Friday, June 28, 2013

What You're Teaching Your Kids (Whether You Think You Are Or Not)

Although I try to avoid Wal-Mart, which is the Evil Empire, I was compelled to go there yesterday, since our local Harp's does not carry tabouli  (WTF, Harps?) and it is so hot here now and we have so many ripe tomatoes out of our garden that really I could fix nothing else for dinner that night.

So I park the car.  The AC is not working, by the way.  Well.  It works when the weather is cool -- say, no hotter than 90 degrees.  But once we get above 90 (it was 104 here yesterday) that's it.

I leave the windows open and trudge toward the giant Wall, as we call it here.  The heat is blistering.  About halfway across the giant parking lot, I cross paths with a family heading toward their car: A young father, surrounded by four young daughters, all as white blond as he is, all as skinny as he is. The oldest girl is maybe eleven. Trailing behind him, his equally skinny and equally tow-headed wife, with the two youngest children, both boys.  The youngest is perhaps two. Maybe three.

The wife, exasperated, obviously exhausted, is trying to pick up the youngest, who though he looks very unhappy, is not actually crying.  "Will you take him?" she calls to her husband, about ten yards ahead of her and walking fast.  "He wants you!"

"Nope," he says, without looking back.  "I don't want him.  He's a crybaby."  He snorts and adds, "I've seen girls cry less than him."

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Why am I telling you this story?

I mean, besides how it made me sad, not just for those four beautiful girls walking around him, or for his wife -- what really broke my heart was that the little boy wasn't crying. At two years old, he's already learned to kill his emotions.

But I am sad for the father, too.  You have to know he learned to parent that way from his father, from the men in his life, and probably from the women too, who in turn learned it from their parents.  This is a direct and real-life example of How The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too.

And yet.

Though I understand why he is how he is, though I understand his circumstances, still they are the parents.  It is their job to parent.  And parenting is an actual job, one that you -- the parent -- need to put actual work into.  You can't say (as many people do) this is what my daddy did, here's how my mama handled it, it was good enough for them, it's good enough for me.

It's true that some of the parenting practices of our parents were just fine.  But some of them were not. It's our job, as parents, to figure out which are worth using and which are not.

An analogy I like to use is buying a toaster.  This is because I once watched my father (the NASA Engineer -- he actually did work for NASA during the years we built those rockets that went to the moon) buy a toaster.  He did not just go out and pick out a toaster at TGX.  No, he did weeks of research, consulting Consumer Reports and reading up on various brands of toasters and consulting with everyone he knew about their experience with this toaster and that...I don't remember the toaster we bought, but it was the right toaster. Pretty much every purchase he made, he made that way.

And I remember later, as an adult, looking back on my childhood and wondering why he didn't approach child-rearing with the same care: why he would put more thought and diligence into a buying a toaster than into caring for his children.

And, as with the guy in the Wal-Mart parking lot, I cut he and my mother some slack.  They were 19 and 21 when they married, 20 and 22 when they became parents.  That wasn't even old enough to vote (for one of them) at the time, so, well.

But on the other hand, it was their job.  When it's your job, you better learn to do it right.  When he was helping to build those rockets, he wouldn't have said, oh, I'm only 20, cut me some slack.  No, he took that job seriously.

And that's my main point, I guess.  Parenting is a job, as important as building bridges or rockets or ads that sell shoes to adolescents.  Take it seriously.

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That's one of the main things Dr. Skull and I decided to do, when we decided to have a child.

And that is another thing we did -- we made the decision to have a child, and we made the decision to have one child. Becoming a parent probably should not be something you happen into, anymore than being an engineer or a teacher is something you happen into.  Although, to be fair, I did accidentally become a university professor.

We decided to make parenting decisions based not on how we had been raised, but on what were the best parenting practices available.  We did research, in other words.

(And we still do research, by the way, we continue to do research.  Whenever we have a problem or a parenting issue, we do research on what might be the best answer or the best approach.  I mean, we don't just take our very best shot, because what the hell, it's just a kid, after all, they're really hard to break!)

So -- for instance -- we decided early on that I would nurse the child, since research shows that children who are breastfed do better in any number of ways. This was actually my decision, obviously, since I was the one who would have to do it, and be inconvenienced the most by it.  But Dr. Skull was very much in favor of it.  And in fact I ended up breastfeeding for almost three years, despite a great deal of negative commentary, mostly from my family. ("Oh my God, haven't you weaned that child yet?" "I thought you quit doing that when they got teeth."  "Isn't it sort of freaky, doing that with a kid that talks?")

And we decided that we would never use violence in discipline -- this meant, obviously, no hitting.  But also no yelling, and in so far as possible, no punishing.

You won't believe the outrage this parenting decision caused among (again) mostly my family. Our discipline method, from the time the kid was very small, was basically the time-out*.  It's not a punishment, when done right, which is something which escapes most people.

[What?  But how can that be?  You have to punish children!  How will they learn not to run in the street or touch hot stoves or or or....

Yeah, no.  You don't have to punish children (or anyone) and research shows in fact that punishment does not work and in fact creates extremely negative effects -- that is, being punished can slow learning, can cause more mistakes to be made, can create an anxious or defiant child.  The brain under stress (punishment creates stress) has trouble learning.  There is also some evidence that the growing brain, under the stress of punishment (especially physical punishment) grows badly, failing to develop as many connections or as much grey matter as the unpunished child's brain.]

A time-out, done properly, take a child who is having some sort of issue, and removes her from the situation, giving her time to recover herself.  So let's say when the kid was three, and going through her terrible stage, where she had frequent melt-downs over everything -- because, well, that's what three year old do.  So when I said time to clear off the table**, we're having dinner, and she says she needs to finish drawing her dinosaur and I say, okay, five minute warning, and then we need to clear up -- and then five minutes later, she still wants to keep drawing, and begins to scream like she's been murdered because no, dinosaur! -- what do I do?

I say, "You need a time out, sweetness."  I say it firmly and politely.  If she doesn't go to the time-out chair on her own, I pick her up and take her there.  I don't make any kind of an issue over it.  There's no scolding, no guilting.  She just gets transported (as we used to call it).  If she's three, she's there for three minutes.  If she's five, she's there for five.

(But what if she won't stay?  Well, my kid always stayed.  IME, if you don't make your kid into your enemy, which you do by hitting them and yelling at them and treating them like they're little thieves, they mostly will want to please you and do what you say.  But if they don't stay, then you keep putting them back until they do stay, without yelling, without scolding, without making it into a fight.  Just put them back and keep putting them back.  It's not about punishment.  It's about letting them get their angst out of their system.)

Once her time was up, I would say, "Okay, babycakes, you can get up.  Come help me with this salad, will you?"  Or whatever.  We didn't talk about how wicked she was, or why she should be sorry, because she wasn't wicked, and it wasn't about punishment.  It was about letting her calm down.

Plus, she already knew it was unacceptable behavior -- it's why she was being removed from the kitchen.  No need to treat her a criminal.

"How is that punishment!" my relatives always said. "What does that teach her!"

It teaches your child that you love her, and you care about her, and you want to teach her to act right.  It teaches her that you think she's a fellow human being, not someone you're interested in humiliating and dominating.

That's the other big thing we decided really early on: that we would always treat our child like a fellow human being, a full-fledged member of the family.  Not an object.  Not a pet.  Not a belonging.  Yes, we were in charge.  But no, that didn't mean her opinion and her feelings were worthless.  So we have always let her speak; we have always let her argue with us; she always knows she can object to our decisions and -- if she makes a good case -- have those decisions changed.

And we are her advocates.  When the school situation was not working out, we went to school and we were on her side.  This does not mean that we decided beforehand that the teachers were idiots and the teachers were wrong and that our special snowflake had to be right.  But it did mean we were on her side, and we were going to work to be certain she was not being mis-taught or mistreated (because that is also your job as a parent).

And when she came to us with questions about what she was being taught in school, particularly in the areas of science and history (as, this being Arkansas, she did), yeah, we were her advocates there, too. We made sure she got supplements to the miseducation she was getting at school. And -- eventually -- we decided homeschooling might be a better option, at least for awhile.  (An atheist Jewish child who won't stop arguing, because she's been taught that arguing is appropriate behavior, and who also is not afraid that her parents are going to punish her, because she knows they won't, is not an especially good fit for your Arkansas school, even if that school is the most liberal school we could find to put her in.)

My final bit of advice: Listen. Make yourself available. If you've done your job right, and there aren't any serious other issues -- because yes, there can be, and I know I'm lucky that there are not -- your child will want to talk to you, about everything, essentially. Be willing to hear, be willing to take what they have to tell you seriously.  Engage with them.  This is the most important thing in your life right now.  Act like it.

Oh -- also: I'm not one of those parents who holds with monitoring your child's FB account or reading her email or logging onto her Tumblr account.  In my opinion, if you have to do crap like that, it means you've already failed.  Why do you have to sneak around and spy on your child?  Why isn't she already telling you everything?  Or, well, everything that's your business.

(I hate to break this to you, but some things are not your business, and that's why you should not be reading your kid's FB or her email, or snooping around on any of her pages, unless she asks you to.  Would you read her diary?  And if you would, what kind of a horrible person are you?  Not a good role model, I'll tell you that much.)

That's all I got.  Feel free to add your advice in the comments!

**Occasionally we also used logical consequences.  Like if the kid climbed on something she shouldn't be climbing on, I'd let her do it -- if it wasn't really dangerous, obviously, but just stupid.  This drove Dr. Skull nuts.  "She's going to fall," he'd exclaim.

"Right," I said.  "That will teach her not to climb on things she shouldn't climb on.  She can't learn from experience if we don't let her have experience."

This also applies, by the way, to the hot stove question.  I mean, obviously, yes, don't let your toddler play by an open fire.  But if that toddler actually does touch a hot oven and burns her finger, that's much, much better than you beating that toddler to teach her not to touch a hot stove.  One is logical consequences, and actually teaches the toddler not to touch a stove -- and a burnt finger won't kill her.  The other is her mother, who is supposed to love her, beating her for no reason she actually understands: that teaches her nothing except that her mother, who is her sole source of safety and stability in the entire world, cannot be trusted.

OBVIOUSLY, don't leave hot stoves open, turn your pot handles around so toddlers can't grab them, keep toddlers from the kitchen when you're deep frying, and so on.  But really: once you've spanked your toddler for getting near the hot stove, would you then let her frolic near the pot of boiling grease?  If not, do you really believe beating your kid has taught her anything?

**This is also probably a key point, one of my best parenting tips: Have very few rules. Kids don't like being told what to do (who does, really?) so only make rules that absolutely have to be made.  We really only have a couple at House Delagar: Mom & Dad are in charge.  You have to brush your teeth.  You have to go to Aikido (up until she was 14 -- we let her quit then). Um...I'm pretty sure that's it. When she was little, I also had a rule about wearing socks with shoes in the winter, but how she dresses herself now is up to her.  It was mostly up to her then -- I mean, I made her wear clothes. And socks in winter.  But from the time she was about three, what she wore (out of the available clothing in her closet) was her decision.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like your parenting philosophy is a lot like ours. Though we add on an additional layer of laziness... after the research suggested to listening to instincts, we figured we could do that.

It also helps that we were mostly brought up without spanking etc. ourselves, so that's what we naturally gravitate to. And we watched an awful lot of supernanny before having kids.

But there's a wide variety of parenting where kids grow up just fine. I do hate the dads accusing their kids of being feminine though. Once as a teenager I saw a tiny little man bitching out his must have been 4 or 5 year old son for asking for a pendant from the museum gift shop because he didn't raise his son to be a girly boy who wore necklaces. I walked up to him and told him that my 6 foot tall manly boyfriend wore pendants. He spluttered at me. I wouldn't do that today, but as a teenager I thought I could change the world for the better.

delagar said...

Yeah, I get a little dogmatic in this post, don't I.

I got hit a lot as a kid (a lot) and I've got other issues (for other reasons) with parents attacking their kids verbally.

And though I know you're right -- that kids can survive a lot -- I really do think many parents could stand to be more active/thoughtful in how they parent.

I mean, for certain values of fine, *I'm* fine.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I'd like to be your kid.

My parents were mostly on board with your principles, actually, partly from thinking it through and partly because my older sibs wore them out, so by the time I was growing up, they were definitely on the minimal-rules page. So it's not like I'm saying this because I wish I'd been better treated as a kid. I guess I mean I would hate to go back and be a kid again anyway, but if I had to, I could probably stand it if you were my parent!

nenk said...


Dana said...

I'm booking this for future reference, when my girlfriend and I decide to procreate.