There was a man I knew for some years, and at one point I learned that when he was a boy, if he didn’t play well in his Pee Wee baseball games, his father would whip him.
One of the coaches here at the University recruits a lot of international athletes, and at one point one of his German players began crying because the coach was encouraging him after a poor performance. His coach at home, he explained, yelled and cursed at him whenever his game was off.
I think most of us find these two stories offensive. When we teach our children sports, or any activity, we try to constantly encourage them. When they make mistakes, when they perform poorly, we try to reassure them, and boost their spirits.
So why do we take a completely different approach as our children struggle with self-control and disappointment? I’m 59 years old, and I still don’t handle self-control and disappointment all that well. Where did we decide that learning to handle a pop-up fly is so much more important than learning to handle life?
It is considered ‘proper’ that our children be well-behaved in front of other people. Society expects that any misbehavior must dealt with immediately, and harshly. I have seen parents who are very gentle as their children struggle with sports, who then become vicious when the same kids struggle with self-control and social etiquette. I have seen parents punish toddlers who can’t possibly understand what’s going on inside them, much less understand the rules of polite company. If we treated our children like that in any other area of learning, it would be considered emotional and intellectual abuse.
My wife and I try to be gentle with our children. When they throw a fit, we try to talk them down, as gently as our patience will allow (as I said, I still struggle with self-control). When they are unkind to someone, we try to work them through it, and gently but firmly express our disappointment. If they hit someone, the response escalates, and we respond more sternly. And if we can’t calm them down in a social situation, we just remove them until they get past it.
On the rare occasions when we have lost our temper or even spanked them, we were often horrified to later discover that they were hungry, or tired, or in fear, or in pain (teething is a common culprit). Mind you, we’re not the sort of parents who simply ignore our kids when they are behaving badly, or worse, who think their antics are cute. We’re engaged, we’re watching, we’re responding. But we’re trying to support them as much as possible, and punish them as little as possible.
Of course, we have friends who disapprove, who think we are not raising our children properly. One of them was even so blunt as to quote the Bible, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” I certainly don’t want to argue with fundamentalists, so I’ll just point out that the New Testament takes a different slant.
My wife and I believe that a) our children want our approval desperately, b) they care about other people and want to do the right thing, and c) they often don’t even understand what’s going on inside them. That last is important; I think about how many times I have been angry or rude as an adult, only to later realize that I was snarling at something, or someone, that was completely unrelated to what was really bothering me.
Children’s lives may look easy and simple to us, but that’s only because we have gone beyond those particular lessons. Every day for them is work and struggle, it’s just that they just seem to enjoy more of it than adults do. So again, we need to think of it like baseball, or music, or reading. It would be intellectual abuse to be imperious and impatient with our children in these activities, even worse to punish them, simply because it’s not yet as easy for them as it is for us.
In all other areas of modern teaching, patience and encouragement are the foundations, they are considered the very highest and wisest approaches. So why do we have very different standards when it comes to self-control?
Which brings up a couple of simple questions. How are we supposed to teach our children patience by being impatient with them? How are we going to teach them self-control by losing ours? That great philosopher Robert Fulghum summed it so well: “Don’t worry that your children never listen to you.
I said that I still struggle with frustration and self-control, and while writing this it occurred to me that perhaps these parenting approaches explain why. I am not criticizing my parents; they came out of a generation where ‘children are seen, not heard.’ They pushed themselves far beyond their own experiences in raising us, and we were raised much more gently, and more positively, than most other children. I don’t think I would be able to look objectively at myself, at them, and at many other things if my parents had not worked so hard at raising us differently. It’s just that changing humanity is a multi-generational project.
Of course, punishing children works, without doubt. Our children love us, and they absolutely need us, so they will do whatever we tell them to do. More concerning, they will become who we tell them to become. They’re like those cell phones I described; when we punish them, we’re just turning off some of their capacities.
Again, it’s no different from baseball. A child can become competent at baseball through punishment. But they will never be great, because the greatest players love the game. Punishment quickly creates obedience, but it does so through discouragement and avoidance. Negative reinforcement cannot produce a positive attitude, it will not produce enthusiasm and life-long commitment. Punishing children conforms to one of my earlier comments, ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves.’
If a child’s earliest experiences with any activity are pain, fear and/or humiliation, those emotions will color her perceptions in that activity for the rest of her life. My father never much liked dogs. Then one day he described how a dog bit him when he was very young. In the ER, the children who have been roughly treated by previous medical personnel can be almost impossible to exam. And if you talk to people who hate some subject, particularly math, you will find, almost without fail, that their earliest experiences were unpleasant.
On the other hand, if you find someone who loves some activity, you will almost universally find that their earliest experiences with it were pleasant, often either from learning about it with an encouraging parent, or a gifted teacher.
I want my children to behave, to be polite, and to have self-control, but not from fear, certainly not from fear of me. I want them to do these things because they care about other people, and because they care about what is right, and decent. Above all, I want them to care about themselves, care for themselves, and to enjoy life.
It doesn’t make sense for me to try to teach them polite behavior through impolite treatment.
Child Throwing a Tantrum, courtesy Wikipedia.
Child Batting, also courtesy Wikipedia.