Monday, August 12, 2013

Stop Making Monsters!

There are few things in life more annoying than other people's kids.

It's probably not their fault, though. It's probably just that no one's ever told these parents about Rule Number One of parenting. Time and time again, I've observed violations of this rule turning darling munchkins into nasty little trolls.

Being a father with fifty percent custody of one human-cub obviously makes me eminently qualified to tell everyone else how to parent their children. And since it's my birthday, I'm going to indulge myself by handing out a little unsolicited but sorely needed parenting advice. Are you ready? Here we go.

Rule Number One: Don't EVER re-negotiate on a consequence.

Kids need options. They need to you to help them develop their sense of themselves as free agents. Your job is to guide them to good choices early on, so they'll at least be able to remember what making good choices felt like, when they completely ignore your advice, later.

So, give them options.

Do you want to play with your legos, or run naked and screaming through a thunderstorm? Do you want me to make pancakes for dinner, or waffles? Do you want to stay up a few minutes longer playing the Irish tin whistle your uncle gave you before leaving for college (grrrmkrpnfrickingrrrr)? Well, fine. You can do that... you just have to clean up your legos, first.

Negotiations happen up front. NOT afterwards. NOT EVER.

If you say, "You can choose to punch little girls, but if you make that choice then you'll get no ice cream for a week (and no dates, ever)," but then let the whiny, vicious little monster argue his way to just one eensy-weensy bowl of post-punch ice cream six days later, then you've broken Rule Number One.

Your kid will turn into an obnoxious little brat, and it will be your fault.

This is because you will have taught your child that:
  1. Actions  don't have consequences.
  2. Whining gets results.
  3. My parent(s) don't really mean the things they say.
  4. The world is a place without any fixed point of reference, Machiavelli was right, and I'm going to have to fight my way through this crap-hole on my own, one brutal step at a time. 
That last one is perhaps the most important. The universe is an infinitely confusing place, and it is your job to help your child out with a few parameters. When you say "No cookie" and then cave in and hand over a cookie, you are robbing your child of the security and support that only you can give.

You may feel like you're doing a favor, but you're not. 

In 2001, I was a Teacher's Assistant at an elementary school in a low-income, low-parental-involvement region of North Carolina. Sometimes, my TA duties involved covering classes for teachers who wanted to go off campus to drink alcohol and cry about their horrible lives.

The first time this happened, one of my charges (whom I'll call "Dee") broke a rule only minutes after the teacher left the building. There was a system in place, so I said, "Dee -- go pull your card."

Dee looked at me with the most adorable little puppy-dog eyes and said, "Please, please, please, pleaaaaase, Mr. Bowkey, please give me another chance. I won't do it again, I prooooomise."

I gave Dee another chance.

When the teacher walked back into the room an hour later, it was pandemonium, and there were not one but two kids literally hanging off of my body. One was pulling my hair.

I learned a valuable lesson about teaching and parenting that day: it does NOT pay to negotiate with terrorists.

This isn't license to be a meany-pants yourself, though.

If you really want your child to grow up, own his or her life, and take responsibility for his or her choices, you're going to have to do your best to affirm the little mini-you at every chance, and to present a world characterized less by fearful restriction than by wondrous possibility.

I love the parents who advise you to "say yes as much as possible." Do it. Be very, very hesitant to say "No," and always ask yourself if you're saying "No," because it's the right thing for your child, or because it's the convenient, easy thing for you (note: it's sometimes okay to do what's convenient for you).

But once you've decided that you need to say "No" ...well, for the love of Fuddruckers, Don't Back Down! 

It may feel like the better thing to do in the short term, but long term... you're making monsters.

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