Someone’s walking by the open windows, staring as my 15 year old daughter is loudly demanding I listen to her point of view. I’m tired, my feet hurt, the baby is crying from the Ergo on my back while I unintentionally burn dinner, and from another room two children are screaming at each other. I sigh because I know we must sound utterly chaotic, that this stranger out the window must be thinking we are completely dysfunctional, and I’m just tired of feeling judged. I know what they’re thinking; how we need to ground that teen that’s having an argumentative emotional outburst, to spank the young ones that are screaming at each other, to put the crying baby in a crib, in a different room, behind a closed door. I know behind that glare they’re blaming me for the downfall of society, for the entitlement “problem” they feel is raging in our culture. And yet, as the sound of demonic hordes continues to reign from our windows, I stand, remedying dinner, handing the baby on my back a piece of cheese, keeping an ear tuned into the sibling fighting of the twins to make sure they work through things and don’t require intervention, all while actively listening to the heart cries of my teen daughter.
If you want to know how most of America feels about people who parent like we do, read the comment section of any article on parenting, children, or juvenile delinquents where you’ll hear opinions like, “The world would be a better place if all kids were spanked,” “Sure, spanking is a choice. So is raising entitled brats with no life skills or coping mechanisms,” “The ‘I am my child’s friend’ mentality is much more detrimental to a child than a rap on the backside,” and “The lack of spanking is why this generation lacks respect.” Physical authoritarianism reigns as the parenting style of choice in our culture, and yet it is also this culture that rages about kids these days and their sense of entitlement. I call bs.
When I was a fairly new parent, we went to dinner at someone’s house. They had three children and were very authoritarian in their parenting. During the few hours that we were at their house, we were consistently bombarded with the underlying message this family lived by; that children were less than adults. Steak and hot dogs were barbecued, and when it came time to eat, adults were served while the children waited. When it finally was the children’s turn to get their dinner, hot dogs were placed on their plates. My daughter said she wanted steak instead and was told by our host that steak was for grown ups, she could have a hot dog or nothing. Kids were consistently treated as a nuisance, told to be quiet if they tried to join a conversation, to leave and play elsewhere when adults moved into a new room, and reprimanded for every childish behavior. At one point in the night, an argument over what game to play broke out between two of their children, and they were immediately scolded, spanked, and sent to their bedrooms. The look on my kid’s faces when they witnessed their friends being hit on the backside by their father was unforgettable. They just could not understand what was happening or why.
After the spanking incident and my children’s obvious disturbed reaction, these parents with years of experience on us turned the conversation to child rearing. They explained the importance of spanking and the “proper” way to do it. The dad ended the conversation with something I will never forget. He said, “If a day goes by where I haven’t spanked at least one of my kids, I have failed as a parent that day.”
I was appalled. I went home that night wondering if I was the worst parent on earth for not parenting my children this way. Maybe I needed to put my foot down. Maybe we needed to implement the concepts that “what I say goes,” and “because I’m the parent and you’re the child.” I held my twins, rocking them to sleep in the old wooden rocker that squeaked softly, whispers of comfort from mamas to their babies down through the years. Their little eyes began to close, lips slightly parted as they tend to do when sleep creeps in. My children just a wee bit bigger sat nearby looking quietly at books, giggling here and there. I cried imagining spanking them, their little faces turning to tears at my hand delivering pain instead of gentleness and comfort. It was not a picture I ever, ever wanted to imagine again. And so I took the concept of adult superiority and the philosophy of authoritarianism, and trashed them.
We determined to treat our children as human beings, deserving of respect. We determined to let them have their voice. We determined to set an honest example of imperfect humans, talking through things with our kids, changing our minds if they were able to present a valid case, apologizing when we screwed up. We looked at ourselves, at what we positively and negatively responded to as people, and determined that harsh authority and negative feedback were harmful to us, only causing us to pull away from the negativity, and thus decided to guide our children the way that we would receive guidance and advice from others; positive reinforcement, gentle guidance/advice, help through decision making, honest discussion about cause and effect, simplicity of life, and more than anything, positive, healthy relationships to turn to. These things motivated us, as adults, to do better, make necessary changes, choose right, and we were convinced that children, as smaller people but people just the same, would respond the same way. That building an atmosphere of fear and inequality would not raise kids up to be strong, compassionate, kind, determined people, but building an atmosphere of trust, security, and love would.
Over the years we have walked alongside our children, communicating every step of the way. People are almost always under the wrong impression about this; they see one thing, a surface behavior, and think that we are being passive, permissive, push overs. The problem with this is that they’re missing the underlying philosophy, the day to day, the behind the scenes conversations. It looks a little like this: At an event I am having a conversation with some friends when one of my kids comes up to me and asks me if she can do something. My initial response, without much thought, is no. She whines a little bit, then gets ahold of herself and tells me why she wants to do this thing and why she thinks it would be fine. I listen to her and decide that what she is asking is fine, her explanation makes sense, and that I had no reason to deny this to her. So I change my mind and tell her that she can. The people I was conversing with only see me tell my child no, then give in when my child whines and asks again. What they miss is the philosophy that permeates our family that everyone has a voice, that sometimes mommy and daddy make the wrong decision, that we can kindly and calmly converse with one another, sharing thoughts, feelings, ideas. What they miss is our hug and conversation when we get home about how they did a good job communicating their wants, but to remember to do so without whining first next time, that mommy and daddy will always listen, even if they don’t change their minds, and so the whining is never necessary. What they are missing is the trust in our home, the understanding that there will be no arbitrary “no” answers, and the simplicity stemming from that; our children try to be accepting when we say no in finality because they know that if we are firm in it, we have a reason, they trust because we will listen and change our minds if it was arbitrary at first. As most people focus on outside behavior when dealing with children, they only notice the surface of what is happening with us and are quick to judge.
While the idea runs rampant that kids these days are filled with a sense of entitlement and void of any sense of respect and responsibility, parents like us often find themselves being blamed. There’s no logic behind it; they say most kids have this problem due to a lack of discipline, and yet 81% of American parents still spank their children. They say the Millennial generation is a bunch of spoiled, entitled adults and are a reflection of the “lax, no discipline” parenting that they were given, and yet an even larger number of Millennials were spanked and traditionally parented as kids. It’s bs.
Where does the child get this idea to put their own needs before those of others, where do they learn to entertain themselves and shun hard work, where do they learn to grasp for power and ease in their own lives while showing disdain for the lives of others, where do they learn to put on a show of kindness and obedience for certain company? I venture to think that if so many of today’s children and young adults have issues in areas of entitlement, disrespect, and laziness, this comes from the predominant parenting style in America, authoritarianism, and the way of life that is flaunted as most desired, which stems from consumerism and materialism.
When parents are serving themselves the best food and offering less than to their children, they are teaching their kids to look out for themselves first. When they are forcing their kids to clean up after meals while they sit and watch television, they are teaching them that others should work while they enjoy themselves. When parents want kids to stay out of adult conversation or to leave the room adults are in, they are teaching them that children are not as important, that the little guy, the minority, anyone who doesn’t fit their mold, is not as important as they are. When they are imposing their will and not giving a voice to their kids, they teach them to do the same to others. When they hit, shame, or otherwise punish their kids, they teach them that outer behaviors are all that matter, to put on an appearance of goodness out of fear, and that violence and cruelty to others solves problems. In fact, if you take the time to consider how each lamented behavior reflects what authoritarian parents typically do to their children, you would probably be shocked at how similar they are.
Children are people, and it has been proven time and again that people learn by example, not by punishment. That working alongside someone, listening to them, building trust, teaches them and encourages them to do their best, succeed, work hard, and to treat others well.
There’s no perfection or absolute bliss from parenting in an intentional, mindful way. In fact it can get loud and be incredibly difficult. When you have a house full of opinionated humans who are all respected and all given a voice, there will be disagreements and many times of chaos. Because ideas conflict and wants butt heads, because someone has their feelings hurt or kids can’t decide who gets what toy, and instead of silencing every conflict with a spanking or sending people away, we delve into it, let people express themselves, talk and listen until we get to the root of things and work something out. It’s a lot of tiring work, this business of talking to your children and letting them be people. A lot of work. But so incredibly worth it.
I’m standing in the kitchen, the stranger outside has moved on. Just like most people, he doesn’t see the ending, he doesn’t see the process. He has only seen the chaos, the moment when we look crazy. The wind is blowing gently in and with it, a calm has settled. The baby is quietly eating cheese in the Ergo, the twins have resolved on their own whatever disagreement they had and are now giggling loudly from their bedroom, and my teen daughter is thanking me. She is thanking me for listening to her, for allowing her a safe space to vent and say what she needs to say. We are laughing over something one of the kids says and she is grabbing cheese off the cutting board and eating it, then offering to grate more for me. There is a peace in our home and relationships are good, and I think of that stranger walking in the darkening evening, judging us. I decide it’s okay, I’d rather be judged and not understood, I’d rather be torn apart in a comments section, than to not have these beautiful, open, respectful relationships with my kids, and to not be raising strong, independent, compassionate humans like I am.