Where no one is an adversary
I remember when I was pregnant with Johannah (second child), friends threw a baby shower for me and another pregnant friend. The main gift from the party organizers was a wooden spoon to each of us. Instead of party games, two women gave “talks” to us about the importance of spanking, discipline, and “instant obedience” (what I later came to call “spanking on command”).
As a young woman (only 27 at the time), I smiled a lot, laughed at their jokes (which made me inwardly cringe), and pretended that stories of spankings and childishness framed as rebellion were entertaining. I also wondered if I might be wrong—that nurturing, co-sleeping, responding to a baby’s needs, expending physical energy to restrain a toddler—were naive choices. After all, these moms were more experienced and they seemed convinced that children needed training to become civilized people.
I gave spoon-spankings a shot. Results: I saw no behavioral improvements. Time outs were a joke for Noah—I’d put him in a bathroom and he’d follow me out of it. What then?
It didn’t take long to see that this approach—this requirement that my children cooperate with my version of how life should be lived—would change how I saw my children. I became aware that the more I felt “disobeyed” or “disrespected” or “ignored,” the less I could enjoy my kids as they were. I was evaluating them all the time, trying to shape and control how they behaved toward me and others. I found myself inwardly resenting them for making me spank them!
I had thoughts like, “How can you disobey me when you know you’ll get spanked and you know that I don’t want to spank you?” It became ridiculous—these layers of resentment that expanded as I became exhausted and disillusioned.
I gave up spanking. Obviously.
My children are adults now (all but one). I’m struck by the fact that they are basically the same people they were as toddlers. A requirement of “obedience” doesn’t fundamentally alter the temperament, the personality, the perspective of a person. It makes all those things go underground, in many cases, which is unhealthy.
Ironically, I also spent time with friends whose kids “ran amuck.” It was as though the parents weren’t present or were afraid to interfere in any way with their kids’ choices. I remember a mom friend who kept a big box of junk food in her child’s bedroom because the child asked for it. 10 cavities later…
My perspective on mothering is this: the key factor in relating to your kids is building trust.
Your children have to know if they have a need, desire, concern, perspective, fantasy, wish, fear, or difficult to manage mood, they will have a receptive, loving, partner in you. They need to believe that most of the time, you will help them get what they need/want… and that when you can’t or don’t, you aren’t judging them as bad or shaming them for admitting what it is they crave or taking things personally, just because their ideas of “good” don’t match yours.
If you build trust, it’s possible to say “no” occasionally. Your kids know that you are for them, and that you want them to have what’s good for them, but also what feels good to them. The occasional “no” will come from the perspective of maturity, not a reaction of offense (you are disobeying! you aren’t trustworthy! your values are scary to me!).
Will your kids always agree with your “no”? Of course not. But a relationship that has goodwill in it, that is able to hear all the words and feelings about the “no” without disrupting the loving connection, can withstand parental direction. Your children do expect you to say “no” sometimes. You just have to spend the currency of trust carefully, wisely. You can’t “run things” all the time, without accounting for your child’s needs/wants, or you will go into “trust-debt.”
That’s when the family feels strained and stressed, and you can’t figure out how to get back to happy and peaceful and cooperative. To recover from that strain, go back to listening and facilitating what your kids envision for their happiness.
Bottom line: Live in such a way that your kids know you want them to have a happy, free, filled-with-good-things life.
Give to them freely, generously, selflessly.
Save your “no’s” for danger, impossibility, harming someone else.
Help your kids get what they want, even when it seems messy or absurd or off-task or silly.
Listen to the reasoning your child presents with curiosity and open-mindedness.
Everyone: get enough sleep, eat healthy foods, touch each other lots every day, make eye-contact, declare pride in your child, ask for help and give help, remove the concepts of punishment and “obedience” from your vocabulary.
Get to know the people you live with; become fascinated by them; learn from them; protect them.
Everything falls into place when you genuinely like each other and no one is seen as an adversary.