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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Proud to be an Authoritative Parent

Motherhood, like everything else, has its ups and downs.  There are days when my kids make me happier than I ever thought I could be, and there are days when I have to fight the temptation to just leave them at the first Safe Haven I can find.

But there is one downside to motherhood that caught me by surprise, and it's probably the aspect of being a mother that I despise more than any other: having to deal with other mothers.

Mothers are the most judgmental, arrogant, and vicious people I've ever met (and that's saying something when you remember I'm a former pastor!).  Not all of them are like that, but enough of them are that I'm dreading the day my kids start to make friends, and I'm going to have to start dealing with those friends' mothers.

Most mothers (myself included) are convinced that their method of parenting is the best.  That's obvious; why would anyone choose a parenting method they felt was substandard to another method they were aware of?  The trouble comes when they encounter a mother who shares that level of conviction, but subscribes to a different method than the first mother.  Rather than recognize that different people have different philosophies, mothers tend to view any difference in parenting approach as a judgement on their own method, and, by extension, on their own abilities as a mother.  Therefore anyone with a different approach must be exposed as a bad mother before she can expose you as one.

From what I've seen and read, the parenting philosophy most in vogue right now is "attachment parenting."  I find not only the philosophy problematic, but the terminology as well.  Since I'm not an attachment parent, does that make me a detachment parent?  Someone who is actively trying to separate from my very small children, rather than enjoy a close relationship with them?  I don't think so.  I don't think attachment parenting is necessarily bad; I just don't think it would work for my family, and I don't believe that it's the only way to raise "secure, joyful, empathic children."  I don't believe that not following the attachment parenting strategies will harm the connection and trust between me and my children, the way attachment parents claim it will.  Can attachment parenting work?  I'm sure it can, and I'm not going to condemn anyone for subscribing to that particular philosophy, especially since the social pressures to do so right now are huge.  But I don't.

Especially with how I've observed it being used in practice.  Attachment parenting is very child-centered, but according to Attachment Parenting International's website, it's not 'permissive' parenting.  However, from what I've seen from other moms who appear to subscribe to the attachment parenting philosophy, they very much engage in permissive parenting, and it's become just as much a social norm as attachment parenting.  (The fact that Attachment Parenting International felt the need to draw the distinction on their website indicates to me how much the two have become conflated.)

Generally speaking, there are three primary parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative.  Permissive parents show lots of love and affection, accept their children as they are, and make very few demands on them.  Children of permissive parents are often spoiled with little or no self control, expect to be spoon-fed physically and emotionally throughout their lives, and are less likely to grow into independent, socially successful adults.  Authoritarian parents set rules and standards without any flexibility, emphasize obedience, rarely (if ever) show warmth or affection, and feel it's important to exert power over their children.  Children of authoritarian parents usually either rebel and escape their homes at a relatively early age (whether they're ready or not), or else remain dependent on their parents throughout their adulthood.  Authoritative parents set rules and guidelines that they expect their children to follow, but can be flexible when such flexibility is appropriate.  They exercise control over their children without being controlling, and often show love and affection to their children without fear that such expressions will diminish their ability to discipline.  Children of authoritative parents usually grow up to be independent, socially successful, and respectful of authority.

I strive to be an authoritative parent.

Attachment parenting, when done exactly as Attachment Parenting International lays it out, is also authoritative.  However, as I mentioned before, I've usually seen adherents to the attachment parenting model unable to exercise appropriate discipline and/or set boundaries.  Because attachment parenting places such an emphasis on not doing anything to damage the trust and connection between child and parent, many parents fear doing exactly that if they tell a child 'no' and refuse to accept inappropriate behavior.  This makes permissive parenting the social norm and expected default.

And woe to anyone who deviates from the norm.

From the perspective of a permissive parent, someone who is using authoritative methods appears to be authoritarian or even abusive.  Authoritative parents set clear boundaries and high - but reachable - expectations for their children.  Violating those boundaries or not meeting those expectations has consequences.  Most of the time it's pretty non-dramatic.  For example, my husband and I are very polite in our conversations with each other and with our children.  "Please" and "thank you" are regularly spoken by us.  My three and a half year old son (and my almost-two year old daughter, for that matter) has been hearing this his whole life.  When we ask him to do something we include the 'please' and follow it up with 'thank you.'  He knows what's expected.  When he wants something and he demands it ("Push me in!"), we ignore him.  Most of the time he'll adjust his tone and his words on his own ("Excuse me, Mama?" "Yes?" "Will you push me in, please?"  "Of course.")  If he doesn't do this on his own, after ignoring a second demand or sitting too long in silence, we'll prompt him ("How do you ask?"  "Please."  "Please what?"  "Will you push me in, please?"  "That's better.")  It's very simple, and it's pretty non-confrontational.  If he wants something, he needs to ask politely, or he doesn't get it.  We don't expect as much from our daughter, who is just beginning to use one or two word sentences, but we're still setting high but reachable expectations.  ("More!"  "How do you ask?"  "Please!")  More often than not her initial request is "More please!"  We started this at different times with our kids, depending on where they were developmentally; we don't expect more from them than they can do, but compared to so many children of the same age whose parents expect nothing from them, we seem harsh and demanding.

Often the expectations and consequences are negotiated between me and my son (my daughter needs to get a little more verbal before she can enjoy this experience).  If he puts all his toys away after lunch, I'll read him his favorite story.  "But I want to go to the mall playground."  "You would rather go to the mall playground than hear your favorite story?"  "Yes."  "We can do that, but you have to eat your lunch quickly.  If you take too long, we won't have time to go.  So if you eat your lunch quickly, and put all your toys away quickly, then we can go to the mall playground."  "OK!"  He's never not eaten and put his toys away quickly enough for me to not take him.

Such interactions require both of us to be calm and rational.  While very small children are more capable of this than many parents believe, they are also prone to temper tantrums, which is a clear violation of the established boundaries and expectations of this authoritative parent.  Simply put, I don't negotiate with terrorists, especially pint-sized ones who call me 'Mama.'  When my kids throw a temper tantrum, not only do they absolutely not get what they want, they are given to the count of five to shut down the tantrum or they go in time-out.  Both my son and my daughter do standing time-outs facing the corner (for different lengths of time, accounting for the differences in their ages and temperaments), and have been for quite a while.  Once the time-out is over, I tell them why they went in time-out, and how to avoid that in the future.  By this time they're more calm and rational, and they understand that the punishment is over now, and they're more willing to interact in an appropriate manner.  They still don't get whatever it was they were demanding; that ship sailed once the temper tantrum started.  My son rarely has to do a time-out in public anymore, because he's already learned from experience that Mama can find a time-out corner anywhere.  He's also pretty philosophical about his time-outs.  Once he's in there, the only way out is to be quiet, because he knows the clock doesn't start ticking until the screaming and crying end.  My daughter is still learning both these truths, so I'm still faced with the miserable experience of giving her time-outs in public.

My daughter is almost two.  I realize that many parents don't even try to discipline children this young, so the fact that I do is shocking and horrifying to them.  She is also extremely stubborn (she gets it from both her parents) and has a pretty vile temper.  So when she throws a temper tantrum in public, permissive parents who would probably deal with her by hugging her, kissing her, and giving her a sippy of juice and a cookie to calm her down see me instead tell her to "shut it down" and then count to five in my sternest 'Mommy-voice.'  If she doesn't shut it down (she has been more often lately, but she still usually doesn't), I then pick her up under the arms, carry her without holding her close (partly because I don't want her to think she's being cuddled and partly because I'm trying to stay out of range of her wildly kicking feet) and plop her down in the nearest boring corner I can find, facing the wall.  Permissive parents who can't stand to hear a baby cry see me forcing her to stand in time-out while she's screaming bloody murder.  Since their default is to assume every cry or scream is a sign of genuine distress and must be stopped by hugs, kisses, and affirmation, they don't see discipline; they see child abuse.

The way I see it, there are only three possible ways to deal with temper tantrums: appease them, ignore them, or punish them.  I will not reward such behavior, even if appeasement usually is the most expedient way of getting them to stop, because it also guarantees many more of the same once the child figures out that throwing a tantrum will get her what she wants.  For a while I tried ignoring them, but that's not really an option in public, and at home they can last a very long time if merely ignored.  I also want to be consistent, and have the same response at home as I do in public.  Punishing them sends the message much more effectively that this behavior is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.  I use time-outs because I don't believe in hitting, I don't see much point in a screaming contest, and making her tell it to an empty corner is the best way I can think of to get her to understand that no one wants to hear it.  If my kids have a complaint they can tell me about it, using words.  My three and a half year old son is not shy about telling me "I don't like that" or "I don't want to."  I don't put him in time-out for that.  If it's reasonable to change whatever it is to something he does like or is more willing to do, then I change it.  If such a change is not reasonable, I tell him something along the lines of "I'm sorry, you don't have to like it, but you do have to do it" and I tell him why.  And he accepts that and does it and moves on.  He doesn't usually throw temper tantrums to protest something anymore because he knows it's only going to get him put in time-out, and he has a much better chance of changing something if he talks to me about it instead.  My daughter is still learning this.

I'm not looking for the approval of other moms.  But I don't think it's appropriate to let toddlers call the shots.  Personally, I think giving children too many choices or too much control is abusive, because life is stressful, and that's too much responsibility for a two or three year old (or four, or eight, or twelve--you get my point).  Some choice and control is appropriate--my son chooses his breakfast every morning: Cheerios or Kashi.  He picks out his shirt after I tell him whether he has to pick from the long-sleeve or the short-sleeve side of the drawer, and then he picks from two or three pairs of pants or shorts I've selected that more or less match the shirt he's chosen.  My kids have choices that are appropriate to their age, and they're learning that they have some say in the world in which they live, but they don't have total control.  Vegetables are a part of supper whether they like them or not, ice cream is a nice surprise every once in a while but never an earned reward, and temper tantrums get you put in time-out.  As they get older, they'll learn more of life's lessons, but this is a good start for now.

So if you're a permissive parent who doesn't believe that toddlers are capable of self-control, understand that while that may be true of your toddler, it's not true of mine (though if you've never expected it of your toddler, how would you even know?).  Please learn the difference between authoritative parenting and authoritarian parenting (and abusive parenting).  Also consider what you're teaching your child about how the world works, and whether or not they're in for a really rude awakening at some point.

And know that when you threaten to call Child Protective Services on a mother who's enforcing a time-out for her almost-two year old in a corner of the mall playground, you're coming across as a judgmental, arrogant, vicious ignoramus who doesn't know how to handle her own children.  (Yes, that really happened to me last week, which is why this rant is so long.  My apologies to everyone who does recognize that different parents have different philosophies, and thank you for your tolerance.)

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