Last Father’s Day, my mother in law sent my husband an article with the note, “hey check this out…interesting article for all parents”. It was a CNN Opinion piece by Ruben Navarrette, titled “Fathers, Stop Coddling Your Kids”. I think my mother in law meant well. But by the simple act of sharing the article, she makes clear that she is unaware of the detrimental effects following the advice of this ill-researched article can cause. I don’t think she, along with the vast majority of parents, understands that heeding Mr. Navarrette’s advice is precisely what has caused so many to believe there is something wrong with kids today. I was so incensed by Mr. Navarrette’s opinion piece, that I sat down and rephrased it from a different perspective. A perspective that is warmer and more compassionate, that is deeply empathetic, and unreservedly devoted to the best interest of our children and their children. A perspective that I believe is a more effective and respectful way to parent. A perspective that allows children to be individuals who are appreciated for their unique personalities, and who are valued and loved unconditionally just as they are. A perspective that acknowledges that children are human beings no matter their size or experience, and they deserve at least as much respect as we give our spouses, neighbors and coworkers. I figured this Father’s Day would be a good time to share a new and improved version. So, on with the story…
Parents, Please Be Kind to Your Children
…Do Unto Children As You Would Have Them Do Unto You
by Shawn Smythe Haunschild
If I may speak for some of the children I’ve come to know, we can skip the video games, scooters and skateboards. The gift most children really want is parents who treat them with kindness and respect. Congruously, parents say they want the same from their kids. What most parents don’t realize is that the only way children can emulate kindness and respect is if they are treated with those same qualities. Remember the Golden Rule? It applies to all humans, not just grown-ups.
There’s a story that a friend shared a few months ago that really made an impression on me — as it did a roomful of other middle-aged parents who are struggling with raising their toddlers and/or teens.
One day my friend said he walked into his house and asked his teenage son for some help with some minor chores outside. Noting that his son was preoccupied, my friend didn’t demand the kid help “right now”. Rather, he left it open, asking for help “within the next few minutes”. His son, who was playing a video game at the time, said he would be happy to help as soon as he finished the level he was playing on his game. After a few moments, the kid paused the game and got up to go outside and help his dad. Within a few minutes, my friend and his son were laughing and cooperatively getting the chores done. The whole process didn’t take long from start to finish, and they had fun to boot. This picture didn’t look anything like the stories I had been told about how teenagers behave.
Because society has a warped view about how teenagers and toddlers conduct themselves, this is not at all what I expected. I was stunned. I had always heard that teenagers were defensive and uncooperative. But that’s not what I saw here. I saw mutual respect between two people. I saw a kind and loving relationship. I saw eagerness to help each other. I saw kinship.
It’s a great story. But what I found most interesting was the crowd’s reaction. It amounted to thunderous applause. It was as if they were ready to name my friend, “Father of the Year.”
There must be a whole segment of Americans who are thirsty for this message. They’re worried that they won’t find the delicate balance between allowing their children basic human rights and being too indulgent. They’re concerned that if they are too kind to their kids, if they meet their children’s needs, the poor things will spoil. But we all know children don’t spoil.
Experts are finding that children learn from watching their mentors in action, not from listening to lectures and being scolded. They do as you do, not as you say. They learn respect by being treated with respect. They learn to trust by being trusted. They learn honesty by being told the truth. Adults must simply be what they want their kids to be. Want nice kids? Be nice to them. Want respectful kids? Treat them with respect. Want honest kids? Don’t lie to them. You get the idea.
No one, of any age, wants to be controlled, punished, belittled, or micro-managed. Yet traditional, authoritative, control- and/or fear-based parenting paradigms tell us that it’s the only way to train up our kids. What they forget is that kids are human beings. They are not wild animals or superpets. We must treat them with kindness if we want them to be kind.
Would you use similar fear-based tactics with your spouse or your best friend or your co-worker; and conversely would you allow those people to use such tactics on you? Would it be okay for your spouse to strap you in a chair and force-feed you? Would it be okay to demand that your best friend always comply to your schedule, with no room for compromise, and often very little advance notice? Would it be okay for your co-worker to give you a time-out or take your iPad for the day if you didn’t comply with his every demand? No? Then, why is it okay to treat our smallest, most vulnerable, most inexperienced humans this way? It’s not.
Authoritative parenting creates kids who lie and sneak around in order to keep their parents happy…for a time. Being a kid to an authoritative parent is exhausting, and most kids decide it is too hard. They usually respond in one of two ways. If they don’t rebel (remember that classic teenage stereotype we mentioned previously?), they give up, check out, hang back and essentially let their parents think they’re right. They perfect the good kid façade, and their parents buy it. And the cycle continues.
One child told me recently that all he wants from parents is a little gratitude. That’s it. He wants them to show even the slightest bit of appreciation for all that children are working hard to do and learn. Being a kid is hard work. There is a big world and a lot to figure out. Parents have forgotten how to say “thank you” and “I love you” to their children. They have forgotten how to make eye contact and connect. They have forgotten how to listen. Sadly, they have forgotten how to love, at least unconditionally.
Another child told me that he wants his parents to lighten up a bit before he leaves home, that he hopes he and his parents can form some semblance of a meaningful relationship before he leaves in a few years. He would like for them to understand that, if they want something from him, they can’t just demand it. He would like for them to realize he is a sentient being in his own right, not somehow an extension of his parents and their beliefs and feelings. If his parents want his love and respect, they must reciprocate love and respect. They have always demanded respect from their son, but never saw a need to respond in kind. And the paradox is lost.
Now, I suspect, a lot of parents are feeling a little defensive by this point. Many of us were raised in strict homes full of rules and expectations where mom and dad never tried to be our friends, had no emotional connection with us and weren’t shy about yanking us back in line. But we must remember that they were also taught as children that they could not be trusted, that they did not deserve respect or empathy, and that their opinions didn’t matter as much as the grown ups’ opinions did. They have been taught not to trust themselves, so it’s difficult for them to learn to trust and respect others, especially children. And we have been taught to think the same.
So, when we became parents, we did what they did because we thought that if our parents loved us, and treated us this way, and we turned out okay, that coercion and control must be a fine way to parent. Yet, many of us are still nursing our wounds. We remember how it didn’t feel good to be belittled and devalued and ignored.
In remembering that pain, we may have eased up on the yanking and spanking a bit, but we still use punitive actions like ‘time-outs’, and we still control what and how much goes into and out of our children’s mouths, when they wake and when they sleep, and where they go and with whom and for how long, and what they wear, and how much screen time they get, and what books they read, and how long they ride their bikes and where. We dictate their every action. We bought into the crazy notion that children are wild creatures who need to be groomed and trained and molded into productive members of society.
In our efforts to mold our children into perfect citizens, we have effectively taught them both not to think for themselves, nor to think highly of themselves. Rather, we teach children to always defer to adults, be they law enforcement, teachers, clergy, government officials. Now, instead of having independent adolescents and adults who are capable of thinking for themselves and making good choices without being coerced, we have people who don’t know how to do anything for themselves. They have been micro-managed from birth and once they are free members of society, they don’t know where to go or what to do without being told by someone, be it a boss, a spouse, a church, or even a cult. Often they unknowingly walk into abusive relationships because being told what to do feels so natural and comfortable to them.
We are not doing our children, or our society, any favors by parenting children with demeaning and ineffective draconian methods. We are damaging our children. So though, I may not be able to change all of society, I can change how I do things in my own life, with my own child. And the older I get, and the more I learn, the more comfortable I feel demanding less of my child and more of my parents.
Here is what I would like my parents and in-laws to do for us (and what all of us as parents should do for our children):
I want each of them to stop acting like an autocrat, and learn to share more. I want them to share their time and attention, not their opinions and judgments. I want them to listen more and dictate less. I want them to get out of their heads this corrosive idea that the world revolves around their ideologies, and all that matters at any given moment of the day is what they want, need or feel. I want them to treat people better, starting with their children and grandchildren, and expanding to all children of the world, and to complete strangers; and I want them to not look down on anyone – ever – not because of their skin color, their religion or lack thereof, their sexual preferences or for any other reason, seemingly big or small.
This is what children do. We teach our parents how to become better people. It doesn’t always happen organically. And it probably won’t happen magically. But if our parents are willing to listen, and we are willing to gently show the way, things will change. It is our responsibility to raise the standards, and set the example.
We must continually remind our parents that we and our children are brilliant, autonomous, critically thinking, and happily independent human beings, too; and if they would stop for a moment…really stop…they might learn a lot more from us than we could ever learn from them. And they might see how much they love us just the way we are.
But even if they don’t, we have an obligation to parent our children differently. We must be emotionally present in our children’s lives. In addition to being a parent, we must also be a friend, an ally, a life guide, and their biggest admirer. We must learn how to listen without judgment, how to be patient when we least feel it, how to trust our children when we most fear it, and how to respect them when we think they least deserve it. And when it feels like something’s gotta give, we must look inward. Because the only behavior each of us can effectively control is our own.
About the Author
A devoted children’s rights advocate, Shawn cares deeply about all children and believes they deserve the same rights as, and even more respect than everyone else. She started a Facebook page, Human Rights for Human Children, to raise awareness about children’s rights via social media. When she’s not fighting the good fight, she dabbles in graphic and logo design and photo editing. Shawn lives in the heartland with her better half, their beloved daughter and her three precocious cats. As often as their travel budget allows, they break out of their simple, but mostly idyllic, life to explore the rest of this big, wonderful world. A copy of this article can be found here.