Judging from the size of the parenting section of bookstores and the ever-presence of this content on the web, everyone seems to feel qualified giving advice about parenting skills. But even though we’ve heard it all by now, I must drop a bit of my own experience into this bucket, overflowing though it may already be.
About the behavior of our kids, I bend my wife’s ear so often that she’s bound to develop the cauliflowered earflap of a wrestler. Though the image of her in bright red, tank-top tights is unexpectedly arousing, I would prefer such a reality be the result of her reading the Fifty Shades trilogy and not from a shameful conversation about parentile dysfunction.
At the top of my litany of complaints to her is dinnertime, an experience she is often spared since she gets home from work later. It’s not because of my two kids fighting all things green and leafy, thereby ruining my Rockwellian ideal of the American family dinner. Rather, I came to dread dinner because my shortcomings as a parent were exposed for all to see like the burnt and grotesque holiday turkey carved right on the table.
Although things get more chaotic in the summer, in truth, the standards I’ve had for their behavior at the table and elsewhere, both while in school and out, were poorly defined. Worse still, I would often communicate them to my children after things got emotional, after they tore down the veneer of “command presence” that I tried so hard to maintain. So, not surprisingly, I would wear down and abandon my entrenched position in hopes of re-taking it “when things calmed down,” leaving a void that each of them filled with their voracious appetite for entitlement and, together, we would spoil.
Each summer, we have the privilege of joining our friends Lori and Andrew and their two boys at the beach for a week. From this time we spend together, I have come to recognize that they are exceptional parents. They define expectations for behavior, they do it calmly, and they explain why it is important that their children understand. And when one of them misbehaves, as they do at times, the consequences are clear and they are enforced with little emotion. It’s not personal. They let the standards do the talking, and then: Exit, stage left. No yelling, very little whining and talkback, and the kids actually accept the consequences!
Unfortunately, this contrast to my “style” made my vacation less than pleasant last year. Despite them demonstrating for me a better way, for seven straight days, all I saw was that damn turkey.
But this year, I paid attention to what they did and how they did it. And after returning from the beach earlier this summer, my wife and I began a more clear, expectation-driven, proactive, and relatively unemotional system to guide the behavior of not only our children but for us as well.
The difference was, no exaggeration, immediate and has continued since. With a calm explaination to my son how behavior has a consequence, focusing on the good behavior that earns privileges with occasional warnings about the opposite, there is little conflict. During bad spells there is, of course, still some emotion. But what used to be a poisonous air lingering over both me and him for up to hours, it doesn’t last very long anymore. It really doesn’t.
I do believe that, in their own way, my kids appreciate this. We were all tired of the cycle of anger, then silence, then anger, etc. And the moments of crisis, or so they appeared to be through that old lens, are even necessary for both the practice of the parent and the understanding of the child.
For me, all the advice and information I’d heard about parenting didn’t stand a chance against my unaware mind. It took paying attention, some doing, and, of course, a good example. And for that I thank my friends Lori and Andrew and their boys.