I’m always hearing that parents are doing it wrong. According to random articles, television talking heads, and Supernanny, we are all too permissive, which is leading to increased stress. I agree that we could do things a little differently, but not in the ways these individuals often encourage: with more discipline and less tolerance for “bad” kids.
If I had a nickel for every time I treated a “bad” child turned adult, I’d be a fucking millionaire. Because badness doesn’t disintegrate. It creeps up on you when you make mistakes, even honest ones, later in life. I don’t believe in bad children, and I don’t think that most parents are bad, either. I think we are all kind-of victims in this weird mesh of cultural expectation at odds with evolutionary process and children who are just trying to find their way.
Disclaimer: I am the antithesis of Supernanny. There, I said it. And I will not take it back, because she and I define “discipline” in completely different ways.
For clarity, this is not about parenting styles, or specific discipline methods. This is about respect, not only between parents and children but towards one another. “Don’t be a dick” is pretty much my mantra. Perhaps one day it will be the mantra of my children as well, if I continue to model respect in my treatment of them and others outside our immediate group.
That includes other mothers.
It’s about respect, not agreement. Because I don’t have to agree with you to think you’re awesome. I don’t have to agree with you to respect you. And when I see you struggling with your screaming child in the grocery store, I will not for one moment judge you.
We have lost “the village” to judgment and pressure. It might be time to take that shit back.
So, what is discipline, and why do we seek it so stringently?
When most think of discipline, we envision a child walking along demurely in a grocery store. The opposite of the jerk-face kid throwing a tantrum in the candy aisle, right? But what does discipline really mean?
“Discipline”—or obedience, as it is typically defined—is a child able to self regulate, to control their emotions. But not all of them can, and none of them can control themselves all of the time. And, SPOILER ALERT, we didn’t really evolve to, either. We evolved to spend a lot of time in the arms of our caregivers, listening to their heart rates and matching their breathing patterns to our own.
We also evolved to have opinions. Children need more respect than what they often get, and not in a “we need to do everything for them” kind of way, but in a “we might need to acknowledge their feelings more” kind of way.
I think this might be the kicker. Because parents who listen more or don’t require obedience as a rule are often seen as indulgent, discipline-hating hippies. But there is a divide between the type of obedience-based discipline we have come to see as normal and the different types of respectful acknowledgment that focus on long-term rewards instead of short-term behavioral changes.
But some of the reasons we push these behavioral things so hard in the first place is that we have an overt fear of shame that grips us while out in public. While most of us are tense during a tantrum at home, it pales in comparison to what we feel while in the presence of others. Humans are highly susceptible to shame responses because we evolved to manifest shame and depression instead of resorting to physical altercation in the face of group conflict. It’s no surprise that we respond strongly to judgment.
And judged we shall be. Because instead of “I understand, kids have strong opinions and need help calming down,” we get “your kids are out of control, what the hell kind of parent ALLOWS their child to act that way?”
Um, the same kind of parent who doesn’t believe that a child having a tantrum is a reflection on them; that a tantrum is the expression of an unmet need or desire or a way to regulate their emotions. Children aren’t bad. They need help, and they needn’t be afraid to express that. They’re allowed to be pissed the fuck off about not getting twelve bags of marshmallows.
Let’s be honest here, I’m upset that I can’t eat twelve bags of marshmallows too. I just have more impulse control.
If we want our children to talk to us about the big things when they get older, we have to listen to why they are concerned about the little things today. Because while we may not understand why the blue sippy cup is more important than the pink, or the marshmallows are more critical than dinner, to your child, these are the big things, and they carry these patterns into their older years. To them, these have always been big things.
Perspective, people. It matters.
But there is a big difference between acknowledgment and agreement. This doesn’t mean that marshmallows should be given freely any more than it means that a teenager who has come to you to talk about sex should be given an IUD and a thumbs up. Respectful parenting is not indulgent parenting. It means discussion, disagreement and compromise. It means that communication matters, that love before judgment matters.
Love before judgment. Just like how we would like those in a supermarket to treat us when our child is having a hard time: with love, not with judgment. Where do we think those people learned to judge so harshly? It isn’t ingrained, it’s modeled. And it has been for so many generations at this point that we don’t even recognize it as something we could do differently.
We can respect people we don’t agree with. We can offer kindness to those who do it completely differently, just as we can offer love and respect to our children when they don’t agree with us. One of us doesn’t have to be wrong for the other to be right within the context of our families. We can still be the support we so sorely need.
No, children won’t always agree with you. They will sometimes yell at you in public and tell you that you are unfair and that they hate you. But if they can argue with you now about marshmallows, they are statistically more likely to argue later with Dave who wants to give them a cigarette. Expressing opinions, and understanding that it is safe to do so, sets up a pattern of behavior that isn’t bad provided you can find a middle ground where it can be done with respect. And whether you see it as disobedience or expressing feelings, responding with love and closeness shows them that you love them unconditionally and not only when they are being “good.”
Good is not based on action, it is an inherent worth in a person. Children are all good, they just sometimes do questionable things. Just like you do. Just like I do. Nobody’s perfect. The mom yelling at her child in the grocery store might be having a bad-ass day. She’s not a bad parent.
Fostering empathy and respect through kindness and modeling rather than simply saying “You will do what you’re told” does more to resolve these issues now and in the future than any other type of what has become traditional “discipline.” Kids are capable of much more than we give them credit for, but the way we treat one another, with harshness and judgement, urges us to respond a certain way to our children as well. There is less pressure for quick fixes and more room for tolerance when the community is more supportive of mothers in general without this judge-y dickishness.
Losing the village to judgment is a big issue. We all have the ability to work towards something better.