Besides being funny, the Facebook group Sanctimommy Says What reminds me not to give in to the temptation of mocking others’ parenting styles. As long as the child’s life or health isn’t being endangered, it’s really nothing to me how others feed their kids, make decisions about where they will sleep, or discipline their little ones. In this blog, I try not to take cheap shots at those parenting decisions that are different than mine.
There are exceptions. Americans choosing home birth multiply the risk of their child dying or suffering a major disability. Failing to vaccinate, failing to get real medical care when your child is sick, and hurting or neglecting a child in one’s care are also demonstrably harmful to the child. And whatever our style of parenting, we must respect our children as human beings. What does this mean?
First of all, people who write about their kids should not write that which is denigrating or hurtful to them. I assume that someday my children will be able to read this blog, and even though I’m sure they’ll be much too bored to comb through my posts I would hate for them to come across something that makes their heart clench up. “Wait–Mom–you thought that about me?” The internet is forever, and parents should never give their children grounds for thinking that they were unwanted, unloved, or an inconvenience.
Related to this idea is that children should not be considered means to an end. Your children are not instruments for your happiness, or your chance to live out failed dreams, or your opportunity to demonstrate how awesome you are. Children do bring great happiness, and any decent parent will be proud of their children’s accomplishments, but it is wrong to be so wrapped up in your children’s lives that they are mere extensions of you.
Perhaps a subtler form of disrespect is for parents to interact with an imaginary child, rather than their real child. A parent who allows the two-year-old to set the rules, or expects perfect self-regulation in a three-year-old, is not seeing his actual child. It does a great disservice to children not to recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and to treat them in an age-inappropriate manner. All kinds of parenting styles may lead to this sort of disrespect–from strict parents who expect their 15-month-old to be perfectly still and silent for a 90-minute church service,* to attachment parents who “dialogue” with their toddlers about morality and behavior instead of telling them not to hit little Susie, to tiger parents who become frustrated when their 10-year-olds just can’t seem to grasp advanced calculus. We should expect a great deal from our children, and children rise to meet challenges, but it is counterproductive to say the least consistently to set the children up for failure or be disappointed that they cannot do x or y.
We can also fail as parents when we don’t allow them appropriate amounts of self-determination. Asking a 6-month-old’s consent for changing her diaper is not teaching bodily autonomy, it’s just plain stupid. Setting bedtimes for young children, controlling what foods are kept in the house, having curfews and electronic device restrictions are all reasonable regulations for parents; but as our kids grow, they need to be allowed to practice making choices. Your child doesn’t want dinner? Don’t force her to sit at the table until midnight; some parents allow their kids to get themselves an appropriate substitute, and others just shrug and say that’s fine, but that’s all the food that’s available until breakfast. Let kids wear crazy color combinations if they want, unless the setting is formal or the proposed clothing is not weather-appropriate. Give children some unstructured playtime. On the other hand, do not provide endless candy and sodas for your kids, or allow your teenagers to wear skimpy clothing to school, or let your preschooler set his bedtime.
I have already touched on this, but it is also disrespectful to your children to fail to discipline them. Setting clear rules and having consistent punishments not only helps teach them acceptable behavior, but also gives them the security of an orderly world. A child in a chaotic household not characterized by a just rule of law doesn’t know what to expect–will Daddy give me a treat, or slam me against the wall?–and develops in a dysfunctional way.
And what about love and attention? Children need it, but we should not be making them the center of the universe. People talk about “affluenza” and the ills of spoiling rich kids, who never learn how to get along with others or develop a proper perspective of their place in the universe, but even poorer parents can slavishly devote themselves to preventing their children from crying. This is completely self-defeating, because children who do not experience unhappiness or disappointment do not develop resilience. The Iliad tells us that the gods pour out both joy and sorrow, and pretending that nothing is unpleasant is an excellent way to set your child up for depression, failure, and anxiety. My mother couldn’t bear to tell 16-year-old me that my beloved cat had died; I looked for her for two weeks, posited that she might be gone, and was only then informed by my friend that her dad had found my cat and buried it. (My friend did not know of my ignorance of my cat’s fate.) This was unspeakably cruel, although my mother meant well.
This little anecdote brings me to my final point on respecting children, and that is on telling them the truth. I am not saying that allowing them to believe in Santa Claus is evil, but we should answer their questions honestly. Not necessarily fully–I do not recommend showing porn to a 4-year-old who asks where babies come from–but honestly. And above all, when we make promises to children, we should keep them. I have been promising my son that we’d play chess when this blog post is done, and so I must wrap it up and keep my promise to him. For as I behave toward him, so he will behave toward others–with, I hope, love and honesty and respect.
*Note that our kids sit through our church service from a young age–our two-year-old is consistently joining our family for the whole service, which is generally between 100 minutes and 2 hours, plus Sunday School. However, are kids are allowed to read, draw, play with quiet toys, and fidget, and our congregation tolerates low-level kid noise–“the sounds of the covenant.” Of course we take them out if they’re becoming disruptive, but that happens less than you might imagine.