If there is to be a world fit for good people, there must be parents willing to train their children to create that world and to live in that world.
I think most parents today are on the wrong track. I think they are doing a poor job of raising kids fit for a world of nice people. Most kids of today are ill behaved, whining, screaming little criminals. They run their families, they are a nuisance to others, and their parents (who were raised the same way) let them get away with it. Bad behavior is accepted as “part of growing up.” They call it “self expression.”
A friend of mine was at dinner with us. We were having a pleasant conversation, when Heather, my 4 year old at the time, butted in, “Daniel’s putting French fries in his nose!”
I said, “Heather, I am talking with Lisa. Be quiet until we are done.”
Heather went back to her dinner. Lisa, mother of a 2 year old, seemed surprised. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll stifle her self-expression, or bruise her little ego, or something?”
“No,” I said, “Kids need to have their self-expression stifled a little. Can you imagine a world where everyone expressed everything they were feeling? Hell, I’d kill half the people I see and have sex with the other half on the spot. I don’t want to live in a world like that, and I don’t want my kids to behave that way. She needs to learn to behave appropriately, and butting in while someone is talking is inconsiderate, rude, and inappropriate.”
It is now two years later, and Heather hardly ever interrupts anyone’s conversation. She waits patiently, and when there is a lull, she speaks. She is a very smart little girl, and she has a lot to say. Her self-expression and ego are very much intact. With our training, she knows how to participate in an appropriate way. She is much more pleasant to be around than some 10, 12, or even 20 year olds who haven’t learned the art of polite conversation.
It took about three months to train her not to interrupt when other people are talking. Every time she interrupted a conversation between others, her mother or I stopped her and asked her to wait until it was her turn – every time. It took some effort from us, and we think it was worth it. We think it will have her life go better, and we think that is part of our job.
So, what is a parent’s job? We think our job is to raise human beings fit to live in a civilized world. We raise our kids to be people we enjoy being around, talking with, spending time with. It is not our job to be loved, or even liked, by our kids. It is not our job to coddle them or protect them from the natural consequences of their actions. As it happens, they do love us, and we enjoy that – but we don’t interact with them trying to get them to like us or love us. We try to teach them what is morally right, polite, workable, and appropriate, whether they like us or not.
Once I was putting Heather down for her afternoon nap. She had been playing some game that she wanted to continue, and a nap was not on her agenda. After a few seconds of trying to persuade me that she didn’t need a nap, she resorted to, “I don’t want a nap. You’re mean. I hate you.”
I smiled and said, “I understand (pause) and it’s still nap time.”
She has only tried that tactic a couple of times in her 6 years. I suspect that if it had worked, she would have used it again and again.
Along that same line, we never end a sentence with “OK?” Most parents seem to end almost every sentence with “OK?” nowadays. “Honey, we have to go now, OK?” “It’s time for dinner, OK?” “Don’t hit your sister, OK?” These kids apparently grow up thinking that’s the way to talk. For example, they grow up to be cops (on the TV show COPS) who often end their orders with “OK?” “Sir, you hit your wife with a baseball bat, OK?” You are under arrest for assault with a deadly weapon, OK?” “Turn around and put your hands behind your back, OK?” “Sit in my car, OK?” “We’re taking you to jail, OK?”
When you are in charge in the way parents and cops are, you should never ever ask if it is OK. Kids, like criminals, should have no choice – besides, of course it is not OK!
You say to the kid, “It’s time for dinner.” “Sit down.” “Don’t hit your sister.” “Be quiet.” It is not a choice. It is an order from an authority.
And for cops, “Get out of the car.” “You are under arrest.” “Put your hands behind your back.” “Get in the car.”
As adults, we understand that the “OK?” question is inauthentic and meaningless. At best, when we use “OK?” we really mean “do you understand?” Kids don’t have the capacity to interpret that. It leads to resistance that is not present when you communicate in a simpler, more straightforward way.
For example, when it’s time to put our kids to bed we say “bed time.” They get in bed; we tuck them in and kiss them good night; and leave the room. They go to sleep. They do not whine about it. They do not attempt to persuade us it is not bedtime. They don’t get up after we leave the room. They don’t talk and keep each other awake.
They tried these things a few times when they were two or three years old. They were never successful, not once. It took about a week to “sleep train” them. Now, it is simply not an issue. I know other parents who are still trying to get their 10 and 12 year olds to go to bed at bedtime. “It’s time for bed, OK?” doesn’t work any better with a 12 year old than it did with a 2 year old.
When it is mealtime, we say, “Time for dinner.” Our kids come to the table and we have dinner.
When it’s time for school, we say, “Time for school.” They get in the car and we take them to school. No problem. No arguing. No whining. No discussion.
We never ask them if they want to go to school. We don’t ask if they want to go to bed. We don’t end sentences with, “OK?” We know it is not a choice, and they know it is not a choice.
When they were about five or so, each of them tried a couple of times “I don’t want to go to bed,” or something similar. We always acknowledge what they want, and we make it clear that what they want is not the deciding factor. We say something like, “I understand that you don’t want to go to bed (pause) and it’s still time for bed.” That’s usually the end of the discussion. When they first tried the “I don’t want…” tactic, sometimes they’d persist with a couple of more attempts. Each was met with the same acknowledgement and steadfastness, “I heard you. You don’t want to have your bath now (pause) and you are going to have your bath, anyway.”
While I’m on the subject of choice, there are many areas where we allow the kids to make a choice. For example, “You can have a hamburger or a chicken sandwich. Which would you like?” “You can wear your blue shirt or the red one. Which do you want?” But if it is really not a choice, we don’t pretend that it is. A word to the wise: never give a child more than two alternatives, unless you want to spend a long time discussing it.
I have heard parents say, “I have learned so much more from my children than they have from me.” If you are learning more from your children than they are learning from you, you are not doing your job. The parent should be the teacher, not the student. If you are even a mildly competent adult, your kids have nothing to teach you. They know nothing! Kids are little blobs of protoplasm, and it’s your job to turn them in human beings who can function in our world.
Most parents have 20 years or more of life experience. Kids have none. It is not a parent’s job to learn from kids. It is a parent’s job to teach.
While we have a lot of fun with our kids, and we recognize and applaud their innocence, we are not confused about who is teaching whom. We are the parents. They are the kids. We teach; they learn; period.
A family is not a democracy. This is apparently not obvious to most parents. They are constantly asking their kids for opinions and votes. A family that works is not and cannot be a democracy. If the kids got a vote, you’d have jelly beans for every meal and watch cartoons all day. The bottom line is always, “because I said so.” Parents should use it often, and with pride and enthusiasm!
When our kids were two or three, they began asking “why” about just about everything. Though it is tempting to answer their “why” questions, no good can come of it. It starts with perfectly innocent curiosity. “Why does this bug taste funny?” But if you answer even one “why” question, you will soon be answering many more. “Why do I have to go to bed?” “Why do you get to decide what we have for dinner?” “Why do I have to go to school” “Why do I have to obey the law?” “Why shouldn’t I smoke dope?”
Our kids are now 7 and 10, and they seldom ask “why” questions. They ask, how, when, what, who, and where questions, but seldom “why.” We trained them by answering almost every “why” question with either the standard Zen response or “because I said so.”
“Why is Daniel eating toilet paper?” Daniel is eating toilet paper because he is eating toilet paper. That’s what I mean by the standard Zen response.
“Why is poop brown?” “Poop is brown because poop is brown.”
“Why do I have to go to bed?” “Because I said so.”
“Why do I have to go to school?” “Because I said so.”
Once in a while I test them: “Daniel, why are you smart and handsome?” He pauses only a second, and then grins, “Because I am smart and handsome!”
“And Heather, why are you smart and beautiful?” She pretends to think about it, “Uhhh, because I am smart and beautiful?”
They are good kids prepared to live in a world of civilized people.
I joined the Navy after high school, saw the world, went to war, lived abroad several years, and finally settled in San Diego, California.