Parenting Is Not A Contest

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.   

Last week my husband and I saw a movie on campus. As usual, we brought our small daughter 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.

Sweetie, it’s time to go home now.

No! Stairs, walk stairs!

No honey, 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 my screaming child down.

Her tears dried up immediately, and she 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 my daughter had handled the situation better than I had. She 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 my daughter wanted, about what was best for me, not about what was best for her.

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 my daughter 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 my daughter will do whatever I want when I want it. If I followed the Pearls, my daughter would never embarrass me in public. I would never have to wait on my daughter 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 my daughter and her needs. I’ve also used it as a reminder of my own selfishness. My daughter 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. :-)

Busting the Mommy Myth
I Co-sleep, But: Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting
Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
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.

  • Mommiest

    If you want your kids to bring you their problems when they’re 15, you’d better take their problems seriously when they are 5. You just taught your kid that you will listen to her when she disagrees with you. There is no substitute for that, in any relationship.

    As for teaching absolute obedience, that just teaches them to follow orders. It doesn’t teach them to think for themselves. It doesn’t teach them to stand up for themselves, either. One of the most important skills you can have as an adult is to know how to choose your battles, when to stand up and when to back down. She will learn those lessons from you. If you had really needed to get somewhere, you could have told her that, and put up with her tantrum. She would have learned that when you say “no.” you have a reason.

    I raised mine with both these principles in mind. My kids are both teens now, both far from perfect. But I often hear from other adults how delightful they are to have around. We have real conversations at dinner. They even hug me in front of their friends.

    So yeah, I’m with you. Sometimes you gotta let ‘em count the stairs.

  • dianne

    Was I raising a child with no sense of self discipline or moderation?

    That one’s easy: No, you are not. Your daughter demonstrated a very nice level of self-control by running up and down the stairs just once more and then heading out. You also demonstrated to your daughter that you’ll listen to her and back down when appropriate. That will make it easier for you to convince her that you really mean it when you do have to say no for a good reason. Nice job, both of you.

  • JoeBuddha

    You also need to consider the fact that you won’t always be the right one.
    Be ready to admit when you’re wrong and listen closely to her point of view. I’m sure that will be a good thing in the long run.

  • Rosa

    This is so beautiful “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.”

    It’s the hardest part, for me, and for my partner. Neither of our parents were as extreme as you, but all were authoritarians, and it shows – we have these habits of thought, that are hard to shake, and parenting around our own parents is traumatic all around, because not only are we judged on kiddo’s behavior but also his dad feels like a failure and reacts more harshly (which makes it worse) and then beats himself up over it.

    That adversarial relationship comes from the softer sell types like John Rosemond and James Dobson, as well as from the general culture.

  • Rabidtreeweasel

    I am a Nanny and I use positive redirection as a teaching tool. Instead of saying No everytime a child does something I don’t want them to do, I tell them what they can do instead. I reserve No for violent or dangerous behavior. This has taken a lot of effort over the years because I was raised on the Pearl method. My instinct when I see a little hand reaching for a hot cup is to smack it. My gut response to a temper tantrum is a spanking. And some nights, when I think of how different my style is from my parents, I worry that I am helping to raise a generation of selfish adults who’ll need to be spoon fed by the government.

    Yeah thanks, Dad, get out of my head.

    I then have to remind myself of an article I read years ago. I loved it so much I memorized a section of it; Spanking works. That’s why we do it. Other things work too. They take more effort and require more attention. Whrn we spank, we are teaching that short cuts are okay. If there is a non violent solution to a problem, what better way to teach problem solving and develop self confidence?

    I’ve never hit a child, but I’ve thought about it and had to remind myself that I don’t hit people, and children are people. I get along well with my parents but I wonder now what they think when they see me with my charges, not ‘”disciplining” or “training” them and often getting better results then they do with their own grand kids.

  • Lou Doench

    I’ll have to admit, even us godless liberals can fall into authoritarian tendencies when it comes to parenting. Somewhere back in our lizard brain lurks the instinct to enforce a pecking order, to show the smaller members of the pack who’s in “charge”. I know that there have been times when my convenience has trumped the Hellion’s wishes, and I have succumbed to the temptation to deliver the thankfully infrequent smack when my patience has been worn thin. Then again, my children are uniquely evil.
    What the Pearl’s subscribe to is actually Giving in to our animal instincts. It’s closer to how a tribe of chimps might behave.

  • Ysanne

    Libby Anne, I really like this post, as well as the comments. There’s only one part that I don’t agree with 100% as it’s written, and I’d love to understand what you think about its details:

    She kicked and screamed and struggled.
    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 my screaming child down.

    I absolutely agree that when there’s no reason to be really leaving right away, there’s lots of room to negotiate and compromise (with kid _and_ parent getting a good deal). But is screaming, kicking and struggling the kind of negotiation that should get anyone anywhere?
    I’m all for the compromise you reached, but I’m missing the “Ok, you can have one more go if you stop kicking and ask like a big kid” part.
    Not out of a desire to see the grown-up being the one setting the conditions, but because I really hate it when screaming and tantrums become the standard way of disagreeing.
    I find it fun to watch how kids adapt their bargaining strategy to the person they’re dealing with, and switch from whiny tantrum-threats to sensible compromising and in the blink of an eye.
    How do/did you handle this aspect of compromising with a toddler?

    • Rilian

      The kicking and screaming was in response to the mom initiating aggression. You’d kick and scream if someone grabbed you and started dragging you somewhere. The kid DID use words at first, but when that failed, what else could she do?

      • Ysanne

        Umm… getting picked up by a parent is not an act of aggression.
        If a kid feels violently attacked by that, something is seriously wrong in the relationship.
        Yes, it’s a way of physically keeping a child from doing something, which the child may not like at that moment. It’s certainly not a good enough reason to react with violence (and kicking is exactly that).

      • Rilian

        Getting picked up when you don’t want to get picked up is an act of aggression, no matter who’s doing it.

      • Rilian

        Ysanne, it seems like you think the parents have some right to their children as possessions. When someone grabs you after you made it clear you didn’t want that to happen, it is totally justified and reasonable to react with defensive “violence”. I put it in quotes because when you’re just defending yourself, it isn’t really violence.

    • Libby Anne

      I was kind of shell shocked at the moment, and this was when I was first figuring out the whole bargaining thing, so I didn’t do it perfectly. Now I would get down on her level, tell her it’s time to go, and then listen to her. Then we would come up with a bargain between ourselves – no manhandling, no response tantrum necessary.

      And ordinarily, when she goes into whining mode I say “Honey, calm down and just tell me what you need,” so it’s not like I just say “okay, she’s whining, I’ll listen to that.”

      I hope that clarifies.

      • Ysanne

        Thanks for the clarification. :-)
        Again, wonderful post!

  • Rilian

    The assumption behind that pearls or whatever thing is that children *should* do what their parents say. Because god says so.

  • LizSmith17

    I just want to say how much I appreciate your taking the time to write about this (and reposting the old ones). I’m a nanny, and my husband and I plan to have kids fairly soon. I had already decided agaisnt spanking (and I wouldn’t be allowed to as a nanny anyway), but I didn’t realize how little I had really moved away from the authoritarian way I was raised. I was just using an angry tone of voice or forcible removal from a situation to enforce obedience. While better than spanking, it’s not much better. When I read where you said that your daughter was not the enemy, for some reason it just clicked that that was exactly how I was viewing it. And the bit about your daughter asking to go potty just to get praise after you used your stern voice really hit home as well. I feel that same worry about raising spoiled kids, especially in light of the fact that my family will disapprove of not spanking and ill-behaved kids would just prove them right in their minds. So I really love that you can tell us how it’s working for you and help relieve that fear. Thanks so much! The toddler I take care of and I are both already happier since I read what you posted yesterday. :)

    Also, does anyone have any recommendations for resources on learning more about attachment parenting and how to practically implement it?

    • Elizabeth Buker I’m doing attachment paenting/gentle guidance (I fail at times, but I do my best). This website has good practical tips, and I think they have links to other websites. Hope that helps :)

  • Ursula L

    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 my screaming child down.

    There was, however, a real reason why you wanted to leave right away. As you said at the top of the post, you were tired. And needing to take care of your own health is a big part of taking care of your child – if you’re not feeling well, it’s much more difficult to be reasonable.

    You saw that you were acting without giving a clear reason – if you’d said you were very tired and needed to get home and rest, your child might have understood a promise to take time on the stairs another day. You weren’t acting without reason, you were acting without first explaining your reason, which is quite different.

    And acting without first explaining is often necessary – if your child has run into a busy street, you pick them up and carry them to safety immediately, even if they get mad and start to tantrum. You can explain when they’re safe. My father was always very good about acting with good reason – so if he told us to do something and didn’t give a reason, we trusted that he had a good reason, even if now was not the time to explain.

    Every time you act reasonably and well, you build up a credit of trust with your child, that can be relied on to support your relationship with your child at times when you’re human and make mistakes, or don’t have the time or energy to do things perfectly.

    As it is, you sensibly backed off, gave your child time to do the stairs and gave yourself time to re-gather your wits. It’s a different lesson from never saying “no” without reason, to provide the excellent example of recognizing when you’re not feeling well and backing off from a poor choice.

    The fact that you have times when you’re human, and make mistakes, and you stop and correct yourself is probably a better example than being an infinitely and inhumanly patient parent who never makes a mistake – and therefore can never model for their child how to deal with making mistakes.

    One problem with authoritarian parenting is that it demands that parents be perfect. If the parent’s will must always win, then the parents had better not make any mistakes in judgment.

    But the type of parenting you’re doing gives you room to be human that your parents didn’t have. You can say “I’m sorry, I was tired and grumpy, and I was short-tempered with you. Please forgive me. I love you, even when I am tired and grumpy.”

    • Ursula L

      Another thing worth noting is that your child handled the situation very well.

      You were tired and grumpy. You started to insist on leaving. But then you backed off, because you recognized that you were acting, not without reason, but without giving reason, and that a few minutes to climb the stairs was not unreasonable. So you gave your child time to climb the stairs, and yourself space to gather your wits.

      But your child also responded, wonderfully. Given time to think, and to work off the energy that accumulates from sitting still for a movie, your child took the time to climb the stairs. But your child also was aware that you weren’t at your best, and was kind and wise enough to climb the stairs once, and then recognize your need to get home and rest – to respect that need, not out of fear, but as a reciprocal gift for your giving the child the time to move that your child needed. You’re child has seen you stop a favored activity because your child needed rest, so your child followed your example when you needed rest.

      So you can also tell your child “you know, I was tired and grumpy the other day, and I started to be short-tempered with you. But you were very kind, and when I let you climb the stairs, you climbed then once, and then let me know that we could go home. Thank you for being kind, and for helping take care of me when I was tired and grumpy. That was very grown-up of you, and it makes me proud of you to know that you are so thoughtful. I like that we take care of each other so well, and I’ll try to remember this next time I’m tired and grumpy, because I know I can trust you.”

      I’m bring these things up because I’m very impressed with how you’re trying to re-learn how to parent after the poor example your parents gave. And I had the great good fortune to have a father who was an excellent parent by the standards you seem to be trying for. (My mother suffered from mental illness, and did not do so well, but my father’s good skills did a great deal to allow me and my brother to cope with my mother’s problems.)

      My mother’s inclinations were authoritarian, so whenever she made a mistake, she was trapped, as much as we were. To admit a mistake would be to back down, and that would be a fatal weakness. It was hard for us, but it was also hard for her. And if she did something that made no sense, it would freak us out, because she’d expect this thing to be accepted as right, even when everyone – her and us kids – knew it wasn’t.

      My father, if he made a mistake – it was a mistake. He’d admit it, apologize, do what he could to fix it. And if he messed up, which he did on occasion, it was upsetting but not excessively so. He’d recognize his mistake, and fix it. And knowing this, if he made a mistake, our distress was minimized, because we knew that he’d make things right.

      As an adult, I appreciate my father much more than my mother. She was feared, he was loved and respected.

      Further, even though I’m turning 40 this year, I still turn to my father for advice, and he gives it freely and happily, without expecting that I’ll obey, but because we have a long habit of helping each other. Sometimes I take his advice, sometimes I don’t, most often we talk and figure out, together, a better solution than either of us would have found on our own. My mother, I wouldn’t ask the time of day, because whether she was right or wrong, she’d still expect me to re-set my watch to her time.

      So, speaking as someone who was in the position of being a daughter with a wise and respectful parent, I can tell you, I hope, what your daughter knows but what you never had a chance to experience. A wise, loving, fallible and reasonable parent can be trusted even when they’re occasionally unwise, unkind, mistaken or unreasonable, because the weaknesses are a matter of human nature, and dealing with mistakes is a matter of human good sense.

      Bonus suggestion. I tell this story to anyone I know who is interested in being an involved parent who respects their children.

      Even when we were teenagers, not only did me and my brother still respect my father and confide in him, all our friends did, as well.

      He had a simple rule. Once we had our driver’s licenses, we could use his car during the day. We had to drop him off and pick him up from work in a timely fashion. And, most importantly, if we wanted the car, we had to let him take us out to breakfast (at an cheap but friendly diner – 2 eggs and toast were less than $2 in the 1980s.)

      And, any friend who wanted to ride with us during the day had to be picked up on the way to breakfast before we dropped my dad at work and then went to school. And they had to join us for breakfast. Dad’s treat. We left quite early in the morning, early enough that breakfast could be relaxed, and there was ample time to talk about whatever needed talking about.

      My father knew us, knew our friends, was trusted and respected. Our friend’s parents knew him, and respected him, and were glad that their kids spent time with him and us. Our friends had better relationships with their parents, because of my dad. They’d complain about parent-problems, and he’d listen, and he’d offer the parent’s perspective in a reasonable way that they could understand. And our friends would take that understanding home with them, for the next time there was conflict.

      (This also led my brother and one if his friends to host one of the most bizarre teenage drinking parties ever. The friend’s parents were out of town. They owned a place in the countryside. Brother and friend decided “party!” Arrangements were made. Kids were noisy, police busted party. And it was completely busted. Because everyone who drove had to turn their keys over to my brother and the friend before they could drink. They knew my father was German, and not overly stressed about drinking. But they also knew he expected reasonable drinking, and no drinking and driving. Police, when they figured out what happened, were confused, but not displeased. Everyone got off with a warning and a chat between the cops and their parents. Because, happily, the local cops decided it was better for kids to err on the side of safety even if it increased the risk of being busted, rather than to err on the side of getting away even if it made things unsafe. I tell you this to be clear that while my father’s parenting didn’t make us perfect, it made us very responsible in how we managed our imperfections.)