This morning I read an article in MACLEAN’S online magazine entitled ‘The collapse of parenting’ written by Cathy Gulli‘. It got me thinking about my early days as a parent and all the insecurities that you have to deal with as a newbie parent.
“If only they came with a manual”; I remember thinking many times.
But kids don’t come with a manual. At least they didn’t use to. Today you can find a manual for just about anything online, including how to find a manual online…if you needed help with that. The problem is that while good advice can be a treasure, bad advice can be, and has been detrimental to many people’s well being.
Take the arrival of the ‘Positive Parenting era’. No longer were you allowed to say ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ to your child, because that would be just too negative and could irreparably damage their development and self-esteem. Instead of saying; ‘No, don’t pull the dog’s ears, that hurts him!’ you had to say; ‘Let’s rather rub the dog gently, he likes that better.’ Everything that could classify as a command had to be rephrased to sound like a reasonable request. It isn’t that softer suggestions have no part in the way you talk to your child, I just believe that shouldn’t be the only part.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with some friends who parent a particularly willful two year old. They were trying this type of positive reinforcement/distraction method without much success, and their little girl was running her parents lives with the effortless skill of a master manipulator. What she wanted she got, it was only a matter of time. Sooner or later they would give in to her demands and she knew it. At two she already had skills that some CEO’s would die to have in the boardroom.
So why did her parents allow this? Each parent had different reasons. The father in this situation came from a home where discipline was not accompanied by love, and he vowed to himself that he was going to be a different kind of parent. His children were never going to doubt his love and all that discipline stuff was too harsh to be enforced in his home. He was going to reason with his children.
Now anybody who’s ever had one knows exactly how unreasonable a two year old can be. Two year olds don’t have the maturity and life experience to know what’s good and healthy, so how can they possibly be expected to reason about such things. That’s why they need mature adults to make those decisions for them. Decisions from what to eat and when to do it, where and with what to play, when it’s bedtime etc. are all decisions that these little ones are not equipped to make.
As a parent, you know that if all a child ever ate were candy and ice cream, they would soon develop all sorts of health related issues from obesity to diabetes and more. They don’t know anything about nutrition yet, so why would you let them decide what they eat?
This little girl’s mom was the sole disciplinarian, and without the disciplinary support of her husband, she quickly became the ‘unpopular parent’. Kids know which parent is going to give them their way and have no problem playing one parent against the other. We’d like to believe in their innocence, but a child doesn’t need to be taught how to throw a tantrum, lie, or even manipulate a situation to their favor. Be it through folded arms and a pouty ‘ice cream lip’, subtle tears, a full blown rolling around on the floor tantrum, or, and this is one that makes a lot of parents falter; the cold shoulder.
This mom simply got tired of always being the ‘bad guy’ and so sometimes she would just do nothing. But only sometimes. The problem with inconsistency is that it makes enforcing a rule ten times harder the next time a child is confronted with it. Kids will test you, and are even willing to endure a certain amount of discomfort if they believe that it’ll pay off in the end. Inconsistency sets you up for constant conflict. Be prepared to be challenged all the time, sometimes even over things that your young one is not necessarily opposed to.
Why do kids do this, sometimes testing and opposing you over every single thing? The truth is that structure and boundaries don’t harm or limit kids’ personality development or creativity; it makes them feel safe and secure. They know that they shouldn’t be in charge and knowing without a doubt that their parents are in control, only makes them feel loved and safe. But parents who allow kids to be in control are telling their kids, through their actions(or inaction), that their parents are weak and incapable of protecting them, which leads to a constant power struggle.
So how will kids ever learn to think for themselves if someone else is always making the decisions for them? By allowing them age appropriate decisions.
While a two year old can’t be expected to make a choice between having a bag of potato chips or oatmeal for breakfast, you can allow them to make a choice when they have two healthy alternatives in front of them. Apple or banana? Oatmeal or a healthy cereal? Sometimes though, you just have to allow them to be at peace with the fact that they don’t always have a choice. Allow them, early on, to get used to the fact that as a parent that loves and cares for them, you made the decision that’s in their best interest.
Give them the opportunity to learn to trust your judgment and you might find that as they get older they challenge you less. At the very least, when they do challenge you, they’ll already know that you have consistently given them boundaries that are flexible, fair, but firm. That you are not trying to be an overprotective killjoy, but someone who has their best interest at heart.
In many circumstances, children testing their boundaries is a good thing too. It’s their way of asking; ‘Am I ready to take the next step?’ It’s part of their desire to grow and mature.
Some parents’ answer is always ‘no’. That isn’t any good either.
We often tell our teenage kids “We want to say yes to your requests, so even if you are trying to stretch the boundaries and lengthen the rope, try to ask us for reasonable things that we can say yes to.”
When I think back to my own childhood, and mine was not the greatest, I have to admit to myself that even in all their failures, my parents still did the best they knew how. Trust that as you put your child’s best interest first, especially their long-term character development and health, you will make good choices.
Parent the child, not the moment.