My husband has always said you can’t legislate morality.
As has been proven time and again, you can’t force people to do the right thing just by making it the law. Think about tax loopholes or the black market. People will always find a way to circumvent laws they don’t agree with.
The home is a microcosm of the larger world, and we saw this for ourselves recently from our own kitchen table.
The story I’m about to tell may call into question how you feel about me as a person, or as a parent, but I’ve got to believe that we’re all more alike than we are different. If your children never say or do the types of things that ours do, I’m truly happy for you. Gold stars all around. But here we go with my reality.
As far as parenting goes, we play it pretty fast and loose at our house. Our demands for our children are pretty minimal. Do your homework. Help out around the house. Be (relatively) kind to your siblings.
I grew up as a middle child with two brothers. I understand how siblings harass each other for sport, and it doesn’t bother me to see some verbal jousting between our kids. But I draw the line at hurtful name-calling, especially when the tone of voice changes from playful and light to something darker, something with an edge to it. You know what I’m talking about.
Our home has to be a safe place, I tell our three kids (18, 16 and 12). The world is going to knock you around sometimes, and you need to have a soft place to land. You need to feel like no matter what’s going on around you, your home is a refuge. They roll their eyes when I say this. The phrase “kids can be cruel” exists for a reason. They can also be self-centered, vengeful and heartless — even when they’re related to you.
So back to legislating morality.
After endlessly repeating versions of:
Don’t say that word…
Don’t call your sister/brother a _______ (insert any number of insults here)… Don’t argue with me…
I got tired of the whole thing and decided to get creative.
When we moved into our home four years ago, I was thrilled that the kitchen came with a large custom-built cork board and chalkboard. The cork board is covered in a rotating array of school notices, business cards and dreaded bureaucratic paperwork. The chalkboard — which I imagined would be used for weekly meal planning — is usually peppered with scrawled insults from one child to another, or silly drawings and memes.
In my flash of brilliance, I wiped the chalkboard clean and divided it into five sections. I put the name of every family member in a section — this was going to be the epitome of fairness. Kids and parents subjected to the same rules.
Then I explained the concept to our family over supper. Every time someone insults, name calls or generally harasses someone else, they get a tick in their box. The person with the most ticks at the end of the day does all the dishes. Simple. Straightforward. I marveled at my own brilliance.
The kids groaned, but for a short period of time, it worked as intended. It wasn’t long, though, before things went sideways.
First, the kids got around the rules by insulting each other using the dogs’ voices (our dogs have distinct voices and personas, don’t yours?)
William couldn’t insult his sister, but if our pug Perry did it in his Muppet voice, it was funny.
Once that tactic lost its charm, and I lost my patience, the kids grudgingly complied. Haha, I’ve won! I thought to myself smugly. Parenting genius right here!
Until a day shortly after. We were having supper together when Aislinn called her brother a name.
As much as the story would be better for it, I’m not going to write our kids’ favorite insults here, to protect the (not-so) innocent. Suffice it to say they are pretty horrible, but don’t cross the line into actual swearing. Although who am I kidding? Some words are more harmful than curses. Please tell me that despite your valiant parenting efforts, your kids say inappropriate words too. Please. I can’t be alone in this.
“That’s a tick,” I said to Aislinn. I gave her a look that I thought conveyed both a warning and a reminder that I had the upper hand in this situation.
Our lovely daughter paused for a split-second. I could almost see this bright girl weighing her options. The glint in her eye.
Then she burst out with “Stinky! Stinky! Stinky! Stinky! Stinky!” (not the actual word).
“What are you doing?!” I choked.
“I’m sacrificing myself,” she replied. “I’ll do the dishes tonight. Now we can all say whatever we want for the rest of the day.”
We all stared at her, amazed. And then something magical happened.
“Tomorrow, I’ll take one for the team,” William said. Mic drop.
Well there you have it, folks. If you don’t agree with the rules, you’ll find a way to get around them — in the confines of the home as much as in the broader world. Where do you think the adults first honed their skills?
On the bright side, I wanted our kids to work together and support each other, so I guess this was a positive outcome? Woohoo, parenting win!
I’ll take what I can get.