The book of Proverbs, in the Bible, is filled with some of the most practical wisdom you can find anywhere on the subject of child-rearing. It’s been an essential part of shaping the way I think, and in the development of my ideas regarding the bringing up of children. However, there is a verse in the 31st chapter, a chapter primarily devoted to the description of a wise woman, which always kind of bothered me: “The teachings of kindness are on her tongue.” It bothered me because I knew I didn’t often fit that description.
Because I had, for the most part, been a very compliant child, I’d figured out very quickly what it took to stay in my parents’ good favor, and made sure not to cross over to the “other side”; why endure pain and disapproval if all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and do as I was told? The most outwardly resistant thing I ever did, I think, was to slam the bedroom door. I figured most kids were like me, once they figured things out; surely if I made the situation clear to my own children, they’d behave accordingly!
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that, while my firstborn really did want to please us, she was determined to test us, to see if we meant what we said, and she didn’t mind a little disapproval in exchange for doing whatever she wanted to do, even if it meant doing exactly the opposite of what she’d been told. I often felt that there was a power struggle between my daughter and me–she seemed far more determined than I to set the course of our existence together.
My philosophy of life was not enough to convince her to obey, and my force of will was dwarfed by hers. I often found myself feeling really furious with her, and struggled not to take her resistance personally. I’m afraid there were times when my instructions to her and corrections of her were terse and angry, not at all kind.
It took a complete change in my thinking, and a lot of self-coaching and practice for me to assume leadership of my children. I had to realize their behavior was completely consistent with their nature as children–self-centered, incapable of adult reasoning, and motivated only by their own appetites and desires–and that the most loving thing I could do was to firmly correct and lead them. Once I understood that, I could see the need for clear instructions, firm and consistent consequences for disobedience, and a determination to not indulge them. But there was one other characteristic about children I hadn’t thought of: their ignorance.
The first time I told my firstborn daughter to pick up her toys–at about the age of three–she just stood in the middle of the room; I realized she didn’t know what I was talking about. I told her to look at the floor, and asked her what she saw. She said “toys.” I told her that the floor is not where toys belong, they each have a “home” where they belong when we aren’t playing with them. I told her to choose one toy, tell me where it’s “home” was, and put it there. Then we proceeded through the whole room; she would identify the proper place for each toy and place it there. The next time I told her to pick up her toys, I reminded her that they each had a “home”, and told her to remember how she had put each one in its place the time before. After doing this a couple of times, all I had to say was, “It’s time to put your toys away.” She might disobey, but not because she didn’t know how to do it.
Moms, we don’t have to be drill sergeants, and we don’t have to flop back and forth between “loving” mommy and “mean” mommy, indulging one moment and lapsing into anger and frustration the next. The thing we want most–that tender, loving relationship with our little ones–can ONLY occur if we are firm in our discipline of them. Here’s the thing we don’t realize: Firm discipline is possible, and far more effective, if it is instituted in a kind and loving manner–we have to be firm, because our children need to be able to test us, to see if we really mean what we say. This is the only way they will understand what is expected of them.
But firmness doesn’t mean harshness! As parents, we must always remember the vulnerability of our children, remember the fact that they just don’t think like adults or see things in the same way that we do, and they don’t know how to act until we show them. We must always, always guard against treating our children with impatience, somehow communicating to them that we think they’re stupid or that we demand perfection.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
First, gently teach your child how to do what you want her to do. Let her practice, at home and in public. Make your lessons short, focused on one behavior at a time, and don’t push your child beyond her ability to comply–if you know a 15 minute trip to the library is enough to begin with, plan on staying only 15 minutes. You can extend your visits gradually. Giving her this kind of success will enable her to go further the next time.
State your instructions clearly, with as few words as possible, and in a pleasant tone of voice–do not apologize or threaten or ask, but TELL. “Janie, it’s time to put your toys away. I’ll be back in just a few minutes, and they should all be put away by then.” NOT “Janie, hey sweetie, I know you’re having so much fun and you don’t want to stop, but I really need your help, because company is coming, so I need you to pick up your toys, okay?” Saying “okay?” after an instruction makes it a request your child has permission to decline. Have your child repeat your instructions, so you know she has heard and understood.
Once you’ve communicated your instruction simply and firmly, go on about your business. If Janie ignores you or acts like she doesn’t care, let her go, and you do the job she was told to do–don’t sigh dramatically, or ask her why she didn’t obey you, or ask her “How many times do I have to tell you . . . !”. Later impose a consequence, calmly and firmly–early bedtime, for example. “Janie, you disobeyed when I told you to put away your toys, so now that dinner is over, it’s time for bed.”
Consequences are to be imposed in a very matter-of-fact, even gentle way. Don’t grovel or apologize for the consequences, but don’t scream and yell–“I’ve had it, young lady! Go to your room!” If you’re doing this, you’ve probably been reminding, nagging, or threatening your child. Remember–if you’ve taught your child what’s expected of her, given clear and simple instructions that you know she understands, and she disobeys, don’t say another word about it–she’s clearly disobeyed. Disobedient behavior is always wrong–so, you should always, calmly, impose a consequence. No more angry outbursts.
Don’t bother asking your child why she disobeyed–she doesn’t know, and it doesn’t really matter! She did what she wanted to do, which most of us prefer to doing something we’ve been told to do; it’s just human nature. Asking “why?” only leads to confusion and frustration, and gets you no closer to your objective, which is teaching your child to obey.
Don’t be shocked when your children do foolish, or even rude things, if you’ve never taught them otherwise. They have to be taught! They have to be coached, gently, over and over again, not looked at like idiots who have no sense. In our family, we practiced standing when adults enter a room, offering a seat to others, opening doors for others, table manners, appropriate behavior in the library or in stores, phone manners, and a variety of other important social behaviors.
I showed the children how the behavior should look by acting it out, then said, “Okay, let’s practice!” We’d pretend the phone would ring, and I was the caller, or they sat in the living room and I pretended to be an arriving guest, or we pretended to walk into the library, and we stopped talking. Then, when the phone actually did ring, or a guest came over, or we headed to the library, I’d simply get their attention and say, “Okay, kids, remember: phone manners!” or, “guest rules!” or, “library rules!”
These are the teachings of kindness. Nothing is more humiliating than entering a situation you aren’t familiar with, doing what you think is appropriate, and then getting scolded for it! We’ve all been there, I’m sure. When your children are young, they’re new to virtually every situation they enter. Don’t set them up for failure by waiting until you’re in the situation, and then getting frustrated when they misbehave–prepare them!
Using the teachings of kindness, you are demonstrating your love for them, building confidence in them, and drawing them closer to you in the process. Telling them that this kind of behavior is just part of being a member of your family will give them a tremendous sense of belonging, and will tighten your family unit. Yes, the training itself can be very time-consuming up front, but most worthwhile things take some time and careful preparation. Don’t put your children into new and sometimes awkward situations and then be angry when they don’t live up to your expectations. Prepare them, using the teachings of kindness.