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The Therapy Sessions
Sunday, December 19, 2004

A parental experiment

Note: As I read over this post, I realize that it may sound little arrogant - as if my idea of parenting is the only one that will work.

That isn't true.

Parenting is an experiment that you only get one chance to do right.

And this is how my wife and I are setting up our experiment:

Before my wife and I had children, I spent a lot of time observing. Some of our friends had children. Some were well behaved and polite, and others - well - weren't.

We wanted nice children.

Over the years (with my wife's input), I've been formulating a list of postulates for good parenting. They are strikingly different from the ideas about child rearing that many psychiatrists recommend. (Psychiatrists, I am convinced, spend so much of their time thinking for parents that they have forgotten to think like parents.)

Why "postulates?"

A "postulate" is something that you are pretty damn sure is correct, while a "law" is an iron-clad truth. My experience in putting my ideas into practice is promising so far, but I'm not ready to declare my experiment to be a success. My kids are young, and it will be decades before I know how well I've done.

And let's face it: by the time if these postulates are "laws," I'll probably be about 80 or so, and I won't give a shit anymore.

So I put the first one forward for you, open to debate.

1. Old fashioned, uncompromising discipline works.

I mean this in the starkest terms: Mom and Dad are right, and children are wrong.

I think the biggest mistake (liberal) parents make is negotiating with their kids - the parent tries to understand why the kid are angry, explaining the rationality of the rules (i.e.: "These are the rules and I want you to understand that you mustn't be mad about them..."). Some bribe their kids with goodies if they do the things they should do anyway ("Austin, if you stop screaming in the supermarket, Daddy will buy you a candy bar!")

This negotiation is - in my opinion - a terrible mistake. The worst mistake that a parent can make.

To understand why, it is important to see things from the child's point of view: children realize that they live in a dangerous world, and they know they are small and vulnerable. (If you doubt this, watch your child when he comes under the sudden -and hopefully brief - realization that he is lost in a public place).

Children crave, they honestly crave, parental figures who can prove to them that the parent is in control.

They want someone who will say this:
I can control everything. I can make your world safe, and I am powerful enough to keep the evil of the world at bay. I can make your world a place where you can express the vulnerability that is love - without fear.

The parent, in a child's eyes, is God.

Now, how can you fill that role if you have demonstrated to your child that you can't (or won't) control him? If you can't do that - control a tiny bratty child - how can you keep his world safe?

The more the parent understands this, the better his children will be. Children who have the assurance of at least one such parent tend to be well adjusted. Children who do not tend to withdraw and show hostility to the outside world (often misdiagnosed as ADHD). This sullenness is only a defensive mechanism, in the same way that little "drop kick" dogs often act more fiercely than Pit Bulls.

In the worst cases, normal suburban parents - using the latest caring parental methodologies - can create sociopaths (i.e.: Dylan Klebold or John Walker Lindh).

There is a sense, particularly among highly-educated parents - that a discpilined home is an unhappy home. They think of the Von Trappes in "The Sound of Music."

But I have seen the opposite: strict loving parents have very happy homes, and well-adjusted, respectful children. After all, it is easy to "loosen up" a little after you have conclusively laid down the law with your child. The strict parent who is lenient on occasion is viewed as strict but kind, exactly as a parent should be. It is virtually impossible to suddenly become strict after years of demonstrating what a pushover you are. If you do, you will be viewed as a cruel tyrant. (This, coincidently, is the very true lesson of Machiavelli's The Prince).

What do I mean by strict?

No means no, absolutely. If Sean wants something and I tell him "no," that is the end of the discussion. He does not ask again (and if he does, he goes to his room). He does not get anything when he whines or cries (rest assured, he will get the things he needs (but perhaps not the things he wants) only after he has asked for them politely). When he cries, he goes to bed. He speaks to adults with respect("Mr.", "Ms.","Maam" and "Sir").

Sean and Tim go to bed when they are told (though they do tend to giggle together in their room for a while - I like the fact that they get along).They eat the food they are given, and if they do not, they go hungry (no, they won't starve). They watch little TV (I believe that boredom is the spark that awakens imagination). For entertainment, Sean, at least, "reads" books (he's four). When the weather's nice, they play outside as much as possible.

When punishment is necessary, we send Sean to his room (please don't call this ancient form of punishment a "Time Out," as if it is a recently invented), where he lays on his bed with no toys. But I would be a poor parent if that was the most frightening penalty in my parental arsenal. No, that honor belongs to "the spanking" -which is used sparingly but usually gets the point across quite well (you think it's cruel? I 'd love to debate that with you).

I realize, as a parent, that there are limitations. I can't make them love everything or everyone, but I can promise that they will be respectful and polite. I can't make them smart, but I can see that they will work hard. I cannot guarantee that my children will be successful in life, but I can guarantee that they will not be whiney people full of excuses for their own failures.

Will it work? It looks promising.

The experiment is underway.

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