Archives for posts with tag: justice

Even the word suggests a loss of innocence: for the parent as much as the child.

Eternity drops this soft, blanket-swaddled lump of sweet, pink nappy/milky/doughy life into your arms, and from the first moment, he or she begins pushing away.  A friend of ours, an artist with a singularly thoughtful view of life, told my husband and me that one day, as he was walking and rocking his infant son, it dawned on him that the rest of their lives would be spent in essential conflict: he would grow to love his son more and more, while his son would grow more and more to want independence.  Thus, John said, he realized that where being a parent was concerned, he was destined for grief.  (It did have a good effect: it caused him to reconnect with his own father over a sustained period of time.)

John told Tom and me about that in our kitchen over brunch one Sunday morning when our son was halfway through law school, living in his own house, juggling school with a job, and we were lucky to see him once a week.  Our daughter was in England, and wouldn’t be home for 15 months. Not only did I share John’s feeling of tragedy that our children leave us — and if we’ve done our job well, leave us very easily — but also the concomitant realization that as they leave, our longing for them doesn’t. While our birds-flying-the-coop experience only exhilaration at their growing independence, we experience indescribable sadness. We are delighted to see them launched in the world, making a go of it — but their lack of angst and need for us is easily misinterpreted as lack of love, because child love is so very different from parent love. Child love is admiration and gratitude and affection.  Parent love is someone taking a pick-axe, plunging it into your chest and ripping out your beating heart, without anesthesia.

What has this to do with discipline? Everything, because that first moment when the thought enters the child’s head that, though mother said “no,” one might still choose “yes,” represents the free will and individual sovereignty that is, at some very basic level, the foundation of humanity. Mutiny is always an option! And the very premise of discipline is the lie that we can control the environment fully enough that our children will have to submit to our preferences – yet really, it’s a deception, because children always have the ability to defy us, though they endanger themselves seriously to do so. We just hope they don’t figure that out.

We see it at just a few months of age: the baby that once only snuggled in our arms is now pushing back, pushing away, expressing a preference: don’t hold me this way, hold me that way. Don’t cover my eyes! Give me your breast! I want my binky! Put me down! I am going to push up like this with my arms until I have the upper-body strength to roll over.  And then I’ll push my legs at the same time, and I’ll be moving! AND I WILL BE ABLE TO GO WHERE I WANT TO, AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME.

It’s cute and endearing and we’re so proud, until we see Junior about to tumble down the stairs, or hear him yell “NO, YOU BIG FAT UGLY!” at the preschool teacher, or suffer through his engaging us in that necessary process of testing: “I have to know who will win the battle between you and me.” And where some children will respond with laconic submission to “no, Johnny!” others will narrow their eyes as if to say, “oh, yeah?!?”, elevate the battle to a war, and suddenly your heavenly, pink dough-ball has become a rebellious heretic. Mutiny! How dare he?! Doesn’t this only happen to “bad parents”?

It happens to everyone. The only parents who don’t go through this phase of dismay are those whose children are. . .what can I say?. . . weird. Trust me: you don’t want weirdly obedient children.  Ecclesiastes says there is a time and a place for all things, and weirdly obedient children at age 3, or age 15, end up dumping their wives or husbands at age 42, embezzling office funds, buying a Lamborghini, and running off with a pole dancer.

So your dismay that instead of a pink angel from heaven, you have procreated a demon from the pits of hell is normal. And your demon is normal. But your proper normal response is not to shrug your shoulders and let the demon behave demonically.  I’m sorry to say that your only option is to do your job. You must parent. You must put on your armor and resolve that this little hellion will not get the best of you. You can stir love and intelligence and creativity into the pot. Often those ingredients help. Humor always helps. Especially because you are not going to know what the **** you are doing. It’s like trying to hit a bull’s eye blindfolded.

You can read books, including this one, and sometimes books can help. The best books are written by people who understand that not all children are alike, and they won’t all respond to the same kind of discipline. It has nothing to do with intelligence, talent, or your ability or worth as a parent. Most children respond well to definite rules and clear consequences. These “linear” children frankly make it a lot easier on their parents, I think. I have one of each: a linear child and a free spirit. Parents of linear children can be a bit judgmental of children who are more willful and have to be persuaded.  Who hasn’t watched Supernanny or any other shows of its ilk on TV, both for the satisfaction of seeing little tyrants learn to behave, but also to pick up some strategies for gaining control over your own obstreperous kids? The nanny shows make liberal use of timeouts, but in my experience, timeouts have limited effectiveness. (Have you ever seen a bedroom filled with tiny shreds of Kleenex, torn up during a 15 minute timeout? or had a child dismantle an un-mortared brick sidewalk because she didn’t like having to sit on a step for 16 minutes? Do you really want to go for round two after that? Maybe Grandma’s switch chosen from the backyard is a better idea.) Some children would rather sit for the rest of their lives than give in to you. The truant officers won’t take kindly to that when the morning class bell rings, and it will be your fault. You are the parent.

I recommend starting with the linear approach: straightforward, not too many edicts but enough to ensure safety and courtesy, teaching “we don’t do that,” then using sharp, simple words; then timeouts, then bottom pops. (Oh, yes! where would we be without those mini-spankings that kids almost seem to crave, and will keep misbehaving until, driven half out of your mind, you administer one?) Remembering to “catch them being good” can be great, but it requires always imagining the terrors you child might be committing at any given moment, and if our brains don’t work like that, maybe it’s a blessing. If you do see un-pre-meditated (that is, sincere and uncynical) remarkably good behavior, I think quietly giving a treat in private is okay once in a while – but you don’t want to instill self-consciousness. “Suzie, I saw you picking flowers for your Grandma, and that was so sweet.  Here’s a Hershey’s Kiss for my sweet girl.” We don’t want Suzie to start picking flowers just to get the chocolate. The fact that she does it naturally, on her own, is what is lovely.

But whether taking the positive rewards approach or the negative consequences method, or — best — some combination thereof, discipline is hard, and breezy recommendations imply a binary good/bad, black/white ecosystem that never exists in real life.

If disciplining “linear” children isn’t easy, guiding free-spirit, non-linear children can fill you with paroxysms of self-doubt. Self-doubt, dear parent, is lethal, and some children quickly learn to plant its seeds in you. Once the child knows you’re doubting yourself, you’re in trouble. I recommend being very chary of making broad and loud early pronouncements with strong-willed children about specific things that absolutely will not be tolerated, because all they have to do is overcome one absolute stricture one time, and your authority is compromised. A smart, wily child will rise to the challenge and test you, or engage you in manipulative reasoning, leading you down a twisting rabbit-path until the standard that seemed so all-important has now been reduced through a series of “except when’s” to a mere nicety. While we teach niceties, if we punish free-spirited children for not observing them, they will never be in our good graces. Linear or free-spirited, our children must feel like they are mostly getting it right. It was a sad day when my linear son, aged five, announced miserably, “I am the worst one in this family!” It was a conclusion he had drawn from my constant barrage of correction, and it broke my heart. I stopped, backed up, held him on my lap, reassured him, relaxed some of my mandates, let go of some obsessions and generally softened my approach.  Granted, parenting is not a democracy, but it is a relationship, and not a dictatorship. Every child needs to feel like success is in his reach.

I’m a strong-willed person, but I had to accept at a certain point with my free-spirited child that if it came down to a battle of wills, I would lose. She would out-starve me, outwit me, out-manipulate me, and out-charm me. If willfulness were won in an arm-wrestling match, the backside of my hand was flat on the table before we ever started. If I were going to be successful teaching her discipline, it would have to be done some other way.   Yet we were still responsible for her in the eyes of God, the state, her school, and we wanted a future full of possibility for this very bright, precocious child. We could see how some of her habits could create havoc in her life and the lives of others. The last thing we wanted was to launch a “spoiled” child on the world, for others to have to clean up after.

If I had it to do over today, given a non-linear child who would choose anything over losing a war of wills, I would spend less time laying down the law and more time trying gently to “sell” the right behavior. I would do less yelling and reacting with cynicism when she erred (I know! It’s awful!  You see, anyone can write a book about childrearing!), and appeal more to her desire to honor us. I would express more concern and optimism and less anger. Confronting my own undergirding, my edicts and bitterness and anger and accusations were spawned by fear and despair: fear that I would find no measures to instill better habits in her, and despair for what her life might be if she never learned to defer gratification. In reacting with fear and despair I forfeited faith and trust in God, and at some level, respect for her, even in her undisciplined choices. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one of the five foundational truths is the dignity of man. I think it’s very important for parents to remember to treat even their misbehaving children with dignity: that alone is proof that we have faith that God will eventually teach them and steer them right. While they live with us, we can and will do all in our power to guide them, but reacting with despair or harsh remarks shows a lack of faith in Providence and the future. It hurts our children terribly when we reveal no confidence in their ability to improve. If we’re praying for them, we should have every confidence in the world that things will turn out beautifully in the end.

Households with a combination of linear children and free spirits have their own challenges: linear children rightfully think that the free spirited child is getting away with murder, and that you simply aren’t putting your foot down as you should. They probably don’t know about all the times you tried to be authoritarian that failed.  They think you should just be tougher — because your being tough worked with them.  Their sense of justice is offended. This is understandable.  All I can recommend is talking with them, explaining about different learning styles, how some people don’t respond well to authoritarianism.  You can point out that you tried it again and again, and it simply did not work — and because we love her, we have to try every approach until we find something that works.

As for my own free spirit, on her own, now that she’s a young adult, her faith in God and her sense of personal identity has helped her create a magnificent life. Somehow, with the cover of living with her parents removed, now that it’s obvious to all the world that her errors are her responsibility, she crosses most of the i’s and dots most of the t’s that were ignored in high school.  Today her brother is as proud of her as she is of him.

And what her parents don’t know won’t hurt us.

Now, really. What kind of mother would I be if I took pictures of my kids in time out?

Going through old papers recently I found the letter posted below, about which we have laughed as a family several times in the years since. It was written when my son was in the fifth grade, to his music teacher at the time. Obviously, he had reported the injustice to me, and I was determined to make it right. Check out the attachments at the bottom — I’m laughing today, but we had no more trouble out of that teacher the rest of the year. Sometimes a mom’s got to fight.

2-24-99 midnight

Dear Dr. L——,

My son, [name], did not understand that he was to copy verbatim all the information you had on the board in your class on Tuesday. Therefore, he was not able to re-copy information that he had not written in the first place.

As he was not among the students creating a disruption, I expect there to be no negative consequences for him. I also expect him not to be ridiculed or humiliated, in class or out, for any reason. I have no problem with fair discipline, calmly communicated.

Thank you.

Vivian Ruth Sawyer

cc: David B—–, principal
Sally G——, teacher

Att: 1998-99 Uniform Code of Student Conduct and the Student Bill of Rights
p. 4 — student responsibilities — no violation
p. 5 — B — staff’s resonsibilities — violation of items # 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 & 13
p. 7 — “Harrassment. . . .is intimidation by threats. . . .or the expression of hatred, contempt, or prejudice toward an individual.”
p. 12 — The Right to Freedom from Harrassment and Discrimination
p. 38 — violation of #8 The Right to Freedom from Abuse

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