Almost as soon as our firstborn was caught by the Doctor and swaddled up in a tiny blanket, I started to read books on how to do this parenting thing. I have come across many different ideologies for raising kids in the years that followed. Most of the early literature that I read started down the path of “training” your children. “Discipline” was paramount, and controlling the behavior of infants and toddlers was the goal. As I sifted through some of these books, it occurred to me that controlling our children was more for the parent’s sanity, than for the good of the child. Many of us may have been raised this way in some form or another. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” was a mantra that I had heard before, and to some people raised in that manner, it may be the only way to “get” your children to do what you want them to do.
But there was one thing that nagged at me early on. I did not want my kids to ever fear me or to fear adults in general. I did not want my kids to fear that what they were doing would bring anger, hostility, or punishment from me. I wanted them to know they are loved unconditionally and valued as people, all the time.
So how do we control them without punishment? Is it possible? If you are looking for that magical answer at this point, you are going to be disappointed.
There is no doubt in my mind that as adults and parents we can control children through a series of punishments and rewards. The question is, should we? And for 8 to 10 years, you may have a model child who listens, obeys and does not act up in any given situation. Other parents speak highly of your children’s manners and you are happy with how your kids “behave”. But as kids get older, it becomes tougher and tougher to control them. They start to learn that they have a voice and they no longer want to be controlled. It is the inevitability of human nature. So, for the most formative years of their lives, they are controlled, punished, put in timeout, but did not learn one thing about self-regulation or how to handle big emotions. They just know that they have been bad. How is lacking self -control going to help them in their teen years?
I get angry with my children. I am not claiming that they are not incredibly frustrating at times. How I react in those moments of anger and frustration is the most important thing, I believe. I think children generally want to do well. They rarely intentionally try to upset or anger us as parents. The reason why they can frustrate us is that often they are busy doing their own thing and do not understand why what they are doing is “wrong” (as labeled by adults) or, why they would have to stop the activity. It makes them incredibly frustrated when they are told that they have to leave the playground or not eat that chocolate bar. Melting down may ensue, (by both parents and children in some instances.) But as young children, it is developmentally appropriate to be extremely upset at things adults may see as “little things”.
Imagine being at a restaurant with your friends, having a good time, watching the superbowl. The game is tied at the two minute warning. It’s a great atmosphere, the food is good, the beer tastes fantastic and then your significant other calls you and says it’s time to go. No emergency, it’s just time to go. Personally, I would be upset, and I might even beg for 5 more minutes, or at least until after the game. Even if I was permitted 5 more minutes, I still would not really be happy to leave.
The difference between myself in the Super Bowl situation, and my daughter having to leave the park, is that she screams bloody murder if she has to leave before she is ready. That is intensely annoying and frustrating for me, but age appropriate for her.
Many people at this point feel that now at this young age is the time they need to be “trained” or “taught”. The thinking is that if they are not taught to “behave” at a young age, they will be melting down at 13, 14 or 15 years old, maybe even as adults. I have a different view based on some of the fantastic books and blogs that I have been reading over the years.
I really try to empathize with my kids when they are upset. It does not necessarily help them to stop being upset, but it does give them a voice, it tells them I am listening and it tells them I understand. How they act as 4 year olds is not how they will act as 8 year olds if we give them a chance to develop the internal regulation that will come naturally to most.
I try my best to react with empathy and compassion as often as I can when our children get upset. I don’t always manage to do this. The demands of work, laundry, cleaning, homework, driving to activities, lack of sleep etc. will sometimes upset my applecart. And it’s not pretty. But all I ask of myself is that I try my best. The kids are counting on me.
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