Towards a more humane discipline

I sometimes spend some time on social media places where mothers with younger children hang out. That would be mothers having their first, second, or third child... there aren't a lot of us who have four year olds who are numbers 9 and 10. I don't always chime in with my opinion (really... you probably find that difficult to believe), but I do every so often, and recently I've been finding that my opinion is often quite a bit different from most other people's. It makes me realize how much I've changed in the past few years. Not having an opinion different from other people, that's usual and unexpected, but that my opinion actually differs from what I would have written 15 or so years ago.

I wasn't a bad mother back then. I had wonderful children who were well behaved and easy to live with. Having children who fit the norm in most ways has the effect that it gives the illusion that the parent's ability has a huge amount to do with it. Now, I'm not saying that parents don't have an impact on their children. They do. But if you are blessed with typically functioning children and you are a responsible and loving parent, chances are that things are going to turn out in your favor.

I didn't see that then, though. There was a lot of fear that I experienced because I wanted to do it 'right'. I didn't want to raise a brat. I wanted to be sure I was in control. If I gave an inch then all would be lost and my children would become feral, wild children who would fail in life and it would all be my fault. I see this underlying fear in a lot of the questions and responses in those places populated with younger mothers.

I've changed a lot since those early years. I've been humbled and realize that my formulaic parenting methods do not work across the board. I've been forced to rethink what I thought was important and question why I did certain things. So that when a mother asks what to do about the 9 month old or the 14 month old who screams to get her way, I'm not thinking, "Yeah, you need to nip that in the bud right now. You need to show her who's in charge or she'll become a rebellious teenager. Isolate her until she is able to meet you on your terms," which seems to the be majority tenor of responses. I'm thinking, "She's just a baby. She must need something. Ignore the presenting behavior and search for what is causing the shrieking." I sit back and wonder why we parents are so quick to become the enemies of our own children. Why do we let it become a battle?

I still fight the internal 'must win at any cost' parenting style. I have to stop and think about why I need to have a certain outcome. It usually boils down to me and my own pride. No one wants to feel bested by a young child. But I think when I start to feel that way it is because I am looking at the problem in the wrong way. My role as parent is not to create submissive beings who jump at my every command. Yet when I start thinking in oppositionsal terms, ultimately that's what I really want. If I am painfully honest with myself. I want my children to be obedient, but I have to ask myself what that means exactly. Does it mean they do everything I want the second I ask? Am I being realistic in what I am asking them? Why do I want them to do this thing? Is there a better way to accomplish what my goals are?

I imagine this is becoming a little difficult to understand. Let's take household chores. Why do I want my children to help with them? There are several good reasons for children helping around the house. First, it teaches them the skills they will need to know how to manage their own homes when they are adults. Second, it is good to help keep the place you live clean and tidy and to help the family in that task. And, third, by helping it helps to counteract feelings of entitlement that can come by being served others. These are just the three that leap to mind. So, it's a good thing. Now, I can go about enlisting my children's help in one of two ways. I can foster a general feeling of mutual aid and affection and explain why we help each other, or I can tell everyone that this is what they have to do and explain the consequences if the jobs are not done.

In most families the line between these two approaches is pretty blurred. Things roll along pretty well until there is a child who rocks the boat. This child may be suffering from previous trauma, they may be going through a rough patch in other places in their life, they may have something going on internally which makes it difficult to fall in with the proposed plan. And life explodes. This is the point at which the two different parenting styles play out the most. When stressed the parent resorts to the style that they actually use. If the child will not comply with the demand to do the work, then things escalate, usually from both the child and the parent. I've been there; I know.

I make the problem all about me when it should be all about my child. Why are they acting this way? Why is pouring the milk, or cleaning the room, or sweeping the stairs proving such a problem? For a little person, the job just may feel too big. For a bigger person it could actually not be about the job at all, but about something completely unrelated that makes the job feel undoable. As adults, we have this happen to us all the time. Something goes wrong at work or at someplace unrelated to the home and we so obsess with the problem that doing something simple at home feels too much. As adults, we tend to just not do it... children don't always have that option.

I guess what I'm getting at here is to put yourself in your child's place. How would you like to be treated? Do you show your children grace? Do you assume all poor behavior is an effort to control you? (I know a little about control, it's a whole other post, but even the need to control is rooted in something different.) Do not make your child your enemy, enlist them as a partner.

And if your 9 month old is screaming, please pick your child up. Let go of your fear that you will spoil her and give her the comfort she needs. That's really what this all is about. Love your child first.


Joy said…
Thank you. I loved this clear articulation of how I now feel about parenting in my 40's. So very different than what I thought in my 20's.
Erika said…
More please! My oldest is 4 and I struggle with the whole control thing (feeling if I give up control he will walk all over me). He is an intelligent child and at times I feel like he is manipulating me, which makes me want to assert my control even more! So if you have a blogs worth of info on control, please share :)
thecurryseven said…
Erika - Could you give a couple of examples of what is happening when you feel as though he is manipulating you? I only ask because I want to be sure we are using the same terms and have the same idea in mind. I do have quite a few thoughts, but want to be sure we're on the same track.

Erika said…
Hmm, I am not sure I can explain it very well, but I will try. Sometimes when he is given a punishment, he acts as if it is what he wanted. I also feel like he knows how to push my buttons and will often do hopes of what, I do not know. I don't know if that is enough info, but I hope it is enough to see if we are on the same track.
Mel said…
I've had similar reflections now that we're deeper into parenting and have 6 kids :) Perspective is everything!

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