Every couple of years a book or article arrives diagnosing parents with catastrophic spinelessness. The power pyramid has been inverted, they warn, and the children are in, and therefore out of, control.
“Command. Don’t ask. Never negotiate,” instructs Leonard Sax in his 2016 book “The Collapse of Parenting,” in which he blames parents for a number of society’s ills, including obesity and mental illnesses.
I know reading such indictments of me and my peers will, despite my instinct to dismiss them, produce feelings of shame and ineptitude. I read them anyway, drawn to their specious certainty about a possible world in which children always do as told and teeth-brushing takes 2½ minutes.
And then, as predicted, comes the self-scrutiny.
While my husband and I are pretty good about standing by a “no,” we do allow for some conversation and negotiation on our way there. Are we ceding too much ground? Also, when it comes to our daily eating and sleeping routine, we lean a little toward flexibility — and away from structure. While more rigidity might establish more parental authority, it would also generate more insanity as we’d all struggle to uphold the systems we put in place. How bad is it to allow life, and all its attendant feelings and chaos, to occasionally get in the way?
According to Katherine Lewis, author of the new book “The Good News About Bad Behavior,” it’s time to let go of these concerns. “The command and control, the ‘I’m in charge’: it doesn’t work,” she said.
Say goodbye to ‘Father Knows Best’
Lewis wrote her book in response to what she sees as a crisis of self-regulation among kids today. This, she explains, is the reason why nearly half of today’s children will develop a mood disorder, behavioral disorder or substance abuse problem by age 18.
There are four forces behind this, including the rise of social media and web culture, which has us “always looking outside ourselves,” along with the decline of community and unstructured play time. Today’s children tend to roam the world as independent contractors, and are taught to focus more on individual achievement rather than their contributions to family, neighborhoods and friends.
The last force in Lewis’ quartet? Parents. Lewis said that while she doesn’t blame us, many parents would benefit from rethinking our approach to discipline.
One of the first steps, she explains, is separating our ideas of parental authority from the days of “Father Knows Best.” While this authoritarian approach worked in the past, it’s ineffective for today’s generation of young ones who are far more comfortable with collaboration.
“There are no longer these straight lines of authority. The boss is no longer in charge of the dad, the dad is no longer in charge of the mom, and the mom is no longer in charge of the kids. They are growing up in a culture of democracy and equality and they feel that,” she explained, referring to the changes in workplaces, homes and schools that have led to more decision-making by committee.
Lewis explained that while authoritarian parenting did often help children do better at school and stay out of trouble, it often left them emotionally scarred. This was the reason that many parents in the 1980s, who were raised by authoritarian moms and dads, took the opposite approach and moved to a more permissive parenting style.
“But the pendulum swung too far. This is where the cult of self-esteem came from, and the trophies for everyone,” she said. Today’s parents, she explained, are looking to foster a “close connected nurturing relationship, which science tells us is good for their well-being, while also having consequences that children would respect.” This is a parenting style many refer to as “authoritative.”
The key to getting today’s children to behave is forgoing the fear-based methods of yesteryear and helping them learn how to self-regulate instead. Lewis’ book wisely refrains from prescribing one particular method, and instead looks at a number of approaches to helping children learn self-control and how they play out in different scenarios. The one constant is finding a way to present them with consequences instead of punishment: the more natural the better.
“Punishment is something imposed on a less powerful person by a more powerful person. It sets up our children to want power and control,” she said. “Consequences teach us a lesson, and allow children to learn by the situation. What happens when I forget my sweatshirt? I am a bit chilly. It’s a cleaner lesson, and works much faster.”
For younger children, who tend to have worse judgment than their older counterparts, Lewis recommends creating a consequence contract. Together, parent and child can identify the bad behavior before it arises and then the child can suggest what he thinks the repercussion should be.
Creating a consequence contract
While allowing older children to sort out conflicts on their own can be an effective way of presenting them with natural consequences and reducing future arguments, little children are ineligible for a mostly hands-off approach. This is especially the case in families like ours, where a big age gap gives the older child an unfair advantage.
When his little brother was around 6 months old, our 5-year-old son decided, likely subconsciously, that he was finally sturdy enough for roughhousing. And so roughhouse he did, often taking it too far despite our admonitions to be gentle. For the past six months we had tried both rewards and punishments to stop him from hurting his now 1-year-old brother, and neither worked.
As per Lewis’ recommendation, we gave the consequence contract a shot. Our son chose a “timeout,” a decision that made me laugh on account of the fact timeouts are now considered retrograde. But if that is what he wanted, I figured, then that is what he should get. (Lewis would later explain to me that there is a difference between forcing a hysterical child into a room alone and allowing a compliant one to take a breather. She called this a “positive timeout.”)
Reader, it worked. Not as a panacea, because there is no such thing when it comes to regulating most adults’ emotions, let alone our children’s. But the positive effect was undeniable. When our son’s playful horseplay with his little brother morphed into something more sinister, we told him it was time for a little break in his room, “like we agreed on.” Each time he went, without resistance. When it was over those bad impulses had been purged, and he was calm and ready to rejoin the family.
While the frequency with which these skirmishes happen has just slightly decreased, the speed at which we as a family are able to move through them has dramatically increased. We used to give him a number of warnings, and when those weren’t respected, get angry. We’d then all be sucked into an emotional black hole for around 20 minutes, where we’d waste a whole lot of energy and patience. Now, one little kick or forceful “hug” (chokehold), and he’s off to his room for a couple of minutes. That’s it.
If this is as good as it gets for the time being, we’ll happily take it. The fact that our son goes into his room without any resistance shows us that he understands the need for self-regulation, even if he can’t always achieve it. As Lewis explained, change takes time, and our approaches to behavioral problems will likely require a fair amount of experimentation, forgiveness and patience along the way.
“Our lives are messy, and our homes should not be shrines to perfection. They are places where we go to experiment,” she said. “Our kids are always changing. This is not a static situation.”