Cheat Codes for Parenting

Obviously, the title is clickbait. There’s no replacement for being there for your kid, moment by moment, day by day, meeting big needs and small needs and trying to raise a decent person while still staying sane. There are, however, a few easy(ish) things you can do to make a kid feel good:

give Treats

Well. Of course, a treat will perk anyone up, right? Not like that’s never occurred to parents! But I’d like to emphasize that a) a treat must be occasional, and b) it can be creative. A child fed on candy every day isn’t going to be especially overjoyed by a lollipop, but a child who rarely gets sweets will think that lollipop is awesome. Screens can be wonderful babysitters–I shall pause a moment while you finish throwing rocks–but only if they’re special by virtue of the rarity of their use. To me, the word “treat” implies a stretching of rules (so there must be rules), an unusual occurrence (so there must be routine), or a special item (so there must be restrictions on consumption). A child given no boundaries, rules, or routines who is handed everything he desires is a child who cannot be treated, which is sad.

I’d also note that “treats” aren’t limited to candy, screens, outings–taking the kid to a muddy puddle and helping them make a town can be a really memorable treat. Pulling out a book you loved as a child and reading it with them in a secret hiding place is a treat.

Be Happy to See Them

In the morning, I want to rip off the head of anybody I see and drink their blood. It’s not them, it’s me; I’m a misanthropic jerk for about an hour after I get up. I’ve learned not to express this to others, but with my kids I paste on a smile and cheerily greet them. I AM glad to see them after school, and I make sure to enthusiastically express this.

At least when they’re small, children adore their parents. Don’t you remember being a child and feeling that wonderful, warm gush of joy when you saw a parent? Didn’t it make you supremely happy when they smiled and acted like seeing you was the highlight of their life? It’s just a few minutes, and it can make a child feel secure and loved.

Shut Up (and Listen)

There’s a time for giving advice, admonishment, encouragement, etc. There are lots of times, in fact. But sometimes just being quiet and being there for your child can help him work through something, feel better, or even solve problems.

Furthermore, a child who’s acting up or showing some weird behavior is doing it for a reason. Sometimes that reason is “I dunno, it’s a phase, kids are weird,” but carefully watching and listening to your child can sometimes show you what’s going on in her head and point the way to helping her.

This is true even for very small children. Today, my toddler cried and fussed when I put her in her sleeper for her nap, and I figured that she was simply resisting naptime until I heard her say “Baby! Baby! Baby seep!” and realized that she wanted me to put her baby dolls in another sleeper. (We’d done this yesterday.) When I told her that I was going to put her in her sleeper first and then put the baby dolls in their sleeper, she calmed down and cooperated.

Make Something

Ever notice how making something with another person brings you closer together? My husband and I really need to get back to our custom of taking one day a month to make an expensive and elaborate meal together; not only do you have a nice end product, but it’s a wonderful in-house “date” that helps you be companionable. Our children, especially the older boy, love to help their father build things and fix things. The kids love our annual gingerbread house project, even though our houses are never going to wind up on the cover of a magazine. Painting together, making terrible clay sculptures together, gluing leaves to a paper together, anything that’s a shared experience in creating something is wonderful for making a child happy and pleased with his own competence.

Hug Them

For my kids, at least, a hug is the closest thing to a cure-all there is. Child’s feeling bad because a friend said something mean? Hug. Child’s antsy and acting up? Hug. Child’s sick? Hug. I know that not all children desire lots of touch, but for mine, hugs alleviate pain, improve mood, remove aggression, and calm twitchiness. That sentence sounds like I should be adding something like “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease,” but as natural remedies go, hugs are pretty good.


There’s something you know about your children that I don’t. There’s something small you do for your kids to make them happier that wouldn’t work for me with my kids. You are a student completing a degree in Your Child; it’s a years-long course and you never really graduate, but you do learn an awful lot along the way. Is it useful? To know how to make a child–your child–smile? Oh, yes. Really, there are few things more useful than that.


Parenting Without “No”

“No” is a good word. Your children need to hear it. They need boundaries, and they need to be denied things sometimes; the toddlers who really really want to play with the boxcutters, of course, but also the kids who want candy from the supermarket even though they’re getting cake later or the teens who want to have sleepovers at the house where the parents leave a stash of alcohol and then exit the premises. Denying children everything they desire, or making them wait for something they want, is good for their development.

I therefore felt immediately hostile to the headline in a Fatherly article, “Why I Try to Never Say “No” to My Kids.” “Terrible!” I thought. And then I thought, I bet this is clickbait, and the article is really not actually advocating against the word “no.” Dumb fish that I am, I clicked, and felt that both of my reactions were accurate, but also that the article was worth reading and considering.

Dr. Stacy Haynes, the subject of the article, tries to avoid the word “no” and all forms of punishment. Instead, she practices what she calls “preventative” parenting–anticipating a child’s wants or needs and trying to engineer the situation in such a way that the child will not have the desire or opportunity to transgress, and substituting for the word “no” phrases that emphasize the connection between parent and child. Here’s her example for what to do when a 2-year-old wants the remote control:

“Instead of the parent taking that two seconds to realize, “You know what, my two-year-old is going to be in this room. Let me remove that.” Or instead of using the word “No,” in that moment, I ask, “Well could you give me that? Thank you for handing that to me.””

It then transpires that in fact Dr. Haynes uses the word “no,” but only in restricted circumstances:

“I only use no if I mean it. Oftentimes, we say no, and we really mean “later.” That’s confusing for children. So if a kid says, “Hey, can I have a cookie?” and we say “no,” we just don’t want them to have it now. Don’t say no, because that’s all they hear. They melt down. They have temper tantrums.”

There are a few things in this article that I agree with. Phrasing instructions or answers in unambiguous terms is a good idea, as I’ve written; I also think that “problem solving” recurring conflicts with our children rather than retreating into defensiveness is helpful. Dr. Haynes is no permissive parent and molds her children’s behavior, relating that “When my kids were young, I would sit outside their bedroom because they’d have a hard time staying in bed. They’d come out and I’d walk them right back into bed.” Finally, I like that she wants children to come to solutions on their own as they grow, and I agree that parents should be helping children move towards this kind of independence.

What irked me, then, about Dr. Haynes’s methods is not the avoidance of “no” (which isn’t complete, anyway) but the intensiveness of the parent’s anticipation of everything to do with their kids. Talk about helicopter parenting! Imagine your average toddler–curious, active, limited linguistic command, essentially no self-control, impulsive, stubborn–all right, I’ll stop describing my youngest daughter now. There is a spectrum of ways to keep the toddler safe, and they range from the extreme of “childproof everything” to the extreme of “everything-proof the child.” On the one hand, you can not only do the usual childproofing (putting dangerous or fragile objects out of reach, using baby gates, covering outlets) but hover over your kid, anticipating their every reaction and carefully changing the situation so that there isn’t a possibility of conflict. On the other, you can childproof nothing and train the child not to touch anything without your permission, nor allow the child to protest at anything. Don’t like dinner? Too bad. Sit here until you eat it.

Most parents, of course, fall somewhere within these extremes, and I think there’s a wide band of strategies that are perfectly acceptable ways to keep the kid safe and developing well. As usual, there isn’t One Right Way to do things. To me, however, Dr. Haynes’s desire to avoid conflicts and negative reactions from the child appears excessive. It is also impossible to carry out fully, as children will wail because they asked for a blue sippy cup and you brought them a blue sippy cup. Not even a developmental psychologist can enter the mind of a 2-year-old or thereabouts.

More importantly, I think that long-term development relies on more than total conflict avoidance within the home, which can actually be detrimental to the child’s upbringing. Now, this article was conducted as an interview, and so it is certainly possible that some information was left out, but I would like to see more explanation of the following:

“When people say, “That’s not the real world,” it really is. Our employers are going to do the same thing. If you notice a problem or a difficulty, you sit down with your employee and discuss those concerns and come up with a solution that works for you and put those solutions into place.”

That is certainly part of the real world, but not all of it–there are going to be a lot of “no’s,” from colleges that issue rejection letters to people turning down favors to bosses who do not actually want to spend lots of time explaining why they said “no” to a request from an employee. “No is a complete sentence” is a popular saying, and adults operate within a world where they must sometimes accept it.

Also, children are not adults, and they need to be trained before they can be reasoned with. Dr. Haynes clearly understands this, as her walking-the-children-back-to-their-beds example shows, but she seems also to reject it in her quest to avoid negativity for her kids. A child throwing a fit about getting strapped into a car seat probably doesn’t really benefit from a 20-minute conversation about having her big feelings validated. Dr. Haynes is right that adults should understand that “[we] are taller, bigger, stronger, than a 2-year-old,” and we shouldn’t bully or frighten our children; sometimes, however, we need to use that advantage. We are our children’s parents, not their friends, and I heartily approve of the power imbalance between parents and children, though it can be misused to terrible effect.

One final point of disagreement: Dr. Haynes worries that children may internalize the feeling that they are “bad.” Well, they are bad. I am bad, too, and so are you. Now, there absolutely are wrong ways to absorb this message–“I am hopeless and nothing can be done” is harmful, and seeing a miserable child trying and failing to be “good” (i.e. perfect) is awful. Children with OCD who have recurring intrusive thoughts about their own badness need intervention. But there is great danger in making a child believe that they are good, too, because then what they wish is good because they are a good person. I do not believe this is true. I praise my kids, I point out when they do well, I am careful to check that they don’t believe that they’re unworthy of love or care; I understand that developmental stages mean that a three-year-old who lies is not doing the same thing as a thirty-three-year-old who lies. I also tell them that they’re sinners (as am I), and that they need Jesus (as do I).

Here I will probably lose readers who may have agreed with me up to this point, because at least some people consider the Christian view of all people as sinners to be wrong and child abuse when taught to a child. I can only say that a worldview of people as sinners (who are still capable, by God’s grace, of good and loving and wonderful actions) makes a lot more sense of history and experience than does a worldview that assumes people are basically good. And that is probably the most profound difference between Dr. Haynes and me.

Memories and Shadows on the Future

I found a few pages of my preteen diary. Yeesh. I’ll spare you (and myself) the ordeal of reading any of this document, which alternates between self-conscious, pretentious “literary” bits and speculation as to whether X boy likes Y girl. The latter surprised me, because my recollection is that I was oblivious to the existence of boys at that age, except as friends or enemies. But there it is–memory, as my Psych 101 professor said, is less like photography of the past, and more like the images of a kaleidoscope that you twist and change.

I find in that same diary, as well as other documents, notes about how awesome my mother is, and how close we were. Heidi was a sweet, loving girl, it seems, but it touches me rather painfully to read these things now, and not just from embarrassment. I went through a disillusionment of my mom and dad rather later than children usually do; instead of feeling terribly misunderstood and contemptuous of my parents in my teens, as I hear is common, I grew angry with my mom as a married adult with children. I even found out some unpleasant things about my dad that marred my otherwise golden memories of him and his influences upon others. (He was a wonderful, faithful husband, fantastic teacher, and marvelous father to me until he died when I was nine.)

I’ve written before about my mother’s parenting, and I hope it’s with a reasonably balanced, fair perspective. But memory is treacherous, current perceptions are treacherous, and there is nothing so difficult to tell as the truth about another, which is why the best examples tend to be outright lies (i.e. fiction). Certainly I now view the very same actions my mother took in a different way than I did as a child. The main causes of this divergence are, I think, distance in time and space from my mom; talking over my experiences with others; and having children, which put into focus rather sharply some ways in which I must not screw up with them.

Now I am a mother, too. My children hug and kiss me; they covet time with me. My younger son tells me dozens of times per day that I’m the best mommy in the world. My oldest tells me what a good mom I am, what a good job Daddy and I do. I love these things, I cherish them, and I am very happy to think that my kids are pleased with my parenting. At the same time–and I try not to let this shadow damage my pleasure–I know that their perspectives will change. I hope that when my kids are in their 20s, 30s, and beyond we will have good, healthy, loving, close relationships. They don’t need to call me up and tell me every day what a fantastic mother I am–God willing, they’ll have families and attachments of their own–but I hope that as adults they’ll conclude that, whatever their shortcomings, Mom and Dad were basically pretty decent.

The time I spend with my young children now I cannot ever get back. The actions I take are done, the words I speak are said; there are no alternate endings or do-overs. As part of that good, healthy, loving, close relationship I hope to have with my children, it is my desire that when they remember negative things about their childhood they share them with me, and I listen in a way that is open and not defensive. I have tentatively tried to talk to my mother about a few things that bothered me, but most I have not because it’s useless; although she used to ask me “Where did I go wrong?” she doesn’t actually want to hear it. She wants to hear that she tried her best, and that the universe conspired against her.

In a way, of course, she’s right. She did try her best, and how can I judge her shortcomings when they arise from the person she is? Should I pass judgment on a bird with a crippled wing because it can’t fly? I have compassion for her, and I recognize that she herself came from such a dysfunctional background that it’s really quite amazing that she did as well as she did. I know she loves me dearly and always will, and that is no small thing. I know that she did things for me that she would preferred not to have done, even if she did remind me that she was only doing them because she loved me.

But it still hurts reading my diary. It hurts looking at old emails and seeing how, when I went to college, I told her daily, in detail, about my life because I was close to her. Today, I don’t trust her with anything more than the weather and such edited highlights from my experiences that I think she can handle. (“Hiking? That sounds fun, but isn’t it dangerous?”) And I’m saddest of all that I like this distance, I feel free when I go for days without exchanging emails or calls. I don’t have the patience I ought to bear with her failings, and after literal decades of exhorting and encouraging her I just don’t want to bother anymore. I wish it were otherwise.

And I pray that it won’t be this way for me in the future.

In Defense of Paranoid Experts

I agree with the Prager U video, “Let Kids Be Kids.” In a nutshell, the video decries those experts who caution against letting kids do such dangerous things as play in sand, go barefoot, and go outside in the middle of the day in summer.

However, I do not disparage those experts’ research–just some of their recommendations. Parents should be aware of the dangers that accompany an activity, and should balance the risks with the benefits–but a proper risk-benefit analysis requires knowing about the risks. Parents let their children play in water, in spite of the fact that children are drowned every year, and in spite of nasty microbes like Naegleria fowleri. Parents let their kids jump on trampolines and use monkey bars in spite of being educated about the possibility of injury; I let my kids do these things even though one of them broke an arm on the monkey bars.

I understand why PragerU scoffs at overthinking normal kid activities. Playing in nature, climbing trees, swimming, biking, and roller skating are good for kids (by the way, I know a couple whose child died in a roller skating accident). Eschewing such activities carries risk, itself–risk that a child will not physically, socially, and mentally thrive. As I have said in a previous post, a duty of parents is to decide how we will harm our children–and that includes deciding which risks to expose them to.

But researchers or members of an academy are tackling problems from a limited viewpoint, as they must. It is not possible to write a research paper on “The Ideal Bringing-up of Every Child Ever.” An article or position paper addresses one or a few narrowly focused problems and (generally) offers solutions. Although most will try to contextualize their problem, an article that addresses the pathogen content of beaches is going to focus on how to prevent the harms caused by contaminated sand.

It is also, of course, well-known that experts disagree about many, many aspects of health. The age at which women ought to start receiving mammograms is debated, and it’s not exactly a shocker that the organization which recommends the earliest screening for women is the American College of Radiology, i.e. the people who use radiology to screen and treat patients.

This does not mean that nothing can ever be known or that we should stop listening to researchers; in fact, what it means is that we need to know more. So, digging in the sand? It is associated with an increase in stomach troubles–but not much of an increase; the incidence proportion ratio is above 1 (meaning that people who played in the sand had more illness than people who did not), but not very much above 1 (meaning that the difference wasn’t terribly large). This is not even considering the study’s flaws, and every study will have flaws. If we were to take this article as the very last word on sand and gastrointestinal illnesses, which of course we would not, it still does not provide a very compelling reason for us parents to scream “NO, Ashelygh! Stop digging!” at the beach.

Stuff like drowning and skin cancer is much more serious. But like other serious risks–driving children in cars, for instance–a rational response is not to try to prevent any possibility of harm from the activity, but to mitigate it; in the case of cars, by driving sensibly, keeping the car maintained, and using appropriate restraining devices; in the case of skin cancer, by using sunscreen and protective hats or other clothing; and in the case of drowning, by appropriate supervision, training, and skill development.

It is worthwhile, by the way, to note that not every risk is the same for every child. A white ginger needs to be more careful about sun damage than does a black-skinned person. By age group, babies and toddlers are most likely to drown, followed closely by older teenagers. A child with autism or other developmental problems is likelier to drown than a neurotypical child. Most importantly, all parents know–or should know–their own child’s abilities and vulnerabilities better than anyone else. This is why they get to decide which risks their children will take and which safety measures will be used.

Naturally, parents screw up. Sometimes the screwup is fatal. We may not have much sympathy for a parent who leaves her 6-month-old in the bathtub alone for 15 minutes to paint her nails, but I don’t believe we should automatically castigate a parent who found out that his child was a lot better at climbing up to medicine cabinets than he believed, and I do not approve of prosecuting parents for accidentally leaving their kids in the car. I have had some close calls, and I thank God that none has resulted in a fatality. Nevertheless, I believe that my husband and I are best qualified to assess the risks of any given situation–in other words, that we ought to be bringing up our own kids. We’ll listen to experts, we’ll observe other families, we’ll hear advice from more experienced parents, but the responsibility for bringing up our children falls squarely upon us.

Digression From Parenting: Thoughts on Diet

Is it too much of a gross generalization that Americans tend to be split, roughly, into “Eat giant hunks of meat” people and vegetarians? That’s my impression, though I know lots of pescatarians and flexitarians and chickentarians and whatnot. Anthony Bourdain’s funny and profane Kitchen Confidential has this to say about vegetarians:

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”

Michael I’m-Better-Than-You Pollan has this decent though reductionist advice about food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He does not believe that we should eschew animal products (or at least didn’t when he wrote In Defense of Food).

Me, I like Pop Tarts, which I imagine would make both Bourdain and Pollan (especially Pollan) shudder. I don’t like Pollan’s quote about never eating something that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; one grandmother tended to drink her meals, and the other represented the very worst in Depression-era let’s-put-it-in-the-meatloaf cooking. But I think that both men have hit on something: Real food is good, and Americans would be better off if we mostly ate smaller portions of tasty food that doesn’t have a lot of sodium and additives and didn’t worry so much about the food. “Oh, I don’t know–should I have a piece of cake? Oh, this has such a rich-looking frosting! All that sugar…maybe just a little piece…oh, this isn’t going to be good for my hips!” No, eat the cake or don’t, and if you eat the cake, enjoy the cake!

Of course, a diet too rich in cake is not good for anyone. Neither is a diet rich in Pop Tarts, which is why I rarely buy them. Homemade desserts are more of a problem, because I keep a stocked pantry and am a competent enough cook that I can make dessert any time I want, but at least it does take time and effort to make goodies versus absent-mindedly wandering over to the Oreos container and popping a few into one’s mouth.

Americans, with our curious mixture of pride and self-loathing, love to try and praise lots of different diets, and even better if they’re somehow “ancient” or “traditional.” (Paleo! Ancient grains! Heritage this and that!) I don’t know about any given set of food being intrinsically healthy, even if it is traditional; I hear about French people living to 100 off butter and wine, but the reality seems to be that they do watch what they eat, don’t consume as many calories as Americans do, and move more. The Japanese eat lots of fish and vegetables, but also highly-processed rice and noodles–but again, do not stuff themselves. Traditional Scandinavian food seems to be sorely lacking in vegetables, but adults there aren’t nearly as sedentary as Americans. In other countries, undernutrition starts to be supplanted by obesity, as in countries like India and Mexico. Everywhere that people move less and eat more, they gain more weight.

I know that people have found very good success following one of the high-fat, high-protein diets, but I tend to do best on a diet that is, in fact, mostly plants, and not too much added sugar. I will never “identify” as a vegetarian, though, and I believe that it’s easier to get a balanced diet by including meat and fish. I will always strive to make my meals tasty, unless I’m too tired or sick.

If I’m cooking for someone, I always ask about allergies and food restrictions or preferences. I may privately think your my-corn-allergy-means-I-can’t-have-iodized-salt issue is bogus, but I promise I will treat it with the utmost seriousness, as if your life depended on it. If you are a vegan, or gluten-free, or can’t eat citrus fruits, or have any other restrictions, I will do my very best to accommodate you. I want to please you, after all! And there are so many delicious things to eat in the world that DO conform to various restrictions that I know I shall enjoy myself, too.

My favorite piece of food advice is found neither in Kitchen Confidential nor in In Defense of Food, but in the book of Acts, Chapter 10:

9The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hourb to pray. 10And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 


Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to birthing persons mothers!

Thank you, Mom, for wanting me, carrying me, and submitting to unpleasant medical treatments so that I’d make it to my birth. Thank you for feeding and caring for me, being a cheerleader to me, loving me, and teaching me to read and to cook. Thank you for the surprises you gave me, and the snuggles. Thank you for letting me go places even though you were terrified that I’d be assaulted. Thank you for treasuring my stories and doodles.

Thank you, my other mother, for making your home a safe place when things got tough. Thank you for taking me to church and out to eat, even though I didn’t say thank you. Thank you for letting me basically live at your house most days, even though I once hid your remote control. (Sorry. I have no idea what came over me.) Thank you for bringing me to Disneyland. Thank you for showing me what a loving Christian family looks like.

Thank you, mother-in-law, for taking care of and supporting and loving my husband, who grew up to be such a wonderful man. Thank you for spoiling your grandkids and us with babysitting, food, and gifts, but most of all with affection.

Thank you, mothers who are NOT birthing persons but who have raised and adored and cared for their children in spite of additional difficulties. Thank you for being there for your kids.

I am a mother, and blessed to be so. Thank you to all of the people who helped me to grow up and supported (and continue to support) me and my husband as we do our best with our four marvelous children.

Social Media Posting and Grand Concerns About the Future

“Can I post pictures of your hike with Daddy on Facebook?” I asked my 8-year-old daughter.

She looked pleased but embarrassed and said, “Sure, I guess.” This was also the response I got when I asked if I could post pictures of her getting an award.

In contrast, I did not ask my youngest daughter if I could post her one-year pictures. I did not ask my 5-year-old if I could post a picture from his birthday. I post a lot more baby pictures than pictures of my kids as they start to grow up, and it isn’t (just) because babies and toddlers are cuter than kids as they start to get older. It’s also because they’re more their own people, and they’re heading toward adulthood, even though they’re still years away from registering to vote.

A newborn is a cute, squishy blob. Newborns–even fetuses–can and do have their own personalities; I’ve felt differences between my children in the way they kick and the way they behave on an ultrasound. They’re pretty oblivious, however, and throughout babyhood and early toddlerhood they’re more like adorable little incontinent pets than like people. My 1-year-old, a climber and investigator of everything, reminds me of a particularly troublesome racoon that likes to say “No!” a lot and adores dogs and babies. I don’t think she can recognize herself in a Facebook post (she screams “BABY” when I have a picture of her up), and she is absolutely incapable of determining what her online “footprint” should look like. Her story is so intertwined with my own that I think it quite legitimate to post pictures of her on my timeline.

But as she gets older, my daughter’s story will more and more be separate from mine. I want to be a good example to her as, eventually, she will be having her own social media accounts (probably). I don’t post pictures of every. single. thing our family does because I don’t want my kids to ascribe too much importance to “capturing” everything online, or to invest too heavily in their online life. At the risk of sounding like a cranky old woman, “kids these days” (and adults, too) need to live lives in the real world and not worry about getting pictures or videos of everything, or making sure that they’re presenting the correct image of themselves. We all perform, but we all should make room for authentic selves, and I would argue that authenticity entails privacy; that you should have a rich life outside your digital self.

As with so much else, parents are the custodians of their children’s online wellbeing until those children reach adulthood. I’m always careful what I post about my children. I don’t have any bath-time photos, “this-is-where-they-go-to-school” identifying photos, and any content that I believe would cause them embarrassment when they hit their teenage years. Other parents go further and post absolutely nothing about their children, ever. Barring the grotesque exploitation of Instagram and TikTok mommies trying to garner fame off their children’s antics, I don’t criticize parents who make different decisions than I do. (Well. Maybe I do criticize the woman who posts 50 different photos of her daughters at every single event.)

I’m always a bit nervous when I see someone label himself as a “respectful parent” (or a “gentle parent”). Most of these labels don’t seem particularly helpful, instead boosting the parent’s ego by giving him something to identify as that shows his superiority to us bland, generic parents. Occasionally, what appears to be promoted is extreme permissiveness, which is not ideal. Nevertheless, I do believe that parents should respect their children–not in the same way that children should respect their parents, for the parent-child relationship is not and should not be one of equals, but in a way that recognizes that a child is a developing human being. This means that children have their own points of view and are not extensions of their parents, especially as they grow older and make their own decisions. It means that in addition to loving their children, they should treat them justly and listen to them and even consider changing their own behavior in response to their children’s concerns.

Right now, I’m quite sure I could post something horribly embarrassing about my 5-year-old, and he would support my decision. He still thinks everything Mommy does is right. I’m still basking in the glow of being considered one of the two most wonderful people in the universe by all of my kids, but my 8-year-old and 7-year-old are starting to show signs of criticizing Mommy and Daddy. This is good, as long as they don’t express themselves disrespectfully, because they should learn to discern good and evil in people’s characters. I’m sure we’ll go through a phase (I hope a short one) in which whatever Mom and Dad do is The Worst, but at the end of it I hope they’ll have a healthy, balanced perspective–colored by plenty of love and affection–on my husband and me.

What my kids think of me when they become adults will be heavily influenced by what I do now. This is obvious, but sometimes I forget that every decision I make is not just for the present, but for the future. Perhaps it may seem silly to obsess over how much social media posting is appropriate, but I don’t think it is; it’s one more arena in which we parents must do our best by our children, and it can so easily become a quagmire to even the best-intentioned parent.

I Don’t Trust My Kids to be Adults

Occasionally a “respectful parenting” blog pops up in my Facebook feed, and usually the article preview makes me roll my eyes. I don’t ask my toddler’s permission to change her diaper, I did force my kids to learn about things they found boring last year when I homeschooled them, and I most certainly do think that their dad and I are in charge of them and have the authority and obligation to tell them what to do.

But I also try, when reading these blogs, to think about where I actually agree or disagree with the author, rather than simply smirking and dismissing the articles. I explain things to my children before they can understand, and I always tell my toddler when and why I’m going to change her diaper. I encourage kids’ interests, and when we homeschooled last year, I sought their input for what they learned and tried to keep them interested. I believer very much that children have the right to make their opinions known, to have some say in household matters (especially those that affect them), and to bring up grievances that their dad and I should hear respectfully.

I believe that children are usually built to learn. I believe that some kinds of over-rigid schooling can harm more than help. I believe that cooperation is better than coercion when trying to get kids to do X or refrain from doing Y. When possible, I think consensus is much better than unilateral decrees, and the older a child gets the less parents should be using “brute force” tools like punishments. (“Brute force” does not imply the use of corporal discipline; it is the parents’ imposition of their will upon the child’s contrary will.)

Readers of this blog will know that I think it crucial for parents to recognize that their children are people. This isn’t always easy to do, because we tend to see our children in relation to ourselves; whether they’re performing the way we want them to, developing the way we think they should go, or frustrating us with some consistent problem that we have to solve. Also, in the very beginning, children don’t act like independent people. In the very beginning, my children were within me, and when they were born my husband’s and my interactions with them were anything but equal; they cried, we responded. We held, changed, bathed, fed, clothed, rocked, put down, kissed, and burped the baby. The baby blinked, pooped, cried, and proved totally incapable of attending to his own needs.

But like blinkered generals fighting the last war at the beginning of the current one, parents are often behind when it comes to dealing with our children as they are now. Children have their own thoughts and plans. When I was a child, I thought in terms of myself, and not of my parents; I was in first grade before I realized one day (on the playground) that the world around me was different from me, and that other people and animals had their own points of view. It was a startling epiphany. Now that I am a responsible (ha) adult in charge of children, I try always to remember that epiphany and to remember that they themselves are the center of their own perceptions.

It is often said that the job of a parent is to make oneself obsolete. I hope that my husband and I will be around for our kids as adults, of course; I hope they’ll value time with us and maintain warm relationships, but I try to raise my children with an eye toward making myself obsolete. This includes things like teaching them to cook, clean, deal with money, and handle relationships, and involves a constant rejiggering of how much responsibility I allow them. It should be enough that they learn and are allowed to make mistakes, but not so much that they are crushed under it.

My eight-year-old is capable and independent. It catches me off guard when, every now and then, she does something really stupid–stupid, that is, viewed from an adult, who would of course know better. My daughter doesn’t know better sometimes, because she’s not an adult. She’s eight. My seven-year-old can make eggs on the stove, but he burned out a microwave because he forgot to put his item in before turning it on. I am sometimes wrong when they are right–and admit it when this occurs–but most of the time I know better than they do when we disagree.

I also note that never, in the respectful parenting blogs, does the parents’ lack of coercion lead to results they don’t want. “After I explained to little Suzie that I would be waiting for her to change her diaper, she toddled over to me and climbed onto the changing table herself!” I’m not going to cry fake on any given instance, because sometimes this does happen; one child, in particular, is prone to saying “No, I won’t” and then obeying. However, there are going to be times when little Suzie just doesn’t want you to clean her poopy bottom, and you’ve got to pick her up and hold her down while you change her. You are a bad parent if you don’t eventually change poopy diapers, even if it’s in the name of bodily autonomy.

But I’d guess that the respectful parents aren’t totally permissive, which is a terrible way to parent. I think they may use different methods to get their children to do what they want, even though they do truly support their kids’ development as unique humans. It’s a little dishonest not to admit this if it is the case, but perhaps they aren’t aware of it themselves.

I could never label myself a “respectful parent” because I’m too sarcastic, which is a fault, to be sure. I try to learn from the perspectives of those who parent differently than I do. At bottom, however, the difference between me and between the respectful parenting lot is not that I don’t trust my children as human beings, but that I don’t trust them to be adults.

Making It Easy to Follow Directions

I’ve been working on improving my directions to my kids. Here are some ways I notice that I’ve been falling short:

Not differentiating clearly between a command, a request, and a suggestion. (Yes, I give my kids “commands.” You do, too, even if you call them “directions.”) “Kids, you should clean up now” is different from “Don’t know what to watch? You should do Wild Kratts–it’s been awhile since you’ve seen an episode.” “Hey, would you keep an eye on the baby for a minute while I stir this?” is a command, whereas “Hey, would you give me a hand with making these Valentines?” is a request–but how are my kids to know that? This is dysfunctional not only because it weakens my orders, but because it sets up a situation where my kids and I may have different expectations. This can lead to wholly unnecessary conflicts, especially with the 5-year-old; the almost-7-year-old and 8-year-old ask for clarification if they’re confused, but this communication problem is really on me. Lately, I have been careful to add “You don’t have to if you don’t want to” or “I need you to do this for me” as appropriate.

Making it difficult for the kids to carry out my wishes by not giving them the information they need. The kids SHOULD know what I mean when I say “Oh, put it [meaning a dirty dishtowel] in the laundry,” but experience shows that they may put the dishcloth in the correct laundry basket, a different laundry basket, the washing machine, or the laundry room floor.

Likewise, if I tell a child “Please don’t talk to me right now, I’m writing,” I need to give a specific endpoint for when to stop. Otherwise, I’ll get endless questions–“Are you done yet? Are you almost done?” Instead, I should say, “I will be done in X minutes,” or “I will tell you when I am done. Please do not talk to me or ask me questions (unless it’s an emergency) until I tell you that I am done.”

Finally, what standard needs to be met for the task to be considered accomplished? Something like “Put your clean laundry away” is pretty easy–the job is done when the clothes are placed in the correct drawers–but what does “Clean your bathroom” mean? Sometimes I just want the counters wiped of toothpaste blobs; sometimes I want the mirrors done, floor swept, toilet cleaned, and bath toys collected. And just how clean does the bathroom need to be? Let’s face it–small children aren’t the greatest at getting a counter really clean. What’s “enough”?

Giving more than one direction at once. “Okay guys, do your chores. Daughter, please mop up that spill” can be met with “But Mom! I’m trying to do cat litter right now, because that’s my chore!” I may need to specify the order in which things get done–“Honey, please mop up that spill now and then do your regular chores.”

Giving directions piecemeal. This sounds like it contradicts the last point, but it’s really a different application of the same principle–making it easy for children to know when to do what. When asking the kids to help clean up, I like to give them an “overview” of what needs to be done. If you ask the kids to pick up, then dust, then sweep, they’re likely to grumble, “But I already did X! How much more do I have to do?” Again, it is in everyone’s best interests to make things clear ahead of time, by saying something like “Guys, we need to clean up. Here are the tasks that need to be done. I’m going to have you do these jobs, and you do these ones; you’re going to help your brother.” If I remember something that really should be done in addition to these tasks, well, that’s something to add to my own to-do list; kids are a lot more cooperative when they know what’s expected of them and don’t have “surprises” sprung on them.

Asking a child to do something too long before I want him to do it, without reminders If, at 9:00 in the morning, I tell my son that he’ll have to clean his room this afternoon, I need to remind him–in the afternoon. It would be quite unfair to get angry at him at dinnertime because he hadn’t cleaned his room. Yes, a child will almost certainly remember “This afternoon we’re going to a party” without any reminders needed, but that’s just the way it is!

Not giving constructive feedback. Sometimes children go above and beyond in doing what I ask. This should be rewarded! Sometimes children do a really slipshod job because they want to go play. I should make it clear that it is quicker for them to do the job right the first time than to have to go back and work on it multiple times. And I should always, always, always remember that these are KIDS, not adults, and that as one of the adults in charge of them I need to be patient and gracious. I screw up plenty of tasks in my daily life–how unfair it would be not to remember that and expect young, developing people to do everything perfectly.

My kids are pretty “good,” but they don’t always listen as well as I would like. Often, however, what appears to be disobedience is really the result of miscommunication–or forgetfulness. I can help ameliorate both problems. In general, I think kids want to please their parents, and we should do our best to make it easy for them.

Glossary of My One-Year-Old’s Vocabulary

My daughter has begun to talk. Like most young toddlers, she doesn’t have a particularly large vocabulary, and her enunciation is not all that Henry Higgins would approve; with a little practice, however, it is not difficult to tell what she’s saying.

Buh: Baby doll

Buh: Ball

Buh: Balloon

Buh: Bird

Buh: Book

Buh: Bye-bye

Daddy: Daddy. (Sometimes Mommy, sometimes sibling, and occasionally a random man at the supermarket.)

Dieeee: Doggy. (Or possibly a wish for the doggy to die.)

Key-yah: Kitty cat. (Also horse. And guinea pig.)

Muh-muh: Mommy. (Sometimes Daddy, sometimes sibling, and occasionally a random man at the supermarket.)

NyAUGHHHH (accompanied with a gesture–either pointing, or waggling her finger at something): I want this. I want it now. I love it more than life itself, and it must be placed within my reach or I shall DIE, or at the very least roll around and have one heck of a temper tantrum.

Oooh: I have just spotted something really cool that Mommy doesn’t want me to have.

UHHHHHHHH (while wrapping arms around a parent’s leg): Pick me up. Pick me up now. I love being picked up more than life itself, and…well, you get the idea.

Yay (accompanied by clapping): Yay!

Gbah-egh-yah-weh-mah-nyarleth: Summons to the Old Ones to awaken from their sleep and take over the world.