Copyright 2021, John K. Rosemond
No New Tricks To Raising Kids
What is “gentle parenting”? It did not take much investigation for me to conclude that it is merely a rebranding of the same old, same old parenting babble America’s mental health establishment has been grinding out since the late 1960s.
Mental health professionals began demonizing punishment some fifty years ago, and sure enough, I discovered that so-called “gentle” parents don’t punish. When a child misbehaves—or, to use the currently popular euphemism, makes “bad choices”—gentle parents talk, explain, and reason (all of which falls on dry ground when the recipient is a child, as people with commonsense don’t need to be told).
But is punishment bad? Not at all. A generation of children who were reliably punished for misbehavior—kids who, like yours truly, were raised in the 1950s and 1960s—enjoyed considerably better mental health than have children raised since. A compelling body of research even finds that children who are occasionally spanked score higher on measures of well-being than children who have never experienced the sound of one hand clapping.
The gentle parenting folks say they believe in boundaries, but they’re being disingenuous. As an example, consider the midwestern psychologist mom who (a) claims to practice and promote GP and (b) is proud of never telling her child, currently a toddler, “no.” She has even told his preschool teachers that she doesn’t want them saying “no” to him. She apparently believes there is something about that particular phonetic phenomenon that causes a child psychic distress. In fact, “no” is the first and most important of all boundaries. A child who learns to accept “no” is on his way to emotional resilience and, therefore, good mental health.
As clearly stated on one of their websites, GP is mostly about the supposed need to understand why children feel the way they do: “Unlike permissive parenting, gentle parenting is not based on a lack of discipline for children, which is sometimes misinterpreted. Instead, gentle parenting means understanding a child's feelings at the moment and responding accordingly in a way that is beneficial to the child's emotional well-being.”
What, pray tell, is there to understand about a child’s feelings? Children are self-centered, possess an entitlement mentality, and have no tolerance for frustration. So, when they don’t get what they think they deserve, they emote in various antisocial ways. Why does that require “understanding”? Children do not need people who understand their feelings as much as they need people who insist that they control them and get themselves in tune with reality, which is independent of what they want it to be.
Gentle parenting will sell well, mostly because its post-1960s philosophical predecessors managed to turn something that was once done calmly and straightforwardly into the most stressful thing a woman will do in her entire life. As such, moms (the primary consumers of parenting advice) are desperate for “answers” and convinced, oddly enough, that the answers lie in modifications of the very babble that is causing their stress to begin with.
Parents would do well to come to grips with an immutable truth: When it comes to raising children properly, there is nothing new under the sun.
The Problem With ‘I Feel Your Pain'
“I feel your pain” passes as a virtue, but it is anything but. However well-intentioned, it is the gist of codependency.
When someone else is in a state of emotional pain, it is one thing to empathize, understand, have compassion, offer to give support, and render practical assistance. It is quite another to feel the person’s pain. In that event, the person feeling the other’s pain becomes inclined toward attempting to solve that person’s problem. Why? Because it is now his problem as well, and equally so. That attempt is known as “enabling.”
In short order, the enablee becomes dependent upon the enabler’s assistance, and the enabler becomes dependent upon the illusion that he is self-sacrificing, and down the road of mutually assured destruction they waltz. They both need one another, one to confirm his helplessness and victimhood and the other to confirm his heroism, his moral superiority.
“I feel your pain, tra, la, la” seems to be the theme song of contemporary “parenting.” I put the word in quotes to distinguish that peculiar post-1960s pathology from mere childrearing. The pre-psychological form was “mere” because it did not, in and of itself, give rise to such aberrations as parents who felt their children’s pain and thus the obligation to solve their every problem. Consequential to being burdened (or so we sometimes thought) with non-codependent parents, we boomers were forced to develop the armor of emotional resilience, which translated to much better child mental health than has been the case since. Much, much, much.
When I complained to my parents that one of my fifth-grade teachers did not like me, they told me, in no uncertain terms, that her dislike of me best not be reflected on my next report card.
“Besides,” said my mother, “it is high time you learned how to deal with people who don’t like you, making sure they have no reason to do so.”
Where, these days, is the parent who talks this way to a child, who refuses to affirm in any way, shape, or form, the child’s claim to victimhood? My mother, I thought, was a cold-heart who took sadistic pleasure in standing by as I went under for the third time. What did I know? The sign of proper parenting is not a child’s affirmation. A working definition of “child” is “one who is ignorant of what is in his best interest.”
Far more often than not, he more vehemently a child objects to a parental decision, the more said decision reflects the child’s best interest. That is why the best response to a child’s declaration of hate for said parent is, “If I were you, believe me, I’d hate me right now too! Do you feel the need to share any other earth-shaking news with me? If so, I’ll stick around for as long as you’d like. I want you to feel, after all, that you have freedom to speak your mind around here.”
That is not the language of feeling a child’s pain. It is the language of informing a child that his feelings do not define reality in the family, that life is full of problems, that problems are always painful, and that the earlier he comes to grips with the foregoing, the better for him for a long time to come.
A love that isn’t tough is always to be regarded skeptically.
Using the ‘Dry Run’ for Tantrums
Q: My almost four-year-old daughter is generally well-behaved except for screaming and running away from me when we leave a store, the library, etc. before she’s ready to go. She pulls away from me and runs. If we’re already outside, she often puts herself in danger. I have spanked her and sent her to her room when we get home. When I punish her, she is sorry, but the next time we leave a public place, she does the same thing. She’s too big for me to pick her up kicking and screaming and carry her to the car. I have been leaving her home as much as I can while I go shopping, but that really doesn’t solve the problem. What can I do?
A: Have I got a solution for you! It’s called the "dry run.”
At this point, your problem is that when your daughter goes on the lam, your hands are probably full or close to it. Furthermore, you may be in the middle of a string of errands and can't immediately go home. So, you muddle through the situation as best you can while in the meantime becoming more and more flustered, and you end up not sending your daughter a clear, powerful message concerning your expectations.
A dry run: Take your runaway to her favorite store. Go with no purpose in mind save that of setting a disciplinary precedent. When you get to the store, look around for a while, then buy her something she wants. It is important that when you leave the store you are not carrying anything except whatever thingy you bought for your daughter. When it's time to go, and she begins to scream and struggle, you put down what you bought for her—even if you’ve already paid for it (it should, therefore, be inexpensive)—pick her up, carry her to the car (you can do this!), strap her in, drive her home and confine her in her room until bedtime, which should be as early as possible. Calmly inform her that this is the procedure from now on.
The next day, take her on another dry run. When you get to the store, say, "Remember yesterday? If you scream, I'm going to take you home and put you in your room. When you're in your room, I get a lot done around the house, so scream and try to run if you want to." Act very nonchalant, like it doesn't matter to you if she screams and tries to bolt or not.
My guess is she won't scream, but if she does, it’s no longer skin off your back. Three to five dry runs should solve the problem. Nonetheless, for the next three months or so, whenever you go to a store, you are going to have to remind her of "the deal" and stand ready to act if she has a relapse.
Choose 1 of 2 Paths With Kids’ Anxieties
Q: I recently changed my almost 4-year-old son’s preschool. My son, once fearless, has become reluctant to simply get out of the car in the morning and go into the school. There’s always a teacher at curbside, welcoming the kids. At his old school, he’d just get out of the car and go in. Now, I have to walk him in, then he doesn’t want me to leave. Once I go, however, he’s fine. Did I make a mistake changing his school?
A: Unfortunately, today’s all-too-typical mother tends toward feeling that if her child has a negative reaction to a decision she has made, the decision was probably wrong and may well cause psychological problems. This is tantamount to believing that a child’s emotional reactions are accurate barometers of parental decisions.
A child is not in any position to know what is in his best interest. He may know when he is thirsty, but he does not know whether he should have water or a soda. If you give him water and he cries for soda, this does not mean you have done the wrong thing, much less that he will develop psychological issues concerning water. In this case, your son may know that he is anxious, but he does not know that the solution to his anxiety is for him to simply get out of the car and walk inside.
As you have already discovered, you cannot talk your son into opening the car door and walking in on his own. No anxious child has ever been talked out of his anxieties. Older children can be talked (sometimes) into doing what is necessary to test their anxieties against reality and therefore overcoming them (e.g., riding a horse), but when it comes to the anxieties of a young child, there are but two paths for parents to take: forget it or force it.
Forgetting it means deciding that the issue isn’t really that important (e.g., riding a horse) and that it is in the best interest of all concerned to wait until the child is older before re-introducing the child to the anxiety-arousing event or thing. When the issue is important (e.g., getting out of the car and walking into school), then forcing the issue becomes a necessity. Here’s a fact: When parents cater to a child’s anxieties, they worsen.
So, first, redefine the problem. This amounts to verbal sleight-of-hand that allows a parent to force a change in behavior without putting on the role of serious disciplinarian. Tell your son you’ve spoken to his doctor about the problem and the doctor says reluctance to get out of the car in the morning means your son is not getting enough sleep. So, if he doesn’t simply get out of the car at your first prompt (i.e., if he hesitates, requiring you to tell him twice), you’ve been instructed to make sure he gets more sleep that night by putting him to bed immediately after supper. Remind your son that you have to do what the doctor says.
If, the next day, when you pull up to the school, he does not seem to want to get out of the car, you simply say, “Oh, you’re tired. C’mon. I’ll walk you in.” Make no big deal of it but put him to bed after supper that evening. Not one of the many parents to whom I have recommended this approach have never told me it failed. Furthermore, I have never spoken to a pediatrician who disapproved of his authority being invoked in this creative manner. In fact, most of ‘em think it’s funny.
Straight Talk About Respect
“I can only expect my son to respect me as much as I respect him,” said the mother to the “parenting expert.”
In a sense, that’s true, albeit this mom’s definition of respect hardly lines up with that of said expert. She refers, obliquely, to an egalitarian relationship in which the two parties are on a level playing field. It’s a post-1960s fantasy that held me captive for some time in my early parenthood. Thankfully for all concerned, I was able to purge it before it ossified in my head and proved my stepfather a prophet.
A child demonstrates respect for an adult by willingly—that is, in the absence of threat or promise—paying attention to and doing what said adult tells him to do. An adult demonstrates respect for a child by calmly communicating the expectation that he is to pay attention and do what he is told.
That expectation is in the child’s best interest. Research affirms common sense: to wit, the most obedient kids are also those with the highest levels of well-being. Obedience, fundamentally and most authentically, is an act of trust. The compliant child is not close to being the mindless robot of psychological myth. He simply acknowledges that he requires competent big people in his life, taking care of business, and that “his” big people are taking impeccable care of business on his behalf.
Children need adults they can depend upon. They need adults who earn their respect. Some adults, unfortunately, believe they deserve the respect of the children in their care, that it is their natural due. Said adults are often found becoming enraged at children who do not give that to which they feel entitled. Others—I suspect the above mom was one of these—confuse being respected with being liked. They often wonder why, given the sincerity of their efforts to be likeable, their children don’t obey them.
Fact is, I can like you and not really respect you; likewise, I can fail to find you likeable, but respect you nonetheless. I can even fail to find you very likeable but love you just the same. My sense of security does not depend on my response to you, but your child’s sense of security is very dependent on his response to you, and you are the determining factor in that regard. Your child needs to respect and obey. If there are days when he doesn’t like you, oh well, that too will pass. Why would an authentic adult who is taking proper and steadfast care of business on a child’s behalf worry if said child doesn’t seem to like him on Wednesday…or even Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday? Or even for several weeks running?
How does an adult earn a child’s respect? By simply acting like he knows what he is doing. Said adult communicates to said child that he does not need the child’s input to know what to do and he surely is not concerned whether, in any given instance, the child likes what he decides and does. The child is not at the center of his worldview, but he is at the center of the child’s worldview and he occupies that center with authority, grace, and good humor.