My kids don’t listen to me. Or, rather, they listen to me, but rarely the first time and rarely without protest. Everything, it seems, is up for negotiation in our house, no matter how clear or firm I think I’m being. “You can’t have a snack.” But why? “It’s time for your bath.” But I don’t want one! “Lights out now.” But I’ve got 10 pages left! The other day I threatened to pull the car over when my 4-year-old wouldn’t stop kicking the back of my seat. And then I did, swerving into a side street more abruptly than I intended, and he looked at me with wide eyes and promptly started kicking it again.
My mother has long believed that for young children to listen to their parents they need to fear the consequences. I yell at my kids when they get out of hand, and to my own ears I sound like a banshee, but it doesn’t necessarily scare them into submission. I take away privileges (no iPad, the horror!), but it doesn’t ensure the offending behavior won’t be repeated. Even my husband, with his objectively stern manner, doesn’t intimidate them enough that they don’t talk back.
How do you command respect as a parent? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, because I am increasingly convinced that I don’t. It is through fear? Is it through discipline? Is it through quiet authority?
I consider myself a disciplinarian, but of course, if I were an effective one, my kid wouldn’t still be kicking the back of the seat after the fifth time I told him not to. I set boundaries, I enforce them; I am not, in other words, a pushover. And yet, at the same time, there must be some Gestalt to my parenting that is inherently non-authoritarian, something that fails to trigger blind obedience, that says to my children: the conversation is not closed. Not really.
It would be easy to chalk this dynamic up to bad—or inconsistent—parenting, and there might well be an element of that. But there are also deeper, more benign, cultural forces at work. According to Nicholas Day, author of Baby Meets World, Western cultures are less likely to turn out kids who listen to their parents because those kids were raised from the earliest days—were gazed at, were spoken to—with an emphasis on autonomy. Children, Day explains, who have been taught since infancy that they are free agents in the world are not very good at following orders.
From the moment they were born, I have indeed been encouraging my children to be “free agents,” implicitly as much as explicitly. To assert themselves, to question, always, what is happening to them. To challenge assumptions. I have nurtured their capacity for independent thinking and it shows. My 9-year-old muses often about his rights; he is genuinely confused by the idea that kids should simply do what their parents say, with no reciprocity. On most issues, he feels that his perspective is just as legitimate as mine.
Every society has its own parental ethnotheory, an intuitive approach to childrearing that trickles down to the details, details so small that the parents themselves can’t see them for the choices they are. This is what allows us to make generalizations about “American parenting” or “French parenting,” as Pamela Druckerman does so well. Likewise about variances within cultures. In her provocative New York Times opinion piece, for instance, Ylonda Gault Caviness essentially postulates that she commands respect as a black mom, that this is a feature somehow of her inheritance: “Dating back to slavery, black moms have had to hold a strong grip on their children’s behavior.”
It makes one wonder whether we can ever, as parents, truly escape our particular blend of cultural influences.
And yet, acknowledging the cultural bases of certain aspects of our parenting styles doesn’t mean we are shackled to them. I am constantly trying to improve myself as a mother, to “just say non” as it were, by compensating for my instincts, instincts which are no doubt a combined product of my Jewish American background and the fact that I live in the UK in the 21st century. My instincts to indulge on occasion, to compromise, to give second (and third) chances, to entertain reasons and mitigating factors.
It’s a difficult balancing act, however, because these instincts are a part of who I am and there is much about the intimate give-and-take nature of my relationship with my children that I wouldn’t sacrifice—even for a bigger dose of unquestioned authority.
My kids are not bad kids. They are confident and independent-minded. They are polite most of the time, especially with non-family members. They work hard at school, where their teachers report irreproachable behavior. At home, they might not listen to me as much—or as quickly—as I would like, but I take some comfort in the fact that they consider my presence a safe space to express themselves, to test limits both from within and without, and to know, all the while, that they are loved regardless. That love is perhaps the one thing even they wouldn’t argue with.
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