When it comes to parenting, I sometimes fear that I have a correction addiction. It’s not that I’m a scream-y or habitually fault-finding mom. Not at all. I don’t harangue or criticize or shame my 5-year-old son. (How could I? He’s so loveable and great!) It’s more that I nudge. And when nudging doesn’t work, because he no longer hears it — that’s the problem with nudges; you grow immune to them — I flip my lid and feel like a monster. It goes something like this:
“Hey bubby, did you put your socks on yet?” (He hasn’t, I’m looking at his bare feet.)
Two minutes later: “Hey, can you put your socks on, please?”
Two minutes after that: “Bud: Socks, please. Thank you.”
Then, when he inexplicably stops after putting on one of those socks to start drawing a poop riding a skateboard: “SOCKS! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PUT ON YOUR SOCKS!”
And finally, that night, as I put him to bed: “Hey, bud? I’m sorry I got frustrated this morning. I’m working on being more patient.”
I suspect this is how it goes for a lot of parents. But not all of them. My sister, who is five years younger than me and fifty times more serene, seems never to lose her cool with her three-year-old. It’s staggering to watch her be a mom, like observing a master at work. She is the Van Gogh of even keeled parenting. And she never has to tell her toddler she’s sorry she blew up… again.
For me, that’s the crux of the problem: I don’t want to be the kind of person who says they’ll work on something and then doesn’t. I don’t want to teach my child that it’s okay to merely pay lip service to making a change. It’s not that I worry I’m scarring him for life by asking him to get his socks on in under thirty minutes — that’s a skill worth having, after all. It’s that I worry I’m peppering his childhood with constant directives to control his behavior despite being unable to do so myself.
So, it felt like serendipity when I came across a random Instagram post from a parenting account, which challenged parents to refrain from correcting their child’s behavior for a week (except in moments when they’re endangering their safety or someone else’s, obviously). What might this feel like, the post asked? What might it change about the dynamic you and your child share? How might it shift the way you parent going forward?
I liked the idea. After all, our family is currently in a uniquely lucky position, one that could allow me to pull this off: I work from home and my son is not yet in kindergarten, so the morning time crunch isn’t that urgent. If it takes him ages to get out the door, it just means he’ll miss morning snack at preschool and I’ll have less time to waste time on my phone before starting work. Further, my son doesn’t have any serious behavioral problems. Oh, don’t get me wrong — he’s far from perfect. But he’s not the kind of kid who hits or bites or throws fits or sprays pee all over the bathroom for fun. The worst thing I’d have to bite my tongue about would be whining for a fifth Oreo or squirting my fancy conditioner into his bathwater to see the weird, soapy snakes it forms. (He calls them “Baby Soaps.” No, I don’t know why.)
Considering this — how inconsequential so much of my very sweet child’s “bad” behavior is, I mean— about socked me in the gut. Why was I riding him all the time over such stupid shit? What did any of it matter? Answer: it didn’t. And so, I was convinced. I would shut up for a while and just let the kid be.
Here’s what I discovered: It works. It helps. It’s nice. And everyone is happier.
I said nothing when he dumped the entire $5 jar of Crayola bath-dye pellets into the tub, turning the water an effervescently muddy brownblack. I was the picture of silence when he declared that his polished green rock and dinosaur sticker definitely belonged smack in the middle of the quaint Christmas village I’d set up on our mantle. Of course it made perfect sense that he left all that Play-Doh out so it would dry into crusted chunks we’d have to throw away — no need to intervene there. And who has two thumbs and got on his case about eating a crumb-shedding granola bar in my bed? Not this guy!
Did I shout, sigh, or blow up when he spilled a glass of water on my hardwood floors, then went about his business without attempting to wipe it up? I did not. However, there is one caveat: I did see merit in using this event as a teachable moment. I grabbed a dishtowel and said, “Hey, just so you know, water can be bad for wood floors. So, if we spill, we should make sure to wipe it up quickly.” Not You just left this water there like it was someone else’s job to clean it? Not You thought if you didn’t tell me that this happened, I wouldn’t notice? Instead, I explained why it was not ideal to handle it as he had, he heard me — “Okay, Mom, I will do that next time” — and that was that. No bedtime apology necessary.
And to me, this was the best possible scenario. It’s not as though the no-correcting challenge can or should extend indefinitely. Obviously, it would be insane for you to never again tell your kid how to do, or not do, something. Insane and neglectful, in fact, considering that it’s your job to guide your kids. But maybe there’s a way to do that without it feeling to your child like he’s constantly being poked and observed and judged. Maybe improving problem behaviors can feel less like punishment and more like friendly advice.
Saying that, it sounds so obvious. But in daily life, when one sock is on and the second is no closer to your child’s foot than it was ten minutes ago, it’s remarkably easy to forget.
Speaking of which, managing the daily just-put-on-the-goddamn-socks fracas felt like facing the final boss of this parenting challenge. If I could leave my son be while he burned daylight donning the day’s footwear, I was sure I would ascend to a new plane of parenting existence. I would reach the mountaintop — the one where my sister lives, the one where unflappable moms and dads blithely sip coffee while their kids perform tasks in slow motion.
My plan was simple: I’d ask him once to do it, then back off. One morning after he’d finished getting his shirt and pants on, I showed him where the socks were and explained that I was off to dry my hair in the next room. I expected to return to a kid still staring at Number Blocks on TV, obliviously sockless. I expected to find him engrossed in a suddenly crucial art project, barefoot as the day he was born. If so, fine. I’d explain that we were leaving in a few and let him draw his own conclusions: If we’re going to school soon, I’d better finish getting dressed. He's a smart kid. So, why not just trust him to be that smart kid?
I dried my hair, returned to the room, and found a beaming child — in socks and shoes. “I’m all set,” he said. I hastened to correct him: “You’re all set, and you’re awesome.”
Katie Arnold-Ratliff is a journalist and editor whose writing has appeared in such publications as Slate, Time, Tin House, Salon, New York, the New York Times Book Review, Wired, The Believer, Poets & Writers, O, The Oprah Magazine, Parents, and Runners World. She is also the author of the novel Bright Before Us and the monthly books newsletter The Syllabus. A native Californian, Katie lives in New Jersey with her family, and can be found at katiearnold-ratliff.com.