Parenting Is Not A Contest

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.

Why couldn’t she behave?

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. :-)

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    So well said! Especially the part about selfishness coming from the parents in wanting immediate obedience.

  • Anne —

    Selfishness is a good way to put it! It's not always "easy" to spank ALL the time, but the result is a very selfish one. I refuse to spank…I just know I'm going to have a lot of trouble with "gentle parenting"! I can't deny I like kids to be orderly…and patience is not my strong point. I guess I'll be learning a lot thru this!

  • Final Anonymous

    Loved your attitude and approach… what a loving mom! The only caveat I would give is that in listening to your child's needs, please be careful not to ignore your own.As women and moms we do learn to find joy in the giving and nurturing, and can get into a habit of giving to everyone, all the time, except ourselves. Unfortunately there are not nearly as many (if any) people around to give back to us! And we get depleted. There is absolutely no need for that.I'm sure you probably do all this already, but as a reminder for all us moms — Listen to your body and mind, watch for signs of exhaustion, and don't feel guilty nurturing yourself as much as you would nurture your child. Your whole family will be the better for it.

  • Wendy

    I cringe a bit at the generous use of the word "selfish." (Synonyms: self-seeking, self-indulgent, self-interested; wrapt up in self, centered in self; egotistic, mean, ungenerous, narrow-minded; mercenary, venal; covetous., unspiritual.) What?Those sound like words from your childhood. I believe that telling yourself to be "more generous as a mother" would be a lot healthier than telling yourself to be "less selfish."I reframed this issue for myself by thinking of being PROACTIVE rather than REACTIVE, which make my life easier and is enormously respectful to my daughters.

  • Anonymous

    Just commenting to say that I think you had a perfectly good reason to tell her no. "I'm ready to go home now" is a perfectly acceptable reason to leave somewhere and not let your child go and count the stairs one more time. Remember, you have needs too! And your needs are important!I understand you are looking for a balance between discipline and not rail-roading your child. It's a hard balance to strike, especially for someone from your background. But, your needs and desires are important.-J

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I'm going to agree with some of the others here and say that, while I think your general approach is great, you are being a bit hard on yourself. I also think it's perfectly acceptable to say something like "We have to go because Mommy is tired" in a situation like that. That IS a reason, after all. In this particular situation, she was satisfied with counting the stairs one more time but, as I'm sure you know, kids can also have absolutely AMAZING stamina for doing the things they're fascinated with over, and over, and over, and over again and there can be plenty of times when they're not ready to go after "one more time." In those situations, I think it's fine to consider your own needs and just say we're going because that's what we're doing. lol. I certainly heard "because it's time to go" or "because it's bed time and that's that" or even "because I said so" a few times as a kid and I certainly would not characterize my parents as authoritarian or domineering–they were actually quite relaxed and lenient and they certainly never spanked! They weren't perfect of course (because nobody is) but, for the most part, my sister and I felt very respected and listened to and that the our rules were very reasonable and not arbitrary–we give them a lot of credit. So don't worry so much. You are not going to repeat your parents mistakes just because you exercise authority as a parent yourself once in a while.

  • Libby Anne

    You guys do have a point about me thinking about my own needs, but I'm not too worried about sacrificing myself to the extreme at this point. :-) You have to remember that I was raised being taught that parents say what's what and the kids jump, end of story. It was all about obedience, which was to be immediate, complete, and without complaint, or else it was labeled disobedience. So I started out with that mindset and have spent the last year working on shattering it. That kind of thing takes time! I don't want to go to the other extreme of course, and thanks for pointing that out. :-) I want it to be about mutual respect and a balancing of needs, rather than about one person saying what's what and the other's needs being ignored. And of course, I'm still working on it! :-)

  • Young Mom

    I loved this whole post, I see myself mirrored in it everywhere. I have that urge to just spank them and get them to listen to me less and less, but I have learned not to rely on my parenting instincts, because they are totally flawed by my childhood. Instead (like you) I try to remember that my children are just as much a person as I am, and their needs and desires count just as much as mine.

  • Wendy

    I'm sorry, Libby Anne, if it seemed like we ganged up on you. I think I was trying to communicate through time with my young self!Are you being too hard on yourself? Only in using judging words to describe yourself or your feeling. Reading your post made me feel a little sad, as though some mean lady was picking on you.

  • Wendy

    /As a side note, I have yet to post a comment without a typo. Grrr.

  • Libby Anne

    I think part of what you guys are pointing out is the loaded nature of the word "selfish." I think the reason I used it here, though, was in large part because it was used growing up to describe us kids, not to describe our parents. We were selfish if we wouldn't come when called, selfish if we wanted candy at the store, selfish if we didn't drop what we were doing when mom needed something from us. As a child, I never considered that a parent could be selfish, and that the Pearls' methods could feed into a parent's self centered desire for their children to conform to their every whim. I know I'm not selfish for thinking of my own desires and needs, but then nor is Sally for thinking of hers. I would see selfishness as thinking of yourself to the exclusion and detriment of others. And so for me, parenting is about balancing those desires, mine and hers, not about one of us steamrolling the other by thinking only of ourselves. That's also why it struck me as so significant that Sally only went up and down the stairs one more time. She knew I wanted to go, she listened to me, and she respected that by only doing the stairs one more time. If I had just carried her out kicking and screaming I would have been disrespecting her desires and ignoring her needs, but if she had gone up and down the stairs for another half hour, she would have been doing the same to me. So yes, balance. :)

  • Wendy

    LOL, I'm sorry I underestimated you. And, based on how differently those two versions of your story read, I think you might be bilingual.

  • Anonymous

    I love, love, LOVE this: "Sally and I aren’t enemies or opponents, we’re just two flawed humans stuck together by blood and deep affection." That's exactly it, isn't it? That's family. Thank you for such a great post!

  • Andrea

    Absolutely! It's something I always catch myself saying! It's harder NOT to spank your kids. You have to be aware, considerate, practice your intuition and be much more humble when your child isn't deathly afraid of you. Any parent can attain "perfect" behavior with brute force and pain. When you don't spank, you can never be on autopilot with your child. It forces you to work harder to understand their little wishes. I would never change that.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    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.You could look at it that way, but try this view: You GAVE her the opportunity for a small accomplishment – at her age, stairs are an adventure. I remember a small child in Mexico, staring up a 3-story spiral staircase in an old department store, with his father saying "Se, se puedes montar" (Yes, you can climb it) and walking up the stairs with the child, counting the stairs as they were "vencido" (conquered). It wasn't the fastest way up the stairs, but it was the best way for the child.And if you have not already done it, set some sort of a code word that means "mommy is reaching the end of her tether", but don't use it too much. With my nieces and nephews, it was "frazzled" (totally frayed, and it sounds funny) … "Sally, I'm completely frazzled. Let's go home right now." They honored the requests, to the extent of occasionally saying, "Auntie, you must be frazzled. Why don't you go read for a while." (cheeky little things!)