How we raised a reasonably polite kid

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

An Acquaintance of Terrance's recently asked him: "Your daughter is so incredibly polite and well behaved! How did you guys manage that?"

While it is true that I am not always particularly polite OR well behaved, I suppose it could be something of a wonder as to how Emily turned out ( to date) the pretty damn nice kid that she has become.

Terrance's standard answer to this is "We beat her ass early, so we don't have to do it as much anymore."

For those of you not members of a Black American family, let me translate:

He doesn't actually mean that we beat her. Emily has been spanked - but very sparingly. I don't like to do it, and Terrance is actually a bit afraid to do it.  When she has, it was a couple of swats on the bum with open hand. There is much sound and fury, but very little physical contact.

I was a dedicated "No corporeal punishment" advocate...until I needed to spank my child.  Much like I was Anti-Binky until it was the only thing that wasn't my poor, chafed breast and would soothe her and get her to sleep through the night.  Yes, Universe, I get the whole "Bite you in the ass" concept of parenting.

What he DOES mean is that we have been fairly consistent disciplinarians of our One Child.  We have not been afraid to stand up in restaurants and leave. We have left stores with half filled carts in aisles when behaviors deemed unacceptable have been warned about...then repeated.

I also have a Look. Emily calls it my teacher look and it can stop her dead.  It also works on her classmates at school when I am in the library and they decide to act up on my volunteer day.  It involves no speaking, but a dedicated, persistent stare.  Occasionally some eyebrow movement is needed, or a slow head shake.

I used to kid that I perfected it while working with Infants. You can't "Out Loud" an Infant or Toddler, so I never tried. You just stare and wait.

Another trick of the best teachers? We use our bodies. We get close to kids who are acting up, we put hands on shoulders, or hold hands with others. We let them know we are close by. When Emily would tantrum as a Toddler and Preschool, I would sit on the floor and watch her.

"I am here if you are ready to stop and need a hug", I might say.  It was the same technique I used with Infants and Toddlers I cared for in child care. It conveys "I am Here", and "I want to comfort You", but it also allows them to both finish feeling their feelings and start to decide when they want comforting. It also says "I do not have to participate in Your Drama, but I am here for you when you are done."

THAT is a hard lesson for parents. Because we are always involved in our child's drama, are we not?  However, as Toddlers ( and later still as a 13 year old) children need to learn that their feelings belong to Them...and that this is separate from the rest of the family.

"Your drama is not my drama" is what I now say to the 13 year old Emily, while she huffs and puffs and tries to blame her father and I for not getting her homework in her folder, or her report printed out.  Despite her best efforts to figure out a reason to blame us,  it isn't our fault and she is old enough to assume the consequences for her actions. If that means a lowered grade for failing to meet her teachers be it.

Terrance and I have battled over many aspects of parenting. Discipline has not generally been one of them.

Sure, he tends to get bent out of shape and threaten that she has lost her computer, or school trip, or summer camp from now until the end of time...And she runs around and cries and flaps and generally acts like she is dying.  Then, I speak with him and remind him that the consequence he has shouted out is WAY out of proportion to the infraction, and that it needs to be re-negotiated and explained to her.

Emily knows that Daddy is Loud, but Mommy is the Velveted Glove of Iron.

Another rule in our home? Adults are adults and will be treated with respect.

Now, living with a mother such as I, one would question how an opinionated, mouthy and frequently LOUD woman can hold this line with a child. Firstly, I think some of this is because I taught young children for so long. I know that the stories that transfer home about a mean teacher withholding snack might not be exactly what they seem.

As such, I have always made it a policy to do my best to get with the Adult in question to clarify the incident.

99% of the time, they have been exaggerations by my daughter in an attempt to garner sympathy, or unleash the Demon Mother who will unfurl my wings and talons in order to rain down my wrathful destruction on an Adult who has wounded my child.

Why, Yes. Yes she Can manipulate me masterfully.

However, in my time as Teacher and Director I can not recount the number of times I had to calm down an irate parent who was sure that their child was 100% accurate in the description of some wrong.  Only to find out that Yes, their child hadn't eaten snack that day...but not because the teacher with held it. If the snack table is open from 1:30 to 3:30, with frequent warnings before it is closed, and the child in question chooses not to eat...then when he decides at 3:50 that he suddenly wants to have snack...Well.....

Children who believe that they are in charge of the adults in their lives and that the adult will unquestionably believe everything they say? Oh. Oh, that bodes no good.

I say this with Love, Parents of the world: Your Child will Lie to You. They will do it smoothly, and you will believe them.  You love your child and want to believe that they would never, ever lie to You, their parent. But they do.

Now, I have a  child development theory that involves a child learning to lie with a healthy separation between Parent and Child. Learning we can deceive the ones who know us best is, I believe, part of the recognition of the Self as Unique and that we can harbor own own inner thoughts ( theory of mind) that are not accessible to others. Of course my theory doesn't really help you when you are staring at a child who is lying to you.

Obviously I am also not suggesting that Adults refuse to believe their children in all things. I am however suggesting that Your child is a normal kid and will attempt to spin every situation to their advantage. Even if that involves a small omission of fact, or a redirected emphasis on a part of the story for which they want sympathy/empathy.

One of my favorite examples involves Emily and a neighbor with whom she had a very love/hate relationship.  Em and the other little girl were six, and sometimes had playdates after school. I got home one evening and was greeted with Emily's breathless and indignant explanation of how this little girl had HIT HER!

Terrance had sent the little girl home, having believed Emily's version of the event. My teacher senses tingled and I began to question Emily.

"So, you were just playing and L ran over and Hit You?"

"Yeah! She just ran over and Hit me!"

"Hmmm. That seems strange. I mean, you weren't talking to each other or anything? I mean I guess it is possible that she just jumped up from what she was doing and ran over to hit you, but it seems unusual."

"No....Well, yeah, we were talking."

"Oh, what were you talking about?"

From here I dragged out of her that the neighbor girl and Emily were having a rather heated discussion about their Mothers. Emily Insulted the girls Mother - purposefully. There was some mutual throwing of objects ( I believe it was a Polly Pocket kind of play date), with Emily pushing the little girl. Who THEN Hit Emily.

When I filled Terrance in later, he was Stunned. STUNNED that his daughter had lied to him! How on earth did I know she wasn't being truthful? he asked.  "It just didn't sound right", I answered. There are Always two sides to any story.

Finally, it has always been important to me that we talk it through with Emily. Yes, we shout. Yes, we react.  However, when that has calmed down I want her to know why I was upset, or why her father was upset.  As she has aged it has been important to me that she understand HER part in the tumult. She is certainly at fault, on occasion. When I have been at fault, I strive to apologize to her.  Even Terrance has learned to apologize to her if he has been in the wrong.

Terrance might say that Emily behaves because she fears us.  I don't think that is true, though. A child can't really learn self control in a home in which they fear the adults. (Caveat: Terrance's definition of "fear" is pretty culturally based. In his family, it is used alongside "respect". I would say it is more about Adults and Children having pretty strongly defined roles, and the Adult is in charge of setting very specific boundaries and enforcing those)

Its nice when other adults compliment us on Emily's behavior when we aren't around. I am pleased that I have a polite well behaved person who is respectful and decent to others without me being in eye or earshot.

It isn't magic, though. It is the result of 13 years of hard work. Consistency. Firmness. Clear Expectations that BOTH parents endorse and to which both parents adhere and a healthy dose of bullshit detector.

 I went into this parenting adventure knowing my child wasn't perfect, and also knowing how the children whose parents DO think they are perfect behave in classrooms.

That being said, I have a 13 year old girl in my house now. I need to clean out the bullshit detector and get an upgrade. I suspect it will be getting a hearty workout in the years ahead.

5 Baleful Regards:

Mitzi Green said...

"I suspect it will be getting a hearty workout in the years ahead." go hell come. god help us all.

and the more i read about terrance's family, the more i think i may have been black in a past life...

Anonymous said...

I'm a firm believer that there are 3 sides to every story--yours-mine and the truth.

Love it when you share your wisdom on parenting....thank you!

KBO said...

This is about the best thing I've read in a while in regards to parenting. You are so wise, friend.

Anonymous said...

lol u give me such good parenting advice so often - I have a polite Miss 3 but I am very aware that as much as my love for her self, her person, who she is - is perfect- that she is not. That I am not.
Your consistency ever since I read ur words re stuff what ev1 thinks re Binky - if it works, keep it ... gave me faith - u keep that faith alive and well :) Lisa Jane from FB

Gurukarm (@karma_musings) said...

Heh... Daddy may be loud, but Mommy channels Vlad the Impaler, so, WIN! ;-)

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