I can decide to move boundaries if I see fit.

Because of this, my children trust me. They know that I’m not engaged in senseless power struggles with them when I do put my foot down. They know that I will show respect for them even if they do not show respect for me, because I’m not nearly as childish as they are. They know that I will remain in control even when they do not. They know I can be trusted to listen to their concerns and deal fairly with them.

So, the next time you are in conflict with your children, stop and make sure than an unwarrented concern for maintaining power isn’t driving you. Maybe get a t-shirt made to remind yourself, “Great powers are not threatened by petty belligerence”. You’re a great power in a secure position and none of you have anything to prove on that front.

Mom’s Going Crazy Recipe

Want to drive yourself crazy?  Do what I do: have a set of kids, wait 5 or 6 years and have another set.  Try to figure out if you screwed up the first set so you can better parent the second set.  It’s a terrible pastime, really; going back and revisiting every parenting decision you made along the way to try to judge the outcomes.  I used to wonder how people who had obviously screwed their kids up felt about the whole mess.  Now I find myself wondering if I put myself into that category by not doing things the way everyone else usually does them.

I didn’t punish a lot.  I yelled, but always let the kids know that freaking out was a fault of mine and let them see me struggle with it.  I was more than willing to hold a firm line, but my end goal was always to gain agreement from my kids on the sort of people they should be trying to be.  I answered every “why” question I possibly could.  I spanked only to gain a kid’s attention, never as punishment and tried to refrain from it altogether.  I taught my values by explaining my opinion, giving a respectful explanation for the other side’s point of view and why I disagreed with it.  I would always remind them that one day they will have to choose what to believe for themselves.  I disciplined by correcting, explaining, listening, refusing to let things go when a kid persisted in a behavior that was a problem.  I tried to coach rather than criticize.

Doesn’t that sound nice?  I thought so.  But here’s the thing: my boys were really difficult.  True story: I was telling a friend once about the time Collin, my younger son, was 4 years old and locked me out of the house.  We were all outside and I was working in the yard.  Collin had asked for a popcicle and I said no.  A few minutes later, he wasn’t nearby, so I went to check and see what he was doing.  I went to the house and could see Collin sitting on the kitchen floor eating a popcicle.  And I discovered that he had locked the door behind him.  At this point in the story, my wide-eyed friend actually gasps.  “My kids know they would be in so much trouble if they did something like that!” She tells me.

I just had to laugh.  My kid knew they would get in trouble.  That’s why he locked the door – so he would have a chance to eat as much of the popcicle as he could before I got to him.  “That’s the difference between you kids and mine,” I explained to my friend, “your kids would actually care about getting in trouble.  Mine are just incredulous and offended that I have the temerity to stop them from doing whatever they want.”  My husband always blamed the boy’s obnoxiousness on them not being afraid of us.  Having kids who were afraid of the parents always sounded like a bad idea to me.  I dunno.  Maybe I was wrong.

I recently asked my oldest (now 16) for an explanation of why he was so difficult as a kid.  He told me that it was the “why?” question that drove a lot of it.  If it didn’t make sense to him, then he didn’t see why he should do it.  If I got really worked up he would decide that he should comply just to humor me.  So, pretty much my worst critic’s view of what was going on was true.

But then he went on.  He told me that he knows it was a lot more work to do things the way I did – by seeking compliance and answering every genuine “why” question I reasonably could.  And by coaching and coaxing rather than criticizing and punishing.  But he says he now credits that with being the reason he feels really prepared to meet the challenges that have and will come his way.  He says that when I would give him answers to his “why” questions, I was showing him how to think about and approach things.  In time he saw that I was right more than wrong and began to adopt more of my thought process for himself.  Some things I tried to impress on him (like the importance of cleaning up all the time), he still isn’t buying into.  And he will never be as emotional as I am.  And he’s still got a lot of growing up to do, but he said that even from his limited vantage point as a 16 year old, he found the way of thinking about things I had modeled to be very useful when he found himself dealing with people and situations which were foreign to him.  He said that he tested the things I had taught him against what he saw going on around him and found my guidance to be reliable.  He says my way was worth it.  Then again, he wasn’t on the receiving end of his non-compliance for all those years!

Interestingly, he also tells me that there was an important role for the physical punishments we -particularly my husband – would sometimes impose when no other threats, punishments or corrections would work.  Sitting on the wall or holding their arms out for long enough to get very uncomfortable were regular events for a period of time during the late elementary and early middle school years.  I always felt bad about this because in an ideal parenting worlnd, a parent would not have to inflict suffering on their own child just to get them to co-operate with simple instructions.  And my son confirmed what I had long suspected: that he was rarely deterred much by the threat of punishment.  He said that it wasn’t that he didn’t think he would get in trouble – he was usually quite certain he would.  He said that in the middle of things, he didn’t care that he was going to get in trouble.  But he does credit these physical disciplines for helping him learn to control himself.  First he had to learn to control his own body in order to comply and not have time added on.  He was always a kid who seemed to be careening through the world with no great awareness of what he was doing, so this was important to him.  He says it also taught him to control his emotions.  My kids have always been highly dramatic in their emotional outbursts (no idea where they’d get that from!  lol).  But while sitting on the wall, he started to realize how pointless all the yelling and wailing was, how it just made him feel worse and didn’t win him any points with us either.  He said that up until then, he was always so caught up in his outbursts that he never really thought to try and stop himself.  I would still love to be able to say that I had raised my kids without deliberately inflicting suffering on them, but this was a kid who needed the lesson of self-control more than almost any kid I’ve ever known, so I’m glad he learned it at all.

Thankfully, my girls so far are soooo much easier than my boys were.  Which unfortunately makes me even more paranoid sometimes: what if I did something wrong that made my boys so much more difficult to begin with? Did I do too much for them?  Did I pay too much attention to them?  Am I now rationalizing to justify for my inability to spend as much time following my 1 year old around as I did with my boys?  I am all powerful queen of the universe, after all.  Everything must somehow have its source in me – right?  And really, that mindset right there is the real recipe for a mom looking to drive herself crazy!  I probably ought to stop!

Question for Parents: “Are you angry?”

Here’s a question for you parents: your kid does something boneheaded.  It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but it was entirely preventable.  You discuss with him what went wrong and what needs to be done about it.  At the end of the conversation the kid asks, “are you angry with me?”  What’s your answer?

Is there a place in parenting for holding anger over our kid’s head?  If your kid doesn’t have to deal with anger when he screws up (although the issue is always addressed), will he not take you seriously?  Any opinions?

Correcting other people’s children

Yesterday a friend and I were talking about the taboo many people seem to have about correcting other people’s children when they are misbehaving. Then this morning, I found this article from the Today Show about how to deal with other people’s misbehaving/annoying children. In it the parenting “expert” completely accepts the idea that one should never correct someone else’s child even in the face of bullying or extreme rudeness (she mentions a child burping in your face). Can someone please explain the thinking behind this taboo to me? Now, I wouldn’t yell at someone else’s child or interject myself into the life of some random obnoxious child I saw while walking down the street. However, I see nothing wrong with telling a child who is operating in your common space, “please stop doing that. You’re going to hurt yourself/it’s very rude/you make other people feel bad” or whatever is appropriate. Occasionally, my children are corrected by another adult and they know that they need to deal with that and not give people cause to correct them. Of course I would never be abusive towards a child and would not tolerate another person treating my child in an abusive manner, but simply correcting poor/dangerous behavior seems perfectly fine to me. Every time this topic comes up, I feel like I must be missing something as I just cannot understand why stepping in to speak to a child who is out of hand should be a problem.
Many of us (or at least our parents) remember a time when if you misbehaved out in public, not only would any adult present reprimand you, but they would likely make sure your mother knew about it by the time you made it home so she could deal with you as well. I think that the difference between those times and today demonstrates a change which parents neglect to take seriously at their (and their children’s) own peril. Once upon a time, you could be a fairly negligent parent, not devoting much energy to supervising or disciplining your children and feel fairly comfortable that your kids would turn out basically OK. That was because while you might not be there with your kids, other adults were watching and correcting problem behaviors. Your children simply could not move through the world in most places without having societal norms enforced on them. Having other parents and the community re-enforcing proper behavior and norms assisted parents in raising good kids. I think too many parents fail to realize that since this mechanism is no longer in place, they are wholly responsible for their child’s development. Too many parents act as if they can still send their kids out into the world and have them be OK. It’s not just that we live in a more dangerous world – the reality is that crime has dropped very dramatically in the last 20-30 years. Statistically speaking, we’re much safer today. However, what’s missing is any re-enforcement from others our children will meet as they move through the world of the sorts of good behavior and proper character development we’re teaching our kids. Instead of living in a world which helps us as we raise our kids, we must equip our kids to defend themselves against the world. It seems to me that this cultural taboo we have about correcting other people’s children simply feeds into this problem and makes raising good kids that much harder.