should young kids be expected to listen to their parents?

Here’s a question for you and it’s not rhetorical: are young children supposed to listen to their parents? The first time, maybe the second, without a roundtable discussion, tears and/or backtalk at every turn? In theory, it sounds obvious. Of course they are! In practice, however, the idea borders on the ridiculous. I spend untold hours a week negotiating with my kids or waiting out their behavior in some shape or form. The paradigm of the ‘disciplined’ child – the child who, miracle of miracles, actually does what you say – has become a relic from the past, that bygone age of Father Knows Best. We are not a generation of ‘Do It Because I Said So’ parents.

We are instead raising a legion of tiny lawyers, with more bargaining power, wiggle room and opportunity for choice than ever before. And there is progress in this, no doubt. But there is also fallout. We are the parents derided for indulging, coddling, kowtowing and worse. We are cast by many in the family drama as lowly subjects, slaves to the whims of our ‘benevolent’ (hopefully) dictators, what Pamela Druckerman’s French friends call enfants rois (child-kings). English supernanny Emma Jenner diagnoses us with a chronic case of ‘fear of tantrum’ and the inability to put our needs ahead of our children’s. Frank Bruni would describe our increasingly infamous take on parenting as the ‘eight-last-chances’ approach.

According to experts, there are actually three main approaches to parenting: authoritarian, which emphasizes obedience; permissive, which is lacking in guidelines so as not to upset the child; and authoritative, which blends a caring tone with structure and consistent limit-setting. Most of us, I am guessing, would raise our hands enthusiastically for category number three, either as the style of parenting we embody or the one we aspire to. And yet, authoritativeness itself is a wide berth.

Because of my family situation, I have had the strangely bifurcated experience of being, in one life, two different types of mother. Both of whom I would place somewhere on the authoritative continuum, the first version leaning closer to the anything-goes mom, the second one tottering on the edge of an attempted authoritarianism. The shift is partly due to circumstance. With four kids, the last two of whom are twins, there is a Gestalt vibe to my parenting these days, which makes it virtually impossible to cater overly to any one child’s ‘needs’ or ‘perspective’. In our house, true permissiveness would devolve rapidly into unlivable chaos, which means that my desire for order sometimes looms larger than my belief in the importance of a ‘caring tone’. But I have also changed tacks a little because I learned a few things in the intervening years between children, having watched my older two emerge from the frat party of toddlerhood with behavioral hangovers of entitlement.

As a result, the mother I am to my toddlers today falls perilously close to the one Tovah P. Klein warns against in her engagingly written and thoughtfully-constructed book How Toddlers Thrive, the thesis of which is that once you truly understand your toddler’s point of view, you will see that ‘controlling’ him is counterproductive to his well-being. I enjoyed this book, I recommend it and I think it would have spoken to me deeply had I read it in my first incarnation of motherhood. The rub of it for me right now, however, is this: while I feel confident that I understand my toddlers’ motives and sufficiently appreciate the wonders of their under-developed prefrontal cortexes, I still want to control certain facets of their behavior. Does that just make me the worst of the worst?

Klein believes in boundaries: authority is good. But she largely equates ‘controlling’ a toddler’s behavior with ‘shaming’ him and shaming, as you can imagine, is bad. ‘By asking them to behave in a specific way or be different from how they are just now,” she writes, “we make them feel ashamed.’ This is to be avoided. My problem is that I don’t always see how to enforce the boundaries I want to enforce without being ‘controlling’. What, in other words, does exerting authority look like without the handmaiden of control? If setting limits is essentially making rules (e.g., we only draw on paper, we ask before taking food), and the rules are being repeatedly balked at, what are we supposed to do in the name of defending our boundaries if not ask our toddlers to behave in a certain way or, failing that, to make them? When limits aren’t properly and consistently imposed, authoritative parenting begins to acquire the I-don’t-want-to-upset-my-kid sheen of permissive parenting.

It is a glaring feature of How Toddlers Thrive that there is no real mention of ‘misbehavior’ in its pages, nor is there any discussion of discipline (neither of these words, for instance, appears in the index). The idea being, I presume, that all of a toddler’s actions can be explained – and explained away – as part of the growing process. Toddlers aren’t naughty per se, they are simply learning. But at what age does questionable behaviour become misbehavior that needs to be sanctioned (the book defines its range as ages two to five)? When does barking orders at everyone around you become, in fact, ‘rude’ and not simply ‘an expression of self’? When does hitting your brother become ‘aggressive’ and not simply an ‘inability to deal with anger’? When does not listening to your parents become ‘defiance’ and not simply an ‘attempt at independence’. After the hundredth time you’ve asked, the five hundredth, the thousandth? When they turn four years old? When they turn five? Klein talks loosely about the time for this coming ‘later’, but I have been amazed at how quickly condoned habits become ingrained (especially with some children) and my fear is that I missed the window somehow in my first rodeo.

I like the idea of getting on my knees, metaphorically speaking, and seeing the world from my toddlers’ perspective. Giving them a break when they feel vulnerable because the routine has splintered or because Mommy is going away, yielding to their eccentricities as much as is pragmatically possible. But day in and day out we have rules in our house that need to be followed, for the benefit of the family as a whole, and I don’t think three years old is too early to be expected to follow them. Or to suffer the consequences if not.

 

Addendum

Should children listen to their parents? I took a poll amongst my own kids:

My eight year old says: children should listen to their parents only if they [the children] think what the parent is proposing is a ‘good idea’.

My six year old says: children should listen to their parents if they don’t want to get shouted at.

My three year old says: Not really. But maybe I’ll listen to you next time.

My other three year old made no comment. He wasn’t listening to me when I said I wanted to ask him a question.

 

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i’m not listening, mom…

 

This post is part of the Brilliant Book Club. Read the other thoughtful essays on Tovah P. Klein’s How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success at the links below:

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a numbers game

I have always been a woman of words, so it came as something of a surprise how motherhood has made me fixated on numbers. And not necessarily in a good way. It seems to be a thing these days, a tendency: to tally, to count, to know where your children stand in one numerical line or other. A normal means of marking time and gauging development, for sure. But also, let’s be honest, a confidence booster in the face of the uncertain work of parenting that all is well and, in some instances, that all is better than well.

It started in the hospital, this obsession, when my first child was born. Actually, no, it started before that, with the ticking off of months then weeks then days until he arrived. 8 days late, but he was big and I was proud. An Apgar score of 9 after 1 minute, his hands and feet a dusky blue, but a perfect 10 after 5. 8 pounds 13 ounces, or as the cupped scale in the UK hospital told me: 4 kilograms precisely. I began to breastfeed him, watching the clock as I went, 25 minutes on one side, 10 minutes on the other. I couldn’t see how much was going in, so I counted what was coming out instead. How many pees today, how many poos? Let’s get him back on the scale. 75% for weight, 91% for height, we charted his growth intently that first year, the dots on the page stretching out like a broken constellation.

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

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oliver on the scales

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what we fear

Fear: early parenthood is riddled with it. A baby delivered, pure and pristine. Responsibility: the flip side of fear. It is yourresponsibility to keep him that way, a weight so heavy some of us can hardly sleep for the feel of it crushing our chests. Where once life was a relatively serene landscape, now, everywhere you look, stretch tentacles of danger: corners that are sharp, chemicals that are noxious, strangers that are unsavory. How many precautions can you reasonably take? How safe can you make an unsafe world for those you love?

It’s an unanswerable question, but perhaps its most interesting feature is that, above a basic threshold (e.g. car seats), we would all answer it differently. Fear is a strange and idiosyncratic beast. Maternal fear is even more so. Part of being a parent is engaging in a constant game of risk assessment based on your unique fingerprint of anxiety and the rub is that no two of us will play it exactly alike.

I consider myself a risk-averse person by nature. But I have done things you would not do. I have taken newborns into germ-laden coffee shops. I have laid to sleep babies on their tummies. From time to time, I leave my twin toddlers unattended in the car (cool climate, five minutes). I have not made these decisions blithely, or with my head in the sand: I know the risk factors for SIDS; I know that an overheated car is a death sentence. I have made them, rather, because in the individual circumstances I did not deem the potential for injury or harm great enough to outweigh the practical advantage. And, as a result, I wasn’t afraid…

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

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in defense of ‘the giving tree’

I am a big fan of Shel Silverstein. But the The Giving Tree is an admittedly challenging text, raising questions about the nature of parental generosity, filial gratitude and what unconditional love actually means. Kristina Cerise and I debate the merits of this iconic book at Brain, Child Magazine.

Lauren writes:  The Giving Tree is an extreme version of maternal devotion, a classic case of exaggeration for emphasis. But it is in its extremity where much of the power and beauty lies. I have an emotional reaction every time I read it, a fullness in the back of my throat. While the rational part of me wishes the boy would say “thank you” just once, I still see, at the book’s core, a tale of a deep and abiding love I recognize all too well. And perhaps also an opportunity to think carefully about the nature of generosity and gratitude and what we really expect from our children in return for raising them.

Kristina writes: When we teach our kids to approach us with every want, we are teaching them that they are not capable of pursuing their own satisfaction. When we teach our kids that we are the source of all they need, we are teaching them that their possibilities are limited by our abilities and resources. When we respond to their claims that X, Y, or Z will make them happy by facilitating the acquisition of X, Y or Z, we are teaching them that happiness is found outside ourselves. When we pretend that The Giving Tree is a love story, we are teaching our children that loving and giving are synonyms.

Read the rest of the discussion here and let us know what you think!

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a classic tale of maternal devotion or a manifesto for how to raise ungrateful kids? maybe a little bit of both.

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the writing life

I was thrilled when Rachel Pieh Jones invited to me to participate in a ‘blog hop’ about the writing life. I have admired Rachel’s work from afar (read this and this) and I knew we had (at least) two major things in common: we are both expats and mothers of girl/boy twins. I was also excited to be given the opportunity to consider not only what I am writing these days, but how and why I am writing it.

* * *

1) What am I writing or working on? 

I am a contributing blogger for Brain, Child Magazine, which means that every two weeks I write an 800-1200 word post for their signature blog – Brain, Mother – about some aspect of parenting or other. There are many venues in which to write about motherhood, the web is saturated with them. But when Brain, Child took me on in August of last year, it felt like an incredible stroke of luck, because they are, in academic parlance, my intellectual home: Brain, Child calls itself ‘the magazine for thinking mothers’ and I am a mother who cannot, for the life of me, stop thinking! Occasionally, I also freelance for other publications, depending on the subject matter, where ‘freelance’ is a fancy way of saying that I submit coldly and keep my fingers crossed tightly.

This week I happen to be working on a couple of humor pieces. Most of my essays lean either towards the analytic or the poignant. But, every now and again, I like to try my hand at something dry and witty. (One of my favorite posts in this ilk is an open letter I wrote to my toddler about his obsession with my iPhone). I’ve just come up for air from the depths of two weighty essays – one about religion and one about the essence of motherhood – so hopefully this will provide a little light relief, for both my readers and myself!

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

My first real foray into writing was as an academic and this background still informs much of my ‘style,’ even as a ‘mommy blogger.’ I am logical and linear, almost to a fault, and I don’t feel satisfied with an essay unless it is ‘tight’ in this respect (see, I use expressions like ‘in this respect’!). My academic work was in classical literature and also in philosophy. As a result, I tend to look at the world analytically. And with a critic’s eye. This allows me, I think, to write about my children and my parenting in a way that is more detached, and perhaps more objective, than is the norm. I look for reasons behind my choices as a mother; I like to explore the connections between them, using my personal experience as a launchpad to tackle the bigger, more universal, themes.

One of my favorite sub-genres of parenthood writing is ‘taking sides’ on a single issue. Every other month or so I will do this on Brain, Child’s blog as a ‘two different perspectives’ (the one linked to here is with my good writing friend Rebecca Hughes Parker), and I have recently become the editor for the print magazine’s quarterly ‘debate,’ which is a squaring off on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. Coming at a subject from different angles is not, for me, about right or wrong. It is about the philosophical revelation that there is, almost always, more than one ‘truth’ on the matter. Parenting is rife with division these days. The ‘Mommy Wars’ are alive and kicking. I don’t feel as if my debates fuel this vitriol. Quite the opposite: what better way to dispel the myth that there is only one way to do it than to read a well-reasoned, heartfelt and honest account written by somebody doing it the other way?

3) Why do I write what I do?

Here I have to steal a quotation from Ernest Hemingway that I’ve seen used recently by a wonderful fellow blogger of mine, Lindsey Mead: ‘I never had to choose my subject – my subject rather chose me.’ Having children opened a floodgate in me. It changed me in all the obvious, cliched ways, but it also shifted me away from some of the more introverted, disconnected aspects of my personality. I think because I genuinely felt, not to be too grandiose, that it was the first truly universal thing I had done in my life. There was so much humanity in the experience, so much about it that pulled me out of myself. I wasn’t one mother, alone in her exhaustion and exhilaration, I was, at once, every mother I had ever known or ever would know. From the minute my first child was born, I couldn’t stop talking about what was happening to me and listening to other mothers talk about what was happening to them. My writing is a natural extension of that passion.

4) How does my writing process work?

Sometimes I think of myself as an editor, who happens to write. I spend a lot of my ‘writing’ time editing myself, probably a disproportionate amount compared to other, more natural writers. I am constantly reading parts of my work back to myself. Often, to the annoyance of the people I live with, in a stage whisper. I’m doing it now, as I type this. I need to hear my words to get the rhythm right, to get the flow. I love the beauty of language and of syntax and I put a lot of effort into making my writing as aesthetically pleasing as possible. If you saw me hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop, I’d look like a crazy person, muttering to myself…but it works.

Writing, for me, is not just about sitting at the computer and touching down on the keyboard. I script in my head throughout the day. Phrases and ideas hit me at unexpected times: in fact, most of my big ideas come when I am ostensibly doing something else. Like taking a shower. Maybe it’s the ambient noise, maybe it’s the solitude, which is a commodity for a mother of four young children, but this is where I have my Eureka moments or solve my latest structural problems. Or if not the shower, then at a red light.

When I ‘finish’ a first draft of a piece (and finish means different things for different pieces), I always send it to Denitza Blagev, whom I affectionately refer to as ‘my reader, my friend.’ If you don’t have one of these magical friends, find one!

* * *

As part of the ‘hop,’ I will now pass the baton on, as it were, to three other writers I admire. These women impress me continually with their insight, their depth and the great care they take with the written word.

Debra Liese is a writer of essays and mother to a 3, 4, and 8 year old. She lives near Princeton, NJ, where she works as a publicist for scholarly books. Find her at debraliese.com and @DebraLiese. (Lauren says: to get to know Debra, read this incredibly thoughtful piece about her daughter’s decision to become a vegetarian at age four.)

Zsofi McMullin lives, writes, and wrangles a four-year-old in Connecticut. Visit her blog at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @hunglishgirl. (Lauren says: to get to know Zsofi, read this heart-stopping essay about the nature of love, past and present.)

Ariana Kelly lives and writes in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about phone booths (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in August 2015) and a collection of linked essays. She can be followed on Twitter at @ArianaDKelly and on her website: arianadelainekelly.com. (Lauren says: to get to know Ariana, read this fascinating account of what role is left for the phone booth in today’s world of ubiquitous mobile technology.)

 

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photo credit: oliver tomkins (age 8.5)

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who knew having young children would hurt so much?

Dear children with your sharp elbows and poor depth perception,

I’ll forgive you birth, because that was supposed to hurt. “A necessary evil,” I think they call it. I’ll even forgive you your freakishly large heads, disproportionate as they were to my slender, girl-like hips. I never expected a baby the size of, well, a baby (with a head the size of, well, a cantaloupe) to emerge from one of the orifices of my body and leave it unscathed. But those were the war wounds I was prepared for, at least in theory: the contractions that sent me into a fit of curses through the epidural; the stitches and swelling and stinging in what used to be a happy place; the three-inch incision across my abdomen, still numb to the touch.

No, what truly took me by surprise was all the pain that came next…

You can read the rest of this open letter here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

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i don’t need to make perfect birthday cupcakes for my kids

When Carinn Jade and I first set out on this debate for Brain, Child Magazine, we planned to focus on Superwoman Syndrome: the idea that a woman can – and should – be ‘perfect’ in everything she puts her hand to. But, in the process of writing, we became fixated on cupcakes instead. Because they were symbolic, to both of us, not only of what we choose to pour our mothering energy into, but of why we choose as we do. Our essays are not just about baked goods. They are about busyness and priorities and perfectionism and how we all show love for our children in different ways.

Lauren writes:  Birthday cakes have become something of a metaphor to me for my shifting relationship with time management and perfectionism. When my first child turned one, I was obsessed with the idea of baking for him. I had one kid, no job outside the home and the mental energy and inclination that comes with such a scenario. So I made banana muffins, the recipe chosen painstakingly, the cream-cheese frosting the creamiest you can imagine. When my last children turned one (twins), however, circumstances had changed significantly. I had neither the time nor the mental energy nor the inclination to bake them anything at all. And so I didn’t. I let my mother-in-law (gasp!) do it instead.

Carinn writes: For my daughter’s third birthday, I was going to bake cupcakes. Not just cupcakes, but a design she picked out—adorned with hand-dipped white chocolate covered pretzels sprinkled in purple sugar crystals and transformed into butterflies with exactly two chocolate jimmies for antennae, placed just so. That week I worked every night until 2am after the kids were in bed, alternating between drafting documents and frosting chocolate cake until the wee hours. In my house, actions speak louder than words and nothing says “you are loved” more than homemade birthday cupcakes.

You can read the entirety of our different perspectives here.

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mothers and fathers

When I think about what a mother is, I tend to think about what a father is not. My mother was day in and day out, my father was summers and some weekends. My mother was the endless overseeing of schoolwork and driving to lessons, my father was special occasions. My mother listened to my problems from the end of the bed, my father from the end of a phone line. This arrangement was, in part, a product of our individual situation: I am the child of divorce. But I am also a child of the seventies, an era when gender roles in the home were more clear cut than they are now. Even if my parents had stayed together, I’m not sure how different things would have been.

They both loved me. I would never argue that fathers don’t love their children as much as mothers do, I would only argue that their love often manifests itself differently. Because there is love and there is presence and they are not the same gift. Most mothers are present in a way that fathers are not. And I don’t just mean physically present. I mean emotionally present. I mean, to borrow Jennifer Senior’s perfect phrase, they are “more alive to the emotional undercurrents” of family life. A simple observation with a profound effect. It is at the heart of why, even in 2014, as fathers shoulder increasing amounts of childcare, mothers still perceive a palpable inequality in this arena, irrespective of whether they are employed outside the home or not. And their perception goes hand in hand with the facts: “women, on average, still devote nearly twice as much time to ‘family care’…as men,” according to Senior.

You can read the full post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

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good twin/bad twin

Good twin/bad twin. It’s just the dichotomy we’re meant to avoid, all the books say so. One child who puts her coat on and goes to bed when she’s supposed to, and wears a halo for it. The other with a forked tail between his legs, because he doesn’t do either of those things without a drop-down fight. Praise the positive behavior, discipline the negative, it sounds simple enough. But what happens when the breakdown of behavior between twins, between any siblings really, is continually reinforcing an angel/devil dynamic? Do you let things slide for the “bad” kid so as to not make him feel oppressed or less loved? Do you hold back compliments from the “good” kid for the very same reason?

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

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writing memories

For years, I have kept a notebook by the side of my bed, the pages filled with my children’s milestones. With teeth cut, with words uttered, with laces tied, with pedals pushed. When my first son was born, I wanted to catch every last detail, to snare them all, like the slippery fish they are, in the net of permanence language casts so well. I wanted future access to the moments I knew would slip, inevitably at some point, through the cracks of my mind. What I wanted, I see now, was nothing less than to be able to hold his childhood in my hands, once it was gone, and to say, yes, I remember it, I remember it intimately, each fleeting drop.

The notebook was an insurance policy that I would remember who my son was at 16 months old and then again at 36 months old, that I would remember the difference between those incarnations of him and how he got from one to the other. From the toddler who would sleep 15 hours a day to the boy who is still thumping around in his bed gone 10 pm. From the three- year-old with the clipped English accent, performing brain surgery on me with a stethoscope, to the eight-year-old bearer of broad Glaswegian vowels, between whose feet everything becomes a football.

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

the goddess of memory

the goddess of memory

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