Copyright 2021, John K. Rosemond
Should Children Be Seen but Not Heard?
I wrote a book several years ago, "Grandma Was Right After All," in which I deconstructed the twenty-five most popular parenting adages of a bygone era. They included “You made this bed, so you and only you will lie in it,” “I knew if I gave you a long enough rope, you’d hang yourself,” and “You will have to stew in your own juices over this.” An entire parenting philosophy was expressed through the adages in question, most of which are now extinct because the philosophy in question has gone by the wayside, to the detriment of us all.
Nearly all of these adages are misunderstood today, but surely the single most misunderstood parenting aphorism in the history of humankind is “Children should be seen and not heard.” It actually originated in 15th Century England and applied only to – gasp! – young girls, who were thought to have nothing to say worth hearing. Gradually, however, it was expanded to include young boys as well, for which we are all grateful.
“Children should be seen but not heard” was ripe for demonizing and demonized it was by America’s mental health community, who claimed that its popular use reflected a general disdain of children. That may have been true of the Augustine clergyman who first penned it, but by the time I heard it, circa 1954, its meaning had, shall we say, evolved. It simply meant that when in a room otherwise occupied by adults holding conversation, children were to listen (be seen) but not interrupt (be heard). In other words, we were to know our place. It was a very civilized arrangement, actually, and no one my age whom I’ve queried on the subject has ever expressed feeling disdained upon hearing it. In fact, we boomers tend to rue that all too many of today’s parents seem to lack the mettle to tell their children, in no uncertain terms, what their place is and to stay there. The almost inevitable result is children who, through no fault of their own, are irritating.
Have you noticed what almost invariably happens when children are allowed to participate in adult conversation? Given license to talk, they don’t stop talking, which is in no one’s best interest, including their own.
Today, the adage could be applied to parents who tend to over-protect and over-manage their children. These zealous folks are usually known as “helicopter parents,” albeit I think “Cuisinart parents” more accurately reflects the dance of codependency that’s being performed.
The few and far between parent of sixty-plus years ago – anxious, hovering, micromanaging, enabling – has become ubiquitous today, a clear refutation of Darwin’s theory that only functional attributes are perpetuated. In those glory days, parents were to provide adequate supervision, but at a reasonable distance. If a mother could hear her children, they were probably too close, which explains my mother’s insistence that in any weather other than a lightning storm or hurricane, I was to be outside, out from “underfoot” – yet another parenting word that has fallen out of usage.
By the way, “underfoot” was synonymous with “annoying,” and I knew it, and I am today a better person for knowing it. I trust that my friends agree.
The Better the Husband, the Better the Dad
Several columns past, I took to my bully pulpit and excoriated men who are married with children for being fathers first and husbands a distant second (maybe even third behind sports fans). My point, for those of you who are behind the curve here, is that children don’t need fathers who are striving, as are so many of today’s dads, to be their kids’ best friends. They need fathers who are dedicated primarily to their wives, and in so being, show their kids what being properly married looks like.
Allow me to repeat what I say as often as circumstances permit: Nothing puts a more solid foundation of security and well-being under a child than the knowledge that his parents are in a committed, vibrant relationship. So, the better the husband, the better the dad. It doesn’t work the other way around. The more energy a man pours into being the best dad in the history of humankind, the greater the disservice he is doing his kids.
I shared my email address with the audience (email@example.com) and received lots of feedback from both men and women. Surprisingly enough, not one respondent disagreed (which doesn’t mean no one disagreed). Some of the emails were rather poignant, like the dad who told me that the column had come as a slap in the face and that he’s now a born-again husband. Yay! Then there was the email from the woman who told me that had I written the column five years ago (and assuming her then-husband would have taken it to heart), she might not be a single mother today.
By no means are women without sin when it comes to their family priorities, however. These days, the most common family dynamic is one in which two married people, once they have kids, begin acting as if they vowed on their wedding day to be husband and wife “until children do us part.” That, by the way, goes a long way toward explaining why the risk of divorce spikes after the last child emancipates.
I am qualified to speak authoritatively on this subject not because I am a psychologist, but because I am a member of the last generation of American children to be raised by people who were married first, parents second, and a rather distant second at that. We early boomers didn’t need our parents to tell us they were in much more of a relationship with one another than they were with us. In our families, we were second class citizens, and we knew it, and we were fine with it. I have yet to find someone my age who, looking back, would rather have been a Big Deal Kid. What a burden! That, by the way, goes a long way toward explaining why the mental health of today’s kids is so very much worse than the mental health of kids in the 1950s, who figured out early on that not being the center of attention was the much-preferred arrangement.
Being denied the center of attention by the two people who were occupying it meant we were afforded a very libertarian upbringing, which translates to figuring things out on one’s own, which translates to all manner of enduring benefit. America needs, perhaps more than anything else, a resurgence of minimalistic parenting. It begins with embracing the authentic meaning of “Children should be seen but not heard.”
Oops! Out of space. Stay tuned. I’ll do a deep dive into that much-maligned aphorism next week.
Four Steps To Give Argumentative Teenager the Last Word (and Restore Sanity)
Q: My fifteen-year-old daughter is slowly driving me insane! She argues with me about everything and always wants the last word. No matter how well I explain the “why?” of a decision to her, she argues. Even when I offer a compromise, she argues. It’s her way or the highway. Is there a solution?
A: Yes, but you may not like it. Solving this problem requires that you admit YOU have caused it, not your daughter. It is not her hormones, her age, or some inborn stubbornness that propels these arguments. YOU cause them by explaining yourself to her. In so doing, you fling wide the door to argument, which she charges through before you can shut it. Then you blame her for capitalizing on an opportunity YOU presented.
To end these counterproductive arguments, you must give your daughter the last word. Yes, you read that right. After all, you have never “won” the last word in an argument with her, and you never will. You can obtain the last word only with someone who will consider your point of view rationally. A child cannot understand an adult’s point of view; therefore, you cannot win the last word in any conflict with your daughter. Has your daughter ever agreed with one of your explanations? Has she ever said, “You know, Mom, when you explain yourself like that, I can’t help but agree”? No, and she never will. If a child does not like a parent’s decision, the child will not like the explanation the parent gives to support it. Period.
Giving your daughter the last word involves four steps:
First, when your daughter does not like a decision you have made and demands an explanation, give her one that does not require more than five words, as in, “You’re not old enough” or “No time for that” – what I call Neanderthal answers.
Second, when she begins to scoff, scream, mock, or otherwise demonstrate contempt for your explanation, as in, “That is the dumbest reason I’ve ever heard!” agree with her. Just say, “Oh, of course, if I was your age, I’d think the same thing. Yes, I remember thinking the same thing when my mother gave me reasons of that sort. You and I are a lot alike, dear daughter.”
Third, walk away. I call this “pulling the plug on the power struggle.” You simply leave the scene and let your daughter “stew in her own juices.”
Fourth, if she comes after you and tries to badger, just say, “Oh, yes, I’d have badgered my mother too. And my mom wouldn’t have changed her mind, either, but you’re welcome to give it the old college try.
By following this simple, four-step approach, you are guaranteed to drive your daughter crazy. Being younger than you, she can handle it better.
Children Need To Learn That Good Behavior Is Its Own Reward
Q: My husband sometimes gives our very stubborn seven-year-old daughter "prizes" for doing what she is told. The other night, for example, Juliette didn’t like what I chose for her to wear the next day to school and threw a mega-tantrum. I didn’t give in, but the next morning, she came downstairs saying she looked stupid and began weeping piteously, which never fails to tug at my husband’s heartstrings. Without my knowing, he took her aside and told her if she wore what “Mommy picked out for you,” he would take her to her favorite store on the weekend (which he did, over my objections). I think this was wrong, wrong, wrong, but he insists that it doesn’t hurt to do it every so often, especially if it’s going to restore peace to our household. Help us!
A: Before I answer your question, I’m going to point out that a conflict between you and Juliette over what outfit she wears to school strongly suggests that you are guilty of what I call Magnificent Maternal Micromanagement (MMM). If that’s true, you’re hardly alone among today’s moms, which should be no consolation at all.
I mean, let’s face it, events such as formal weddings aside, a seven-year-old is certainly qualified to pick out her own school clothes. And if Juliette doesn’t choose for herself the outfit you would choose for her, so what? Developing a fashion sense takes some trial and error, don’t you agree? Or do you think that such things as wearing the “wrong” outfit reflect badly on you (a common feature of MMM)? It could very well be that your micromanagement figures largely in the problems you’re having with Juliette. Furthermore, a warning: A tendency on your part to over-control your daughter at this relatively early stage of the parenting game is likely to precipitate rebellion during the teenage years.
All that aside, I agree with you where this thing of “prizes” is concerned. Children should be taught do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Your husband is obviously a big-hearted guy with the best of intentions, but outcomes are not determined by intentions.
Indeed, rewards often solve immediate problems, as evidenced on the morning you described. Eventually, however, they contribute to even more disobedience, irresponsibility, tantrums, and so on. You name the behavior problem, rewards are counterproductive in the long run.
So, where this matter of prizes for proper behavior is concerned, you win, but you are hardly free of parenting error. For you and your husband to get on the same page, which is key to heading potential teenage issues off at the proverbial pass, you need to rein in your need to be in control of every little parenting detail. And he needs to rein in his big heart.
Dress-up for 3-Year-Olds Is Just Fun
Q: Although we’ve given our three-year-old twins a range of toys to play with, our son prefers playing with vehicles of various kinds while our daughter usually plays with dolls. Over the last few months, they have started playing dress-up, during which both of them dress up in female clothes. The other day, they appeared before us, both dressed in some of my old stuff, and our son proudly announced, “We’re girls!” We’re old-fashioned about such things, but we said nothing. Should we be concerned?
A: Nothing in a young child’s world is more fun than playing dress-up. Typically, imaginative play of this sort emerges in late toddlerhood. Up until then, the child has a reputation for “getting into everything.” Brain development profits greatly from having a good amount of freedom in this area – when, in other words, his random explorations are not restricted beyond concerns for safety and expense.
As pretend play begins to flower in late toddlerhood, the child begins to explore roles and relationships. Formerly, the child played only “with” things. Now, he begins playing “at” things. Please understand that a three-year-old has no internal censor where such things are concerned, no inner voice telling him that certain clothes are off limits.
The bottom line: There is no significance, psychologically or otherwise, of a three-year-old boy preferring female clothing during dress-up play. Let’s face it, female clothing is generally much more colorful and interesting than male clothing. If your son enjoyed dressing in clown outfits and one day announced that he was a clown, you wouldn’t worry that he was going to want to wear nothing but clown suits when he was a teenager, would you?
This is nothing to worry about. Announcing that he is a girl is no more significant than our daughter Amy announcing at age three that she had changed her name to Sopie. Within a year, Amy was again telling people her name was Amy. Likewise, within a reasonably short time your son will let go of the “I’m a girl” thing. In the meantime, relax and go with the most enjoyable, precious flow of all this. We’re talking about PLAY, not real life.
If it bugs you, and you just can’t stop being bugged by it, then tell the kids they can play dress-up in their own room only. Then, just leave them to their fun-filled imaginations.