Parenting 101: Cajoling and punishment

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I suspect that civilization, as a whole, took a nosedive the very moment people started trying to reason with children.

Children are, by nature, unreasonable. Children are basically egos with lungs and legs.

Nonetheless, modern parents seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to coax, cajole and downright beg their progeny to “please, for the love of all that is good and sane, behave!” Sometimes they even go so far as to promise treats and toys.

I try to imagine my mother allowing herself to stoop to this level — to no avail. The only “treat” I ever enjoyed post-tantrum was being allowed to live.

Hiss

Do mothers not hiss anymore? In my day having your mother hiss at you was a tried and true way of life. A good hiss imparted ample wisdom in a quick exhale between clenched teeth.

A hiss might say “you better behave yourself or else,” or “if you embarrass me, so help me God you will be sorry.”

A covert hiss under a sunny parental smile was more than an exhale. It was a private expression of expectation between parent and child. Everyone knew the rules.

Glare

Another great tool in the arsenal of nearly every parent used to be the glare. It might be the narrowed eyes of a father saying, wordlessly, “watch it boy.”

It might be the keen eye of a mother assessing the length of a skirt and finding it — and her daughter’s belief that she’d leave the house wearing it over her mother’s dead body – lacking.

Grip

For those parents more in line with a physical way of parenting, there was the grip. A firm grip on the shoulder or back of the neck let you know your parent had both you and your behavior firmly in hand.

Many a mother would smile brightly at her sassy child, leading anyone in the vicinity to believe she found his or her antics to be just as cute as Christmas.

Meanwhile, a death grip on the child’s shoulder let them know her smile was not only disingenuous, but concealed a dagger-like intent to address this transgression the very moment she had that child alone.

Pleading

Nowadays, all the good sleight of hand parenting seems to have fallen by the wayside, replaced with pleading and public placation. Nothing makes me sadder than to be out in public and witness to some poor, unfortunate soul laid bare by her inability to outwit a child.

“No, no honey, please don’t cry,” Mommy will say. The child continues wailing. “Mommy really doesn’t want you to have candy right now. We need to go home and eat yummy vegetables. Don’t you want to eat yummy vegetables and grow up big and strong like Superman (or Batman or one of the cast members of Lost or whoever the hero of the moment might be)?”

The child continues to flail around and make an absolute spectacle out of them both. All too often the parent in this scenario, sensing they are making a scene, will quickly capitulate to their captor’s demands in order to quiet the child.

Confident

I’m always loath to make lofty parenting assessments because my children are still young. I don’t think you can really break an arm patting yourself on the back until your children are well into middle age — if then.

I’m sure Bernie Madoff’s mom would have been quite proud of how her boy turned out up until recently too.

I’m a realist and know plenty of perfectly nice families have gone on to see their offspring featured prominently on America’s Most Wanted so I try not to get overly confident.

That said, I do feel qualified to state that when any child of mine ever acted that way in public (and they did) you never — ever — heard me pleading. Punishing? Probably. Pleading? Perish the thought.

Removed

My son was once removed from a Friendly’s restaurant because his behavior was anything but friendly. He was given fair warning that screeching loudly would lead to no good end.

Nonetheless, despite my hiss and a glare, he smiled broadly — boldly — and did it again. Bystanders thus witnessed the flashing blur of one small boy being removed from the restaurant by his overall straps.

We caused a scene, indeed, but it was a useful scene. I think a few people in the back might have applauded.

Although we are still very much a work-in-progress, I am happy to say this incident happened over a decade ago and his table manners have been nearly impeccable both at home and away since.

When it comes to parenting, I’m all for fun, understanding and reason. Sometimes, however, you just need to get a really good grip on a situation.

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Warm, witty and just a wee bit warped, Kymberly Foster Seabolt is a native of Kent, Ohio, who survived childhood exposure to disco and grew up to marry and move to the country. Her column weaves her special brand of humor with poignant, entertaining, and honest portrayals of parenting, marriage, and real life. She currently lives in northeastern Ohio with her husband, two children, two dogs, two cats, and numerous dust bunnies who wish to remain nameless.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Kymberly,

    It’s funny that I happened across your post because I experienced this very scene earlier today with my three-year-old who did not want to leave the park. She was screaming and flailing as people looked on and it indeed may have looked as though for a time, I was reasoning or giving in.

    Parenting styles indeed vary across cultural and socio-economic lines and are also changing as our world changes and as the science behind human
    development expands.

    Please know I am not trying to influence your parenting style or change your mind about anything. I’m just sharing an alternate viewpoint.

    I have to disagree with your assessment of children as “by nature, unreasonable… basically egos with lungs and legs.” I think it’s unfair to simplify children in that way because it presupposes that we should just let ’em know who’s the boss and all will be well.

    I think it’s much more complex than that.

    Children operate from different areas of the brain at different stages. The early years being the most crucial as the brain will triple in size in just three years. Children under six operate
    primarily from the emotional center of their brain. They have not yet made the pathway connections that lead to higher brain functioning (in the frontal lobes), hence the unreasonableness and mystery behind the fact that no matter how many time-outs you give your 4-year-old, she still runs away from you at the store. She can’t actually make those decisions requiring the use of that part of her brain.

    Helping her make the right decisions (every time) and showing her what to do is how she learns to be reasonable. Punishing only causes emotional turmoil and a breakdown in the parent-child relationship. (I am not saying that all parents who punish will have bad relationships with their children just that nature needs nurture.)

    As humans, all our behaviors stem from needs. A child having a “tantrum” is really having big feelings associated with a need he can’t express or satisfy. Acknowledgment of feelings and needs goes a long way toward teaching the underlying
    values and appropriate expressions of emotions. I don’t see this as permissive, I see this as maintaining an emotional bond with your child and helping his or her brain grow.

    When a person is on emotional overload, cortisol surges in the brain and there is no access to higher-brain functioning that leads to reason and problem solving. We now know that this area of the brain is not fully developed until our late-twenties. Children need to be guided, not directed, in what to do.

    If all behaviors stem from needs, children, being new to the world, are going to try many different strategies to get their needs met. The history of parenting seems to have evolved into – when children use what we deem “good” strategies (saying please/thank you, sharing) we pat them on the back (like a treat) and when they use “bad” strategies (tantrums, hitting, running away) we punish.

    I don’t advocate the use bribes, praise or pleading anymore than I advocate the use of punishment, corporal or otherwise. They are all
    forms of conditional love.

    The problem is that children are not dogs. They may respond to tricks, treats and newspaper swats in the short-term but the long-term value lesson is missed when we used these methods to get our children to comply.

    They actually lose their intrinsic motivation to act on their own when the external goodies stop coming and punishment, manipulation and threats create the same if/then expectation that ultimately chips away at the emotional connection with our children.

    The behavioral view of children is fortunately outdated. Children need to learn appropriate expressions of their emotions and be provided
    with limits and taught family values but that happens with empathy, modeling, consistency and unconditional love.

    Despite our best intentions, withdrawing our love, isolating a child, or taking away privileges does not teach our children the lessons we are hoping they learn. What they learn most is – when I do something my parents don’t like, they will do something to me that I don’t like.

    Would you accept a hiss, glare, or grip from your senior at work, or would you dare verbally assault your waitress if she was in a nasty
    mood and didn’t care that your soup was just lukewarm? You might but I suspect that you wouldn’t enjoy the interactions much. I don’t think it is acceptable to do these things to people at any age, especially in a power over
    position.

    It’s a choice I know, but my kid really listens, and is kind because I try to have developmentally appropriate expectations and I choose to respect that her feelings and needs are valid. I let her know when her behaviors are not acceptable but I don’t punish her for trying.

    Today, I found myself with a toddler in meltdown- mode and I knew that reasoning and pleading would get me nowhere but honestly, neither would punishing.

    Now empathizing, problem-solving together or dare, I say it, compromising, may take longer but they sure help build the crucial connections in the brain that will help my daughter use that higher functioning all on her own one day.

    All the best,
    Lori

  2. Good Luck Lori,
    From a father of four semi-imperfect daughters.90 percent of the job is just being there. Then it’s no sweat! It really is not a complex task, we have been doing it for 10,000 years or so.
    Also,life is an unending puzzle which none of us has yet to solve. That is why we continue to grow.
    Is it not better to live the question than the answer?

  3. Lori,
    Really?

    To quote: “Please know I am not trying to influence your parenting style or change your mind about anything. I’m just sharing an alternate viewpoint.”

    So, you take a humor columnist’s “take” on something and turn it into a 10-page psychological lecture?

    My children are all grown (over 40 yrs. old) and I think I did a pretty good job with them myself. I thought Kymberly’s essay was hilarious and I took it in the manner I believe she intended. I don’t recall any byline stating that she was claiming status as a parenting expert.

    Me thinks Lori needs to get a life and quit telling other people how to run theirs. I was NOT impressed nor entertained with your comments.

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