Monday, March 30, 2009

Of pups and preschoolers.

Today we have an interesting column from John Rosemond, whom I quoted in SHAM and whom I've mentioned before on the blog. He writes about the demise of the phrase "because I said so." The thoughts he presents aren't unique or groundbreaking; whole books have been written around the theme (which of course was the title of a movie released in 2007). But Rosemond has a way of putting omnibus topics into coherent focus in a very few words, and I think this is a good example. He shows us how the decline and fall of that phrase symbolized a sea change in the way we went about child-rearingor "parenting," to use the softer terminology more recently in vogue. As Rosemond suggests, the fact that almost no one says child-rearing anymore is indicative of the difference in the way we approach the task itself: Once again here, what we call the thing has a lot to do with how we go about the thing.

I bring some empirical knowledge to this topic. I was in college during the height
of the unrest over Vietnam, 1968-1972, when the campus rallying cry was "question authority!" (And just to be clear, the exclamation point was part of the thought.) Though I might have been the only conservative, pro-war student in Brooklyn College of that period, I subscribed to the rallying cry; I believed that questioning authority was never a bad thing.

Regrettably, a few years later, I brought that mindset into child-rea...uh, parenting.

I would sit down with my 4- or 5-year-old son and initiate precisely the sorts of futile back-and-forth debates Rosemond describes. These discussions never solved a thing; they merely widened the argument and created a whole new raft of things for us to disagree about. The explanations I tried to give my young son only begged further explanations (especially as he got older and more knowledgeable), and at some point I'd become exasperated and end up yelling at him anyway. These ill-fated dialogues also reinforced in him the idea that he was entitled by birthright to take issue with every rule that was imposed upon him. As you might imagine, this did not serve him very well in school.

Further, I think that by taking this indulgent tack, we parenters unwittingly communicate the notion that life is fair
which it isn't, as we all must learn sooner or later. I think sooner is better. We do kids no favors by leading them to believe that the Universe is more sympathetic and hospitable than it actually is. This is not to say we should instill the idea that life is rigged, that our kids will have little or no voice in what befalls them. But I come back to a familiar theme: that false hope, in the end, may be one of the most self-destructive sentiments known to man.

There's a lot of irony in parenting, and in some respects that irony is clearest when you switch species and look at, say, dogs. Notwithstanding sweet-natured films about mischievous yellow labs, a puppy who's allowed to do whatever the hell he wants to do is not, usually, going to grow into a very happy dog. Nor will he be a part of a very happy family. Nor will he be welcome in other homes, among other families. Such dogs can be dangerous to themselves and others. The odds are much higher that they'll end up in a kennel. The odds are much higher that they'll have a shorter life than they ought to have.

Sometimes the best way to "empower" someone is to rein him in when he's very young; teach him the ropes. There is a difference between freedom and chaos.

21 comments:

Rational Thinking said...

Thanks for this piece and the link to Rosemond's website. He makes a good point about the "why?" and "why not?" questions children ask which are not in fact questions, but challenges. I remember my own parents using "because I say so" - and it doesn't appear to have caused any lasting damage. Of course, back then when, the buzz was that "children need boundaries". I wonder what happened to that idea? Give me dogs anyday :-) The key to successful puppy training is that the pup knows that you are in charge of him. Then he can relax and be a dog. Maybe if children knew their parents were in charge, they could relax and be a child. It seems they grow up very fast these days, but mature much more slowly.

And I agree with you that the idea that life is not inherently fair is one that should be taught fairly early on in life. That way it isn't such a shock when you find out later:-) As, almost inevitably, I should think, you will.

RevRon's Rants said...

"This is not to say we should instill the idea that life is rigged, that our kids will have little or no voice in what befalls them."

I agree wholeheartedly, Steve. Teaching our children that every instance of their lives is predetermined would inevitably instill a deep sense of cynicism & futility. (Bet you knew that was coming.) :-)

My own perspective is that when our children are in their formative years, their lives *are* for the most part predetermined. I don't recall having to use the "because I said so," simply because my kids knew that to be a given. As they grew older, they challenged the "rules" quite often, and as they grew more sophisticated, I did offer my justifications for the rules I imposed upon them. On rare occasions, I was able to convince them as to the validity of my arguments. On other more frequent occasions, they had to accept things simply because "that's the way things are." Didn't like it, but knew there weren't other alternatives available.

I'll readily admit that there was a time when my kids and I were estranged from each other, but we ultimately forged great relationships with each other. Sometimes, they even tell me how right I was (and there's not enough in the will to cause them to BS me at this stage!). I really think that where we as a society have gone wrong is in believing that the best way to instill respect in our children is to accede to their demands. Consistency is essential, as are boundaries. The challenge is to be clear about which boundaries are established for their well-being, as opposed to those we impose to meet some need of our own.

Yekaterina said...

Most of us have probably found another way to say "because I said so." Mine is "I'm the adult, you're the child" Same difference.

Your PR Guy said...

Stirring hornet nests again, are we? I started thinking about my brother raising his two-year-old while I read this.

You stop short of the cliche, "spare the rod, spoil the child." I think children are much like Bonzi trees. As they grow, if it is pruned with care, with diligence -- with a purpose -- that tree (child) will mature well.

The point of "parenting" is interesting too. Are our thoughts and actions transformed by the words we use to describe them, or are our words a reflection of a deeper erosion of the human condition and how we view our role? Is this the real question? Where does the core of parenting reside? And where does the core of "child-rearing" reside?

roger o'keefe said...

It won't surprise you that I agree wholeheartedly, Steve. I want to be clear, I am not someone who believes in beating or even bullying children, but this whole idea that asserting parental authority in a firm way is equivalent to child abuse is what has given us so many jerks and screw-offs and delinquents. It used to be understood that the nuns in Catholic school had the authority to administer a well-placed smack with a ruler when it was necessary, and most times just the knowledge of that level of discipline was enough to keep kids in line. We have Dr. Spock to blame for sending us down this road where kids expect to be on an equal footing with their parents!

Sarsabu said...

"That's the why" is the version I use.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, fer godsakes... Here is Steve The Contrary again.

OK, methinks you are going about the whole thing the wrong way. Yes, I agree that you do not reason with a 18-month-old, just like you do not reason with a puppy. But introducing "because I said so!" is as effective with your toddler as it will be with the puppy.

There is actually quite a lot to learn for parents from animal training, which relies, by and large, on positive reinforcement of desirable behavior and extinguishing the undesirable one by either calmly interrupting it, when necessary, and redirecting the child/pup's attention to something else, or ignoring it altogether if it's not harmful or objectionable.

A very young child does not understand the "reasons," just as a pup does not. But neither the "because I say so!" will make the right impression on it, other than scare it and enforce the image of you as Vlad the Impaler (or his close cousin).

Praise/reward the good behavior and help dissipate and extinguish the bad. It works wonders with dogs. And with humans too.

P.S. There are actually some faithful SHAMbloggers who have tried to use this method with you, Steve, but I'm not gonna name names. (No, I'm not one of them.)

Elizabeth said...

It used to be understood that the nuns in Catholic school had the authority to administer a well-placed smack with a ruler when it was necessary, and most times just the knowledge of that level of discipline was enough to keep kids in line.

Roger, do you have any evidence of that, or is this just your impression of how this (threat of physical abuse) worked?

Anonymous said...

'or is this just your impression of how this (threat of physical abuse) worked?'

Having been a child on the receiving end of Roman Catholic physical abuse--and not just the threat of it-- I can assure you that it instilled in me a hatred and loathing of priests, nuns and the entire catholic edifice that remains virulent 50 years later.

I was one of the luckier (feistier?) ones, my fellow catholic kids are cowed and fearful adults, consumed with guilt and self-loathing--or carbon copy bullies.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:50: My wife is also a product of Catholic education, and though she tends to remember the experience more fondly--and with great reverence for the quality of the education itself--she is one of those fearful, self-doubting individuals you describe.

Sometimes we are the very last people capable of accurately assessing the way in which our early experiences have shaped us.

Elizabeth said...

Gosh, prepare for a rant now.

In addition to what I said above on the importance of positive reinforcement, there is a larger issue at stake here and it has to do with values that we want to teach our children as well as the type of relationships we want to develop with them.

The issue boils down, roughly, to a conflict between love and fear -- which one do we want to teach our kids? Which one are we about? Which one is more important? Do we want our children to love and respect us -- and learn that from our example, or do we want them to fear (and despise) us?

And what kind of individuals do we want our kids to grow up to be? Loving, confident, responsible and creative adults able to relate to others in mature and respectful ways, or cowardly, obedient cogs in the social machine who respond well to fear and threat, generate more of the same and adjust without murmur to the most objectionable circumstances? Or act out their hatred and aggression instilled at home on the society at large? (The latter two examples are results of the authoritarian child-rearing methods; for those interested more in the subject, I recommend Alice Miller's For Your Own Good, a book that explores this kind of parenting and its influences on individuals and society at large. She uses, among other things and people, Adolf Hitler and his family as a very convincing example.)

Yes, life is unfair, for most of us, most of the time. Allegedly. (And I use this word, because what does the phrase, "Life is unfair," really mean? It suggests a presupposition of some kind of balance, equity and/or debt we are due by the virtue of being alive. Unfair how? Alright, let's put it aside for now.) But is this the lesson we as parents should teach our kids? Why? To add insult to injury?

They'll learn it soon enough -- as soon as they are on the playground without mommy attached to them for the first time. And those lessons will continue throughout the rest of their lives. Do we really want to be on the side of the punitive and unfair world in our interactions with our kids, or do we want to teach them how to react to the unfairness, how to pick up the pieces and move on, how to be resilient when confronted with it? And still show them our love and support?

I would submit that the authoritarian and fear-based child-rearing methods are ineffective in the latter scenario. But to each his/her own. Unfortunately.

P.S. I was not a lovey-dovey mother to my own kids, to be sure. But if there is anything I regret as far as my parenting is concerned, it is being not loving, patient and attentive enough and at the right times, rather than being more of an arrogant and punitive prick. And somehow I don't think that on my deathbed I'll think, with regret, "Oh, if only I punished my kids more!"

Don't read it, please, as an advocacy of letting our kids do what they want whenever they want. That's not what I'm talking about and I hope it is clear. Discipline is important, but it needs to be *wise* and guided by love. Which is something most of us either do not remember or do not understand, not having had personal experiences with it in our own childhood.

OK, rant's over.

Elizabeth said...

I was one of the luckier (feistier?) ones, my fellow catholic kids are cowed and fearful adults, consumed with guilt and self-loathing--or carbon copy bullies.

Yes, Anon, those are predictable effects of child-rearing based on fear and abuse. But, you gotta admit, it's kept the kids and now those self-loathing adults "in line," no?

That is, if you don't count their innumerable pathological behaviors, including a desire to inflict similar damage on others. But, in line, yes, siree!

Oh. "In line." Sigh.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz et al: Look, I don't disagree in principle. I really don't. It breaks my heart every time I have to even think about disciplining my grandson in even the mildest way. ("Jordan, please put the flamethrower down...") :)

That said, I think the fly in your ointment, as a practical matter, is that you seem to conceive kids as just miniature adults. You empathize with their being "intimidated" from the standpoint of how that would feel as an adult, without, I think, giving proper consideration to the (perhaps worse?) aftereffects of the too-great spirit of parental indulgence that has characterized American parenting for a couple of generations now. What does an impressionable young mind conclude from parenting approaches that make it seem as if life is "all about him" (or her, of course)? I go back to my canine analogy. Though I realize that children are not puppies/pets, I'd argue that the comparison holds in the sense that they must somehow be made to understand that there are rules and expectations that must be met, and that such rules and expectations are not up for discussion.

Do you not agree with that?

Elizabeth said...

Though I realize that children are not puppies/pets, I'd argue that the comparison holds in the sense that they must somehow be made to understand that there are rules and expectations that must be met, and that such rules and expectations are not up for discussion.

Do you not agree with that?


I do, Steve. And, actually, children (and adults) have far more in common with puppies than we are willing to admit -- that's why those methods that work with puppies work so well with humans too. Positive reinforcement of desirable behaviors. Extinguishing -- not punishing -- of the undesirable ones. This was a major AHA! realization for me as a parent when I took my dog to an obedience class. (Yes, I learned more about child-rearing from my dog obedience classes than I did from reading parenting books.)

P.S. If Jordan has access to a flamethrower, you've already screwed up as a grandparent. IMO. My advice (unsolicited, of course): take it away from him. Give him some crayons and paper instead. And, even better, stay and color with him, what the heck. You have the time now, no? :)

Elizabeth said...

As it happens, your post coincides with Janusz Korczak's Declaration of Children's Rights which I posted on my blog in response to something that pissed me of in the parenting realm. It may interest you. Perhaps.

Steve Salerno said...

Now let's be fair about this, Eliz. I don't want to rob Jordan of his individuality and his need for self-expression; after all, when he lays waste to that nearby condominium complex with his trusty flamethrower, he is merely making a statement about the vitiating effect of encroaching urbanization and how it deprives him of his ability to roam free... Besides, he doesn't like the looks of the place, and shouldn't children be free to explore their own tastes and preferences?

Elizabeth said...

Besides, he doesn't like the looks of the place, and shouldn't children be free to explore their own tastes and preferences?

Nice try, Steve. But you know very well that this is *not* what I'm talking about. And if you don't, then you have not read my comments carefully enough -- or perhaps misunderstood them. Either way, I'm not gonna take this bait. That's not what I'm talking about.

Steve Salerno said...

And I also must ask: Isn't there a lot of room for, well, discussion between "because I said so" and the kind of strident/abusive bullying alluded to in some of these comments?

RevRon's Rants said...

I got quite a few spankings from my mom and beatings from my dad as a kid, and even then, was able to discern the dramatic difference between the two. The one taught me limits when I wanted none, and respect when I had none, and the other taught me rage. I also got my share of "swats" from gym, shop, and vocational agriculture teachers in school, and somehow, never felt hatred or even fear as a result.

Because of my father's behavior, I almost never gave my kids a spanking, but there were a few times... Ironically, they both turned out OK.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, Steve, there is room for "because I said so!", but you've gotta realize that "because I said so!" has no meaning to your toddler or your puppy. You have *to do* something to help change their behaviors and not issue empty statements. Which I'm sure you understand.

However, "because I said so!" may be an occasionally useful comeback in a potentially endless discussion with a precocious 7-year-old (or a teen, though good luck there :).

Elizabeth said...

One more thing: I often notice how rude and disrespectful American parents are to their children. It's shocking, really. Go to any mixed neighborhood (mixed as in housing immigrants, especially from Europe and Asia) and observe the difference in how those parents treat their offspring: gently, with love, tolerance and patience. And yes, with limits too.

Somehow American parents did not get the memo. I hear and see things said and done to children here that make my blood boil. Like a mom, shopping at a mall with her female friend and a small son (maybe 5), saying to the boy, with clear disdain and loudly enough for everyone to hear, "You are totally ridiculous!"

Now what on Earth would prompt a parent to say this to a 5-year-old? And loudly enough to publicly humiliate the child?

And I would bet that the mom felt completely justified in her behavior and likely did not see anything inappropriate in it.

It's not the kids that are the problem here, it's the egocentric parents with a sense of entitlement which they project on their children and their behavior, treating their kids like their property or worse.