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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?

(Photo Credit: Colin Dixon/Arcaid/Corbis)

When I first was taken with great architecture in my life, I began to reflect on great structures. It dawned on me that great structures last. In time, it began to dawn on me that not only do great structures last, but perhaps all great things last.  As I observed life around me, I could see a marked difference among that which had only been around a few years, that which had been around decades but was fading into disrepair or obscurity, or that which had survived centuries or even millennia.

Thus, my first observation about how to pursue a quality life was born:

To gain insight into the best of human life, study and absorb the things that have stood the test of time, and have lasted.

At first I thought primarily about the built environment, but as time went on, I realized that once could broaden that philosophy to include music, literature, art, and religion. And ever since that time, I have gained my great moments of spiritual exhilaration when learning at the feet of great masters of all these disciplines, whose work has had to endure a few decades of being buffeted by the course of events, societal distractions, even ridicule, and then emerged again showing forth a wisdom that people at first overlooked or even scorned.

But this is not a blog, or eventually a book, about my life, but about your child, and how you can broaden your child’s spirit and vision, as it were, to recognize quality in the midst of all the noise in our world.  I can give you a lot of practical tips, but underlying those has to be your bedrock conviction that there is something worth shooting for, high above the diet fed by the Disney Channel and MTV. You have to believe that some things, the really good things, are everlasting.  If they weren’t, it would be rather cruel to force-feed them to our children: I don’t think our goal is to create creatures of utter cultural anachronism, weirdos and nerds destined to be mocked and bullied.

What’s more, truly to raise a Renaissance child doesn’t mean sequestering him or her from all of the cultural junk food that comprises most of young Americans’ media diet.  If you do that, he will have no way to discern quality from candy, and once he gets his first taste of Cheetos, if you will, it’ll be good bye caviar (figuratively speaking). The allure of forbidden fruit is real, so a little bit of age-appropriate cotton candy  can be used to teach the difference between shallowness and depth, and the occasional joy of cuddling up in bed and watching one’s favorite prince or princess outwit the evil villain. Later you can find seek out the age-appropriate version of the real Pocahontas, who was not in love with John Smith but sacrificed herself more heroically simply from an inner sense of fairness. 

It all goes back to your own convictions, and communicating them calmly and respectfully to your child, trusting that if you can take the most advanced concept and put it into simple language and render it understandable.

So what are we trying to produce, if not weirdos and nerds? I think for me, my desire 24 years ago when my first child was born, was summed up in a documentary my husband saw about a Japanese woman raising her children in the aftermath of Hiroshima.  As she put her children to bed each night, she told the camera that she tried to teach them “to look beneath the surface of things.”  Above all, we will have prepared our children for life, and they will be better citizens of the world, if they know how to do that – and culture that has lasted through time is only a tool to teach our children to go deep, question the prevailing wisdom (which so often is only herd-think) and have the courage to stand alone if one must. I’m not sure one can do that without being inspired by stories of others who have, and by having the messages of courage and nobility instilled in us. So we expose our children to heroicism in the arts and history and the world – large things that capture their minds and hearts and inspire them to dream big dreams. Because one will never sacrifice without a dream as a promise to back it up.

But you can’t fake it: you have to believe at some very elemental level that the universe is on your side in this endeavor: that for all the seeming dominance of bedazzled plastic, it will ultimately turn to dust, and the good and the heroic will remain.  For some of us, this is not hard.  We believe it – we know it. For others, you may have to spend some time contemplating this concept and asking yourself what you really believe, and what is really important to you.  If you really believe that it’s more important for a girl to be popular at her school than for her to have self-respect, then you will never be able to persuade her that you aren’t just as devastated as she when she has been abandoned by the cool kids on the weekend. If you really believe that winning the football game is all-important, your son will know that when he misses the last-second field goal that you are ashamed of him and he will imagine that you prefer another child to him.

And above all, when it seems that your teenager is rejecting everything you have tried assiduously to teach him, can you keep from throwing it over yourself in your own mini-popularity contest with your own beloved child? Because although we can be flexible, we can’t be hypocrites and keep our childrens’ respect.  They will push and test and torment us, and we have to be stronger than they are.  We have to win their love by risking their scorn. We can’t tell them that reading Black Beauty is better than reading A Diamond for Tammy, and four years later ourselves be caught reading a dime-store bodice-ripper under the covers with a flashlight. 

I remember the Sunday afternoon represented in this picture very well.  We had come home from church and lunch out, and I promised Andrew, who had finished his weekend homework and had no scheduled games or other obligations, that I would set him up in front of the fire with a book. I don’t think it was his idea, and I’m pretty sure I described it using unfairly delectable phrases. But I was trying to create a certain delight in him: a cherishing of a free afternoon or evening to just sit in peace and read. Since he hadn’t yet reached the recalcitrant middle school years, he was enthusiastic about the idea. We asked his dad to drag the old wing chair in front of the dining room fireplace — the only working downstairs fireplace at the time.  From the looks of it, Dad also built the fire. Andrew chose whatever book he was reading that had him entranced, and I got a blanket for him to snuggle up in. Everyone tiptoed past the room all afternoon, and he stayed there for hours.  No music, no TV, no talk.  Just the crackling fire, a cozy chair, a blanket and a good book.  Bliss, right?

But not for many modern-day children, and why is that? I suspect it’s because they haven’t grown up ever experiencing such moments, because anymore, such moments have to be created almost artificially.  Is the TV on more than you suspect it should be? Pause a moment and think about what that constant background noise is doing to your childrens’ sensibilities. Today, at 24 and 20, my children have many friends who cannot go to sleep without the television on — because they have no experience with silence, with quiet. Then we have to ask ourselves: were people built to perform their best with a steady diet of background noise? Consider for a moment today’s epidemic levels of child and adult medication.  Is it possible that the constant drone or blare of percussive noise causes depression in people?  Think about a walk through the woods, with only the rustle of leaves or the distant sounds of rushing water?   Does that not sound soothing, therapeutic, almost like a day at the spa?  Is it any accident that “spa music” so often includes water sounds, bird sounds, ocean wave sounds — and does not, if it isn’t too elementary to point it out — include the sounds of television commercials or nighttime police dramas?

Even music can sometimes become intrusive — an unnecessary distraction from the rare calming moment of reflection and sharing with others. After a day or two of keeping with everyones’ demands — for any of us, but especially for a young child, who surely already feels a small cog in the machinery of the world — just to sit quietly with a book or one’s thoughts, and carve out the time to become inwardly centered — in short, to become friends with one’s self, and not to fear an afternoon spent only with a crackling fire and a book for companionship — is surely an antidote to the social desperation we see in so many teenagers and even, sadly, their parents. If being alone is tolerable, then we needn’t be so frightened by the possibility of friends who turn out to be fickle. If being alone is acceptable, then when the rest of the world is caving to moral expediency, we stand a chance of being the one person who won’t: we might even have a shot at being noble, even heroic.

But for a parent to create such moments in a child’s life is a militant act in our world.  It’s decidedly counter-culture, whether one swings left, right, or center. Certainly in American life, horrific noise is on all sides of the political landscape. Just look at both the Democratic and the Republican presidential conventions: the noise is so thick and deep that obviously, real thinking endangers the goals.  Noise drums up fears, hatred and anger. Noise raises money! Quiet encourages thought, tempers reactions, and quells individuals who are one step from joining the mob. Yet from casual restaurants to Hollywood special-effects extravaganzas, from 100,000-seat football stadia (which I do love!) and sold-out concert arenas, we are saturated in noise. I cannot state it more plainly: if you want your children to cherish quiet, you will have to go to some extraordinary lengths.

But the message in doing so could not be more clear: your mind and spirit are worth cultivating. I trust you to be alone with your thoughts and be nurtured by them. You are worth investing time in, all by yourself. You don’t have to have a group around to be of value. You don’t have to be living according to the agenda of histrionics set by the world.  I read recently about people building dream homes with a dozen television screens installed in a media wall, all of them running on different cable channels concurrently, like the monitors in a television newsroom.  Why do they feel the need to absorb 12 news stations simultaneously? “I might miss something,” one such homeowner said. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

But he is missing something.  He is missing the priceless treasure of his own spirit. I wonder how it might all have been different for that impoverished soul if his mother or father had just once wrapped him in a blanket, put him in a cozy chair, lit a fire in the fireplace, handed him an entrancing book, and tiptoed around him on a Sunday afternoon.

How have you encouraged quiet in the life of your child? 

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

In fact, one of the best blog posts.  Ever.

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