Monday, July 7, 2014

[peaceful parenting] A Critical Look at Five Reasons

I tend to avoid HuffPo most days as it really is just another fluff site thinly disguising itself as news.  But several FB friends were sharing a particular article on parenting fails, so I clicked.  And I soon regretted it.  

The article is titled 5 Reasons Modern-Day Parenting Is in Crisis, According to a British Nanny.  It might as well have been titled 5 Reasons to Be a D*ck to Children, According to a Judgmental Child-minder.  I’ll explain.

The author’s first reason today’s parents are lousy: some of us actually value our children’s preferences.  She writes:

“I have what I think of as "the sippy cup test," wherein I will observe a parent getting her toddler a cup of milk in the morning. If the child says, "I want the pink sippy cup, not the blue!" yet the mum has already poured the milk into the blue sippy cup, I watch carefully to see how the parent reacts. More often than not, the mum's face whitens and she rushes to get the preferred sippy cup before the child has a tantrum. Fail! What are you afraid of, mum? Who is in charge here? Let her have a tantrum, and remove yourself so you don't have to hear it. But for goodness' sake, don't make extra work for yourself just to please her -- and even more importantly, think about the lesson it teaches if you give her what she wants because she's thrown a fit.”  (emphasis mine)

She is trying to make the point that modern parents are afraid of upsetting their kids, she instead comes off sounding like an insensitive shrew.  I’m not afraid of extra work, nor is there any doubt who is the parent and who the child in my relationship with my son.  But here’s the deal, if I always opt to go the easy route to avoid extra work, I’m showing my son that his opinions, his preferences, are unimportant.  

In fact, we had a similar struggle this morning.  Temperatures are warming up in my town.  Our house lacks air conditioning, our television puts of a LOT of heat.  Declan woke and immediately wanted to play on the Xbox.  I didn’t want to deal with the extra heat.  Instead of just telling him to suck it up, and letting him tantrum, we talked.  I made sure that his preferences were acknowledged.  I explained my position, he his.  And we compromised.  We kept the TV off during the hottest part of the day, turned it on when it cooled off.  Sure, he got upset a few times.  But we’re establishing a supportive relationship—not one where I rule and he obeys, period.  

Ironically, after alluding that modern children are somehow incapability of compromise, the author has this to say in Reason #2:

“Children are capable of much more than parents typically expect from them, whether it's in the form of proper manners, respect for elders, chores, generosity or self-control. You don't think a child can sit through dinner at a restaurant? Rubbish. You don't think a child can clear the table without being asked? Rubbish again! The only reason they don't behave is because you haven't shown them how and you haven't expected it! It's that simple. Raise the bar and your child shall rise to the occasion.”

Wait… so my kid is somehow incapable of being reasoned with in Reason #1, but now they’re capable of it in Reason #2?  Now, I agree that kids are capable of quite a lot.  But I also recognize that my three year old has a less developed brain than I do.  (Quiet, Peanut Gallery!)  I do us both a disservice when I expect him to perform cognitively as well as I do.  

Additionally, there is the subtext to both of these Reasons that really bothers me: that the relationship between parent and child is a relationship where one party is in charge, and the other party is subservient.  Frankly, that is not the sort of relationship that I want from my kids.  I don’t want my children to blindly “obey” me, or anyone.  I want my children to listen, to think, to decide, and then act.  Not to just “do” without consideration beyond, “well, **authority figure** told me to do so.”  I recognize that I may be alone on this one, but I want our relationship to be one of mutual love and support.  Not blind adherence to a pecking order.

In Reason #3, the author actually makes some points that I agree with.  She claims that most folks are too afraid of backlash to assist in situations where a child has behaved in an inappropriate manner.  That today’s parents are so convinced that their kids are perfect that any stranger stepping in is unwelcome.  While it may be true that folks no longer swat at stranger’s kids, I would not go so far as to claim that the problem is mom and dad's deluded idea of the brilliance of their kids.  Rather, I think it's the fear of lawsuit for hitting a stranger's children.  Frankly, I'm glad of that.  Yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of glares from strangers, and I’ve also had folks kindly smile and give me a few reassuring words.  That’s a much better thing in my mind than the “good old days” when the neighbor felt it their duty to punish, and perhaps even spank my kids.

Do take this away from her Reason #3, though: “If a child is having a tantrum… observers should … be saying, "Hey, good work -- I know setting limits is hard.”  I agree.

Ready for Reason #4?  This one sounds good on the surface, were it not for the notion that again, children are not allowed to have a preference that is given value.  Here the author chides modern parents for using technology to soothe their kids.  Well, that advice is bang-on-trend with her established pattern of being a d*ck to kids.  Instead of acknowledging my child’s desire to entertain himself with a tablet, I’m again supposed to let him suck it up and get used to it.  She writes:

“Children must still learn patience. They must still learn to entertain themselves. They must still learn that not all food comes out steaming hot and ready in three minutes or less, and ideally they will also learn to help prepare it. Babies must learn to self-soothe instead of sitting in a vibrating chair each time they're fussy. Toddlers need to pick themselves up when they fall down instead of just raising their arms to mum and dad.“

Ugh.  She lost me at “self-soothe.”  Sounds way too much like the Cry It Out folks to my liking.  Need I point out some of the problems with Cry It Out?  Here’s a quote from an article from Psychology Today about it:

“With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted---that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated person who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”

Okay, back to criticizing Reason #3: Time for a confession.  When I’ve been in a situation where I’ve had to endure a wait, I’ve found some pretty neat shortcuts for myself.  I’ve pulled out a book to distract myself.  I’ve caught up on emails on my phone.  I’ve journaled.  But according to the author, allowing my kid to do the same thing is somehow a disservice?  It really doesn’t make sense to me.

We finish with Reason #5, a brilliant culmination of the underlying hostility to kids presented in most of the other reasons: Parents put their children's needs ahead of their own. 

Surprise!  Yes, yes, I do.  If I wasn’t prepared to put someone’s needs before mine, I wouldn’t have become a parent.  Parenting is hard.  It is.  Really.  Really hard, sometimes.  But it is also a choice—and I completely, wholeheartedly respect anyone who says, “no thanks,” to the idea of parenthood.  It isn’t selfish to chose not to have kids.  But it is pretty selfish to chose to be a parent, but then chose to put yourself always first. 

To her credit, the author begins this reason thusly: “Naturally, parents are wired to take care of their children first, and this is a good thing for evolution! I am an advocate of adhering to a schedule that suits your child's needs, and of practices like feeding and clothing your children first.”  But then she loses me when she continues with: “But parents today have taken it too far, completely subsuming their own needs and mental health for the sake of their children.”

Yes, I have actually fetched my son’s water bottle when he was perfectly capable of doing it himself.  But I’ve also done the same for my spouse, and he for me.  Sometimes we do things out of love and because we want to show our love than for convenience or ease.  

Now, the author here suggests some decent advice: 

There is nothing wrong with not going to your child when she wants yet another glass of water at night. There's nothing wrong with that dad at the zoo saying, "Absolutely you can have something to drink, but you must wait until we pass the next drinking fountain." There is nothing wrong with using the word "No" on occasion, nothing wrong with asking your child to entertain herself for a few minutes because mummy would like to use the toilet in private or flick through a magazine for that matter.”

I agree.  But there is also nothing wrong when I get up from my comfortable seat to walk across the room to hand my son the water bottle that was slightly out of reach for my kid.  It helps to grow our supportive relationship, just as occasionally saying, “Yes, I’ll play as soon as I am finished,” helps to show that I value him, his preferences, but also my own.  It’s a subtle difference, but it’s there.

In short, the article isn’t terrible.  It isn’t.  Maybe I was overstating things in summarizing her article as 5 Ways to be a D*ck to Kids, but then you probably wouldn't have read this. ;)  The author's approach isn’t the way that I want to raise my kids, because I clearly value a supportive relationship over a domineering one.  There are moments in my parenting where my behavior will seemingly overlap the behavior of a parent who does value a “because I’m the mom, that’s why” relationship.  While the practice may look alike at times, the principles are different.  

How would I suggest that moms and dads improve their parenting?  Hmm, I don’t know that I could break it down into five bite-sized pieces of advice.  But some of what would say might look like this:

  1. Decide what sort of relationship you want with your kids.  
  2. Implement behaviors that support that relationship.
  3. Value principles over arbitrary rules.
  4. Be kind to one another.

Hey, look at that.  I guess I almost did break it down into five little nuggets!

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