How do I get my child to behave? How do I teach my child to be polite or thoughtful of others? Is spanking ever O.K.? How do I get my children to practice the piano or do their homework? How do I get them to do anything or even listen to me? What do I do when they’re bad? What kind of discipline should I use?
Do I back off or get in their face like a “tiger mom?” How can we exercise parental authority so that our children will become authorities themselves? It’s actually not hard; it’s just tricky. Don’t get mad; get creative.
Actually, maybe it is hard, but if so, what is hard is the growing we adults have to do.
A mother once told me that one of the most important things I taught her was: “Don’t get mad; get even.”
“Really?” I replied. “I mean, that doesn’t sound very professional of me.”
“Yes,” she said. “It’s my mantra. I say it to myself all the time.”
“Like yesterday, Brian [age 6] said he wasn’t going to do his homework.
“My first feeling was fear, then anger. It made me mad. I almost got into it with him, but planning ahead I could see that by the end of the argument he would have proven to me that indeed he DOES have the power NOT to do his homework. I felt that he was just doing this to push my buttons.
“So, I said to myself Rick said, ‘Don’t get mad, get even,’ and said to Brian, ‘Well, if that is your decision, that is your business. But of course you will have to tell Ms. Golden. She is the one who gave you the assignment, not me. I’ll go into the classroom with you, in case you want some help telling her.’ Half an hour later I saw him sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework.”
Whoever started using the word “mad” for the feeling of anger was definitely on to something. Certainly, anger is often a legitimate feeling, and kids can make you angry. In fact, if getting “No” when you ask them to do something, or seeing them hurt someone, or being disrespected doesn’t make you angry, then you are socially irresponsible. lf things like that don’t cause anger to well up in you, then you shouldn’t be parenting or teaching. However, it is mad (I mean crazy, insane, foolish, immature) to react with anger. Better to run feelings through other parts of the brain before acting.
A litter of puppies is nursing at their mother’s teats when one of them uses its teeth. What does the mother do? Her head instantly whips around from its calm, peaceful state, and snaps at the offender. Offenses need to be corrected as decisively as possible.
But human puppies are more complex and for best results they require a more complex reaction process. Snapping at children like a dog with her puppies is O.K., and at the same time not O.K. It is O.K. in that snapping delivers a message. It is not O.K. in that it has negative side effects. Also, snapping often doesn’t make a change in the behavior—just a dent in the relationship. An adult human would want to apologize for reacting in anger. (This is what essay 31 in the book The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity and Creativity in Children is all about.)
Back when Brian was two and working on developing his own authority, he began challenging his mother’s authority. His mother got mad. Soon Brian could be counted on to do the very thing that made his mother mad. His Mom’s anger became more interesting than the choice he was making. Thus Brian learned the game of “Making Mommy Mad.”
But then Brian’s mom decided to work smarter-not-harder and to be a creative problem-solver. She practiced the creative process of translating her anger into effective action.
In our conversation she said, “It feels like trying to outsmart him. I try to transfer back to Brian the effect of his actions.”
I said, “This is great but from now on could you please use the mantra: Don’t get mad; let the consequences do the talking. It would make me feel better. I don’t like the connotation of ‘get even.’”
She laughed and said, “Sure, if it would make you feel better.”
Learning how to translate anger into effective action is actually a lifelong process, but if emotional control is something we want to teach our children, first we must teach ourselves. One of the blessings of children is that they will teach us, if we can bring ourselves to listen.
It may feel paradoxical, but if we are confident in the necessary authority that comes with the position of parent, letting ourselves learn from our children only enhances our authority in their eyes.