Discipline is a particularly tough part of raising kids. Well, at least for me. I can never tell if my approach to elicit good behavior from my children is turning them into submissive cowards, or making them feel entitled. I guess you could say that my partner and I are still evolving as parents. Even though our first baby arrived 10 years ago, we are constantly adjusting our strategies as our kids get older. What worked for them at age 3 (sticker charts, kisses) has no effect now that they are in the second and fifth grades. Trial and error is kind of our way of life around here.
Since my husband and I both grew up modestly middle class, we know what it’s like to feel provided for, but still wanting. In my house, we didn’t have cable or junk food, and if I wanted Guess jeans I had to save up my babysitting money to buy them. We definitely never felt entitled, so it’s important to us that our kids not feel that way either.
But as we navigate parenthood, we are finding that the strategies our parents employed a generation ago aren’t quite right for us. So we have to figure out our own brand of raising kids that bridge the gap between the shortcomings of my own parents, while not overcompensating by spoiling our kids. For example, my parents were not that affectionate with me, but I am with my kids, so you'll see me hugging them through their tantrums. I never considered going to my mother with a personal problem, such as mean friends, but my daughter is quite forthcoming if she's experiencing an issue at school. She knows I am always there for her, even when she is having a hard time controlling her big feelings.
So while my partner and I provide generously for our children emotionally, we don’t go overboard with material things. And they have learned not to expect anything when we go shopping, unless we are going to a store to spend their birthday money. I’m still worried about those weak moments, though, when I just hand my kids sugarless gum on demand. But I’m learning there are actually some things that won’t make our children feel entitled, including the following:
When I got a 98 on a French test in middle school, my dad joked, “Where are the other two points?” I could have laughed, but I didn’t appreciate being called out for a tiny thing I got wrong, instead of a whole lot of stuff I got right.
When my kids were in daycare, I noticed their teachers praising them for good behavior. “I like how you’re using your words,” or, “Thank you for waiting your turn at the sink.” At first I thought praising kids for doing basic tasks was overkill. I mean, was it really remarkable? Then I realized that catching them in the act of being good went a long way. A little praise for a job well done gives children some momentum, and it definitely helps to lessen the blow when we call our kids out for misbehaving or not cooperating. I always think about how much better I would have felt if I were praised on my 98 points, instead of dinged for the two I missed.
One day, a few years ago, I noted each time I told my kids “no” or responded negatively to a question. It was way more than I thought. No wonder they told me how much they hated me all the time. So, after reading about ways we can avoid shutting your kids down, I looked for opportunities to say “yes” or to at least spin my response in a positive way. “No, we can’t do that,” became, “That sounds like a great idea for next weekend. Let’s plan to go ice skating then.” It was still a “no,” but it was ultimately a “yes" and a win-win for everyone.
My kids still have fits when it’s time to shut off the TV, and it’s hard to turn “no more” into a "yes, more later but we’re done for now,” when the kid is screaming on the floor. But hey, baby steps.
My partner and I set spending limits for our kids' birthdays and our family holiday celebrations, and I always warn the kids that “we’re only buying what’s on our list” when entering the money pit that is Target. But we do pay them, because there’s a right way to give kids allowance. My daughter earns money for chores that make our lives easier, such as folding and putting away her laundry, cleaning the toilet and sink, or washing dishes. We do not pay our kids for the things that they need to consistently do to make our days run smoothly, though, like when they brush their teeth, put away their things, stash their coat and shoes when they come in the house, and do their homework.
Playing With Them
I don’t remember my parents playing with me all that often. Sure, there were occasional games of Trivial Pursuit and card games by candle light when the electricity got knocked out in a storm, but I never expected my mom to be my companion at the playground. She talked to the other parents and I was expected to play alone or with other kids.
As a mom with a career, I am not around my children as much. I feel I ought to make the most of my time with them, and in my mind, that translates to active play, not just reminding them to brush their teeth and grilling them about their day at school. So my kids expect my husband and me to be totally available for playing with them in that hour between when we come home from work and the kids go to sleep. It started to feel like we were spoiling them by shirking adult responsibilities in that time to get on the floor and play Trouble.
Turns out, as long as I want to play with my kids (and I do, because I haven’t seen them all day), and as long as I don’t boss them around (or let them boss me around), I’m totally not spoiling them by playing with them.
Screen time itself isn’t bad. Instead, it’s the quantity and quality of the screen time that matters. On movie nights, when we have a picnic in front of the TV, my husband and I occasionally show our kids R-rated movies, but they’re films we think our children can handle and we are there to guide them through it.
When they have independent screen time, which is only on holidays and weekends because we don’t allow screen time on school nights, our kids are required to tell us what they’re going to watch and we can veto it at any time. We’re lucky right now, since all our 7-year-old son wants to watch is soccer, and our daughter is only interested in cake-making videos on YouTube. My husband and I work in the TV industry so there is no avoiding it, but we are at least trying to set up age-appropriate guard rails for our kids.
Letting Them Do Whatever They Want
I don’t mean letting them do whatever, whenever. I just think it’s important for my kids to have free time. Their lives are so structured, mostly because my husband and I work full-time and keep a carefully planned schedule to cover childcare. Our kids have extra-curricular activities, and since they’re interested in quite a few things, it can get a little hectic. There is soccer practice during the week and games on the weekend. My daughter takes ballet and tap, is a Girl Scout, and has weekly rehearsals for a children’s theatre production. There’s also homework, studying, chores (clearing their places at meals, folding and putting away their laundry, and making sure their backpacks are ready for the next morning), and showering. And it never feels there’s enough time in a single day for any of it.
So when my daughter is just chilling in her room, not doing anything you’d categorize as “productive,” I think it’s OK. When my son is re-reading a favorite book instead of starting a new one, it’s fine. All day, every day, some adult is telling these kids where they have to be and what they have to do. We all need a break from life’s demands. Even in second grade.
Asking Their Permission
It may seem counterintuitive for the parent to ask the child for permission, but sometimes it's totally the right thing to do. In light of all these accounts of sexual harassment surfacing (and my own experience being harassed at work, and elsewhere, simply for being female), teaching consent has to be one of every parent’s top priorities. From parents asking babies if it’s OK to pick them up, to me, asking my own school-age children if I can hug them, teaching kids bodily autonomy can hopefully lay the groundwork for teaching them to respect others, and to expect that same respect when it comes to physical boundaries.
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