To Train Up A Child, pp.
And here we begin the chapter titled “Parental Anger.”
NO MORE CHANCES
As I was working on this book, a young mother said to me: “I get so angry sometimes; I treat the children so badly. They just upset me. Johnny is always picking on Mary and making her whine. I have to just stay on top of them all the time to prevent them from doing something they shouldn’t. What can I do to overcome my anger?”
Previously, the parents rewarded disobedience by saying, “Now Johnny, I have told you not to do that. I am going to give you one more chance and then I will have to spank you.” As he continued to disobey, her frustration mounted.
The parents had effectively taught their child that he could disobey until the parent’s frustration reached a certain level. When he perceived that they had had all they were going to take, he knew it was time to back off for a while. He could return to his disobedience as soon as they cooled off. Sometimes, miscalculating, he pushed her too far, and she would “go off” before he could comply.
There are indeed people who parent this way. And yes, it’s bad parenting. In my experience, giving a child another chance to do something generally doesn’t make sense if you don’t change the conditions within which the child is operating. If I tell Sally to clean up a mess she made and she doesn’t, it doesn’t help to go into “chances,” and it certainly doesn’t help to threaten violence. What helps is to get down there with her and help her, to make it a game or a contest, or to offer some sort of reward for a job well done. In some cases it makes sense to lay down some form of consequences—for instance, telling Sally that if she can’t clean up the mess she makes with her beads, we may need to put up her beads for a while until she is ready to care for them responsibly—but even then, I don’t like framing it as “chances” or the consequence as a punitive action. Parenting should be cooperational, not oppositional.
But of course, Michael’s reaction is completely different from my reaction.
The mother’s anger could be overcome if she would remove the cause of her anger. No, not the children, but their disobedience. Eventually, she always got them to obey. It was the long dragged out, tense and competitive prelude to their eventual obedience that was stirring her ire. The children were actually responding quite predictably. She had trained them not to obey until she got angry.
You know, I read a fascinating post on a gentle parenting blog when my daughter was only a year or so old, and ever since then I’ve tried to find it and haven’t been able to. In that post, a mother explained that motherhood had pointed out her own selfishness to her. I think this is very true. There are times I’m ready to leave a store but Sally wants to look at one last thing and I grow upset with Sally for not coming when I say it’s time to go. I have learned to think not only of my own perspective and desires but also of Sally’s. This doesn’t mean I always let Sally have her own way, but it does mean that I don’t always have my own way.
This parenting where disobedience or disagreement with parental dictates allows a great deal of selfishness on a parent’s part. The parent can tell the child when to sit and when to stand, when to go and when to come, what to do and what to say, thus eliminating the inconvenience a child naturally being her own person can cause a parent. And really, that’s what Michael is saying here. Kids are annoying because they don’t always do what you say or what you want. You can fix this by training them to obey your every word and thus eliminating their individualism or growing independence. It is bizarre to me that the Christian teaching that people should be selfless and put others’ needs first can coincide with this insistence on absolute obedience from children.
There are three more points here worth mentioning.
First, children are generally better behaved when the parent interacts with them with respect and is not prone to random outbursts of anger. In a home where parents are frequently angry or yelling, children are often more likely to act up. In other words, if a parent, instead of getting angry, takes a deep breath and gets down on a child’s level and speaks to that child, face to face, kindly and gently, well, that generally diffuses things and makes everyone happier. But Michael doesn’t tell parents this.
Second, if a parent is frequently angry and snapping at the kids it often has to do with something completely outside the kids themselves. It might be the finances, or one’s relationship with one’s partner, or a lack of personal time, or any number of stressers. I know that when I am especially stressed out or have a big project due, I find myself snapping at the kids. As soon as I notice myself doing it, I stop, take a step back, take a deep breath, refocus, and start over. I also find that if I’ve had good me time, and engaged in good self care, I am more patient with my children. These are all things Michael really should be telling parents, but isn’t.
Third, there is literally no other aspect of adults’ lives that can be solved in this way. If an adult is angry about how her boss is acting, or angry at a friend, or angry at a spouse, or angry at her sister, the proper response is not to simply eliminate the cause of that anger, because often that cannot be simply and unilaterally eliminated. The proper response is to work it out. Throughout our whole lives there are things beyond our control that may make us angry or simply annoyed, but we can’t just eliminate those things. Instead, we need to learn strategies for dealing with them. The same is true of any annoyance or anger our children may cause us. But again, Michael doesn’t see it that way, because Michael doesn’t seem to view children as full people.
I gave her a copy of some child training material that I had written. Reading it, she decided to make some changes. She made it plain to her son that he was not to tease his smaller sister. She told Johnny that if he disobeyed he would be spanked for the first offense. The first spanking was a shock to Johnny. Mother was not waiting until she got mad. No warnings, no threats–she seemed to expect him to obey the very first time!
After two days of consistently rewarding every transgression with a spanking, Johnny turned to his mother and said, “But Mother, you are not giving me any more chances!” The mother said, “That’s right, you don’t get any more chances. From now on you are to always obey the first time.” He had been using his “chances” to purchase disobedience. After two years he now obeys the first time, and Mother no longer gets angry.
This just makes me so sad. The way to fix dysfunctional parenting isn’t to switch to another kind of dysfunctional parenting. And again, notice what I said—mother no longer gets angry because she eliminated the cause of her anger. This reminds me of the fundamentalist approach to male sexual desire—i.e., to require women to cover up to eliminate the source of that desire. Why not validate the mother’s frustration while also helping her to think of her children’s perspectives and moving toward a relationship with her children that is cooperative rather than oppositional? No. Michael simply tells this mother she must use more force, and faster.
And you know what else? Michael is focusing on the outside rather than the inside—on the children’s actions rather than their hearts. If children are disobeying there is a reason they are disobeying. It may be simply that they are making normal and natural desires known—wanting to play a few minutes longer, or being curious about mother’s makeup—or it may be that they are acting out as a result of some other underlying cause, such as a lack of one-on-one time with their parents, or being tired or hungry, or other fears or insecurities. But none of that matters to Michael.
LICENSE TO DISOBEY
When the State Fish and Game Commission issues permits allowing you to catch five trout, but no more, they are not preventing trout fishing, they are advocating it. These parents had issued their children a license to be disobedient five times, but punished them for the sixth offense. So every day the children went fishing for trouble, but always with an eye on the “warden.” They would try to anticipate when to stop short of the real “last chance.”
When Mom reduced the disobedience limit to zero and outlawed disobedience, little Johnny had to test the lawgiver to see if it was just another permit. When the “Warden” (Mama) proved to be serious, he decided that he didn’t love “fishing for trouble” enough to pay the fine for what he caught. Little Johnny started obeying all laws the first time.
Again, I am not enamored with the chances thing. I’m rather the opposite. If Sally or Bobby are not obeying me, I ask myself a variety of questions. Do they actually understand what I am asking them to do? Have I taken time to consider—and ask—their feelings, needs and desires? Is there some environmental issue involved here, such as exhaustion, hunger, or a need for more one-on-one time with the parent? Is this a learning opportunity, in which I need to help them consider others’ feelings and needs or understand the boundaries for proper behavior or for handling their emotions? What I don’t do is give the order again and give them “chances.”
And what is this with referring to the mother as a “warden”? If a mother parenting like this is a “warden,” then a mother parenting like the Pearls recommend is even more a “warden”. And yet, Michael seems to be calling the mother a “warden” in order to condemn her and how she is parenting. Calling her a “warden” like it’s a bad thing while urging parents to do the same thing, but to the extreme, is rather odd, to put it mildly.
If State Troopers ceased writing tickets and instead started nagging and threatening, it would be tantamount to abolishing the speed limit. Picture a trooper pulling a speeder over and then explaining how sad it makes him feel for them to be going so fast. Can you see a trooper sitting on the side of the road shaking his fist and turning red in the face as cars speed by? After the sixth time of motorists being told, “Now I am not going to tell you again,” all law would break down into “and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
Wait. Wait. Okay, now Michael is condemning one of the parenting techniques I use. I didn’t realized we’d switched focus. Teaching children to consider others’ feelings is a good thing. It’s not the only technique a parent should use, no, but in my experience it’s fairly effective and has some very good results (i.e., it teaches children to think about others and not just about themselves). Michael’s not translating it very well to traffic control, though. The equivalent would be for a cop to explain why we have speed limits, and explain that speeding can put other motorists in danger. Oh and guess what—we do explain that! Surprise! Also, unless Michael lives somewhere with very very different police practices, troopers do give warnings. I got one a month ago for making a rolling stop, and you know what? I’ve been much more careful to stop all the way at stop signs since then.
Parent, you can not blame your children if you have caused them to understand that disobedience is only unacceptable after several warnings and then a threat topped off by an ultimatum, and finally a gesture of force.
Oh right, and Michael’s solution—dispense with the warnings and instead start with the ultimatum and gesture of force—is so much better. /sarcasm
Parent, you have trained yourself not to discipline immediately, but to wait until your irritation builds into anger. You have allowed your motivation to be anger. “But how can I stop being so angry?” Simple. Discipline them immediately upon the slightest disobedience. Don’t wait until it becomes a personal affront to you.
This just makes me feel so gross. Once again, it’s all about making your kids convenient. Really, it basically boils down to disciplining away anything you find annoying, and controlling your children with the threat of force in response to the slightest infraction.
The children perceive in your anger and frustration that the discipline is a personal matter, a competition of interest. You are viewed by the child much as they view a bigger child who is bullying them in order to get his own way. They are not being made to respect the law and lawgiver; they are simply being made to give in to a superior force. They feel as if you are committing a personal transgression against them—violating their rights. They see you as just protecting your own rights and trampling on theirs.
Look in the mirror, Michael. Look in the mirror.
You have lost the dignity of your office. As they say, “You are not Presidential enough.” Where there is no unwavering rule of law with consistent enforcement, in the child’s mind there is no law at all, just competition for supremacy.
I’ve seen this argument before. And honestly, it boils down to the discussion of punishing in anger versus punishing without anger. Yes, punishing in anger is bad. But you know what? The fact that punishing in anger is bad does not mean that punishing when not angry is automatically good. The thing is, in this case, Michael is talking about punishing for the slightest infraction and having parents handle their anger by forcing their children to obey absolutely the first time or face physical force rather than by actually, well, handling their anger. Michael may pride himself on being fair, judicious, and presidential, but that doesn’t mean that’s how children subjected to the described treatment actually perceive it.
You have taught yourself to be motivated only by anger. And you have taught your child to respond only to anger. Having failed to properly train your child, you have allowed the seeds of self-indulgence to grow to ugly proportions.
Yes, sowing the seeds of unbridled self indulgence is a bad idea. But you know what else is a bad idea? Sowing the seeds of lack of self. It’s possible to teach children not to be self indulgent without requiring that they turn over their sense of self as the price.