Don’t Be a Dick: An Alternative to Authoritarian vs Permissive Parenting Styles

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little-girl-with-sling-shot

I am 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 don’t disagree that we could do things a little bit 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 we 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 fucking 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.

And 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, “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.

Comments

The Scary Mommy Community is built on support. If your comment doesn't add to the conversation in a positive or constructive way, please rethink submitting it. Basically? Don't be a dick, please.

  1. 4

    says

    Great article!!!! Fully agree!!! Tantrums are not bad! Are they a pain at times— yes. But you should give your child a safe space to express their emotions. You may not agree, but respect your child and teach them how to handle them in a positive way. I’m 31 years old and when I get upset I shut down because growing up no one ever told me it was okay to feel the emotions I felt. Till this day I second guess every emotion I feel. I’m working on it and day by day in getting better at expressing myself. I refuse to let my daughter feel that way— she will learn how to believe in herself, her instinct and emotions.

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  2. 9

    says

    This is amazing!!!! I try to foster an environment for my 13 year old son where he can yell, throw a tantrum, speak his mind and occasionally curse about the injustices of his day. Then we sit down and discuss these things after the emotional “superstorm” has spent itself. I want him to always know that he can come to me with problems and not feel that he will be judged, but heard. As he has gotten older, he will often calm himself after the outburst. Getting it off his chest makes everything clearer to him. Those are the moments that I treasure–seeing him use the skills that I have quietly embedded in him through his entire life :)

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      • 13

        Christina says

        I am the same way. Actually the other day my 4 year old son wanted to wear his older sister’s princess dress up shoes…he loves the way they clack when he walks!! We were just going to my moms so I let him wear them….we got there and my dad was like WTH? I told him “he wanted to wear them, wasnt going to fight with him over it when its no big deal” He wanted a Lalaloopsy doll just like his sister so i got him one…and he takes it places with him all the time…who cares but people judge the crap out of you…”you are letting your boy play with a doll??” Seriously? I’m playing with a doll or wearing princess dress up shoes is going to damage him for life.

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    • 31

      Christina says

      I do that as well. My 4 year old is a big temper tantrum thrower, when he is upset about something usually because he isnt getting his way and he doesnt like the other options I have given him…he thinks screaming his head off is going to be the deciding factor….its not…so I tell him if he chooses to go that route then he can head down to his room until hes done. I always kind of giggle because he will quiet down in his room but if he hears you coming down the hall he will start screaming again!!! Eventually he will come out and say he is done..and then we go on our merry way!

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      • 32

        Stephanie says

        My daughter’s only 1 1/2, but I can see her doing this down the road. I already am taking the same approach to tantrums (I acknowledge that it’s ok for her to be upset, but I don’t give into the tantrum by giving her whatever it is she wants), and for now it’s working pretty well. I just set her in her room and go somewhere else where I can keep an ear out for her, and she’s usually done within a minute or two, whereas if I hover too close she takes much longer to calm down, so I can definitely see her trying to manipulate me by crying more when she hears one of us approach her. ;-)

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  3. 33

    says

    My kid isn’t a tantrummer, she never has been. She is a smack talker, an arguer, a negotiater and a debater, and three of the four are fine with me. She isn’t allowed to be rude to us, but she’s certainly allowed to disagree, complain and beg. It doesn’t mean she’s going to get what she wants, it means she’s allowed to ask for it. And while I also LOVE “love before judgement,” my new mantra is ‘don’t be a dick’

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    • 34

      Jen Miracle says

      OMG! My 5 YO son is all of those & it is SO hard for me. I think I have been a dick to him – a LOT. I’m constantly on him about his arguing & feeling like he always has to be right. Dives me nuts! And arguing about STUPID stuff (because he is 5). Then I act like I’m 5 and argue with my 5 year old. I guess I had better adopt this mantra quickly!!

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  4. 35

    says

    Everyone loves to blame someone else in this country. I try to keep my son in check, but if I yell at him for every little thing, he’ll be afraid of me. And fear is not respect. Yeah he acts out, he’s 3! I just try to keep it to a minimum best I can. If we judged a little less and showed some more empathy- this world would be a better place. Kids aren’t perfect, parents aren’t perfect. That’s what makes life interesting! Love this article. :)

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