Last week my husband and I saw a movie on campus. As usual, we brought our little daughter Sally with us. She behaved very well, sometimes sitting beside me, sometimes nursing, sometimes walking up and down the stairs (we sat by the aisle). When the movie finished we got up and prepared to go.
Sally, it’s time to go home now. No! Stairs, walk stairs! No Sally, it’s time to go home now.
I was tired and wanted to get home as quickly as possible, so against her protestations I picked Sally up to carry her from the room. She kicked and screamed and struggled. I felt angry inside that she wouldn’t just come cheerfully so that we could go home. I wanted to spank her.
I suddenly realized that I was violating one of the core tenets of my beliefs about parenting. Don’t say no without a real reason. There was no real reason we had to leave immediately, no reason at all. What was I doing? And so, feeling slightly shell shocked, I set the screaming Sally down. Her tears dried up immediately, and Sally ran off happily and went up the stairs one at a time, counting each one (she repeats a lot of numbers). As she came down the stairs she beamed at me and said: Ready go home, mommy! She took my hand when she reached the bottom of the steps and walked happily out of the building by my side, singing to herself.
I felt disgruntled the whole trip home. There were voices talking in my head, voices from the past, voices from my parents, but originally from Michael Pearl. You let her control you. You let her assert her will over yours. You let her win. I ignored the voices, but I couldn’t help wondering if they were right. Was I spoiling her? Was I raising a child who would only become more and more uncontrollable? Was I raising a child with no sense of self discipline or moderation? Was I in for big trouble down the line?
No, I told myself the moment I had time to think. Parenting is not a contest, I reminded myself. Parenting is not about winning or subduing. Parenting is about mutual respect and cooperation. Parenting is about listening to each other and thinking about each other’s needs. Parenting is about being a team.
As I reflected, I had a sinking feeling that Sally had handled the situation better than I had. Sally heard me say I wanted to go, but she wasn’t quite ready, and she told me so. I tried to force her and she let me know what she thought of that. But when I put her down she went up and the stairs one more time and then told me she was ready to go. She would probably have liked to go up and down the stairs several additional times, but she knew that I wanted to go and she respected that. I was the one who handled the situation badly. I didn’t listen to her. I didn’t consider her feelings. I thought only of my own selfish desire to head home. I thought about what I wanted, not what Sally wanted, about what was best for me, not about what was best for Sally.
Slightly sobered by this realization, I admitted something to myself. Gentle discipline is hard. Gentle discipline means listening to your children and thinking of their needs and desires before yours. Gentle discipline means not getting annoyed and upset when your child doesn’t do just what you want. Gentle discipline means realizing just how selfish you are, and that your child isn’t the only one who struggles with self-centeredness. Gentle discipline reveals your own weaknesses.
There’s something else I’ve realized too. Spanking seems like the easy way out. Instead of listening to Sally and trying to understand her heart when she says “no” when I tell her to do something, I could just spank her. I could force her to do what I want and use the threat of pain to back it up. And if my childhood is any measure, it would work, at least on the outside. Spanking is quick and easy. But what kind of obedience is that? I don’t want Sally to obey me because she is afraid of what might happen if she doesn’t. The Pearls explain how to exact immediate obedience from your children.
And you know what? Immediate obedience sounds really nice. The Pearls promise that if I follow their spanking method Sally will do whatever I want when I want it. If I followed the Pearls, Sally would never embarrass me in public. I would never have to wait on Sally while she tries the stairs one more time. Instead, it would be whatever I said, the moment I said it. That’s very appealing, but you know what? If that’s not pure selfishness, I don’t know what is.
I’ve used this experience as a reminder to better listen to Sally and her needs. I’ve also used it as a reminder of my own selfishness. Sally and I aren’t enemies or opponents, we’re just two flawed humans stuck together by blood and deep affection. We’re a team, and we need to treat each other with mutual respect and make sure to consider each other’s needs and feelings. And sometimes I guess I need a reminder of that.