The family history on my father’s side is a long-line of authoritarian fathers and obstinate sons.
This was certainly the case in my upbringing. I spend more time talking about this in my book, Parenting as a Contact Sport, but for now, let’s say that my father’s discipline was the unstoppable force and my attitude was the immovable object.
He raised both my brother and I to be independent kids and he was successful in this venture. Neither my brother nor I looked back after leaving home.
I resolved to do better with my kids, and I avoid the battle of wills with my kids when I can.
I ask myself three questions before deciding to commit to a fight:
- If I don’t do something, will there be a serious injury?
- Will any of this matter in 25 minutes?
- Will the behavior result in property damage?
These are guideline questions and relative to the parent in question, and usually if the answer to any one question is yes, it extends to all three.
However, I often find that what might make my hackles rise, simply doesn’t meet the above criteria. It reduces my stress and improves my relationship with my kids.
The types of fights that most parents have with children do not involve life, limb, or property. They involve whether socks match or the urge to finish the last piece of chicken nugget. They involve bouncing on a couch or mispronouncing a word.
They will not result in serious injury. They will not matter in 25 minutes. They will not result in property damage.
For example, that glob of dried mucous that seems to always hang on the side of youngest son’s nose bothers me. But it doesn’t bother him, and he really doesn’t like people touching his face. It’s gross looking, but it isn’t hurting him or me. Leave it be.
And there was the time my wife argued with a toddler for five minutes, because it was the middle of winter and he had bathed the night before.
Wife: You just had a bath.
Wolf: But I want another one!
5 minutes later
Me: He just wants to splash around and this argument has lasted longer than the bath itself. Take a break.
Sometimes it even means letting a child hurt themselves after they’ve been warned. During the winter, we have a stove insert that gets very hot on the outside glass. I warned Wolf (3 at the time) repeatedly in a slowly escalating voice to stay away from the stove. Finally, I just watched him. Slowly creeping toward it, drawn to the flame like a moth. He reached out and touched the glass.
I walked over, picked him up and put his hand under cold water and then put aloe on it that we keep next to the fireplace (I’ve burned myself on the glass before too.)
“Did that hurt?”
“Did I tell you it was hot?”
“Well now you’ve learned. It’s going to hurt for awhile but you’ll be okay.”
He went up to the toy room, a little deflated, and whimpering gently. But he’s never touched the stove again, and I haven’t had to warn him again.
This cautious indifference takes practice. The cry of your own child, even for a minor injury grabs you in a place so fundamental, it feels like you’ve been kneed in the groin. (It’s 1,000 times worse for a mother.) And the worry that something bad MIGHT happen is just as sickening.
But the psychological damage caused by the parent who constantly nags and harps and confronts is worse. At least in my opinion.
Am not advocating for parenting without boundaries. I am simply saying that that independence is better cultivated like a rose than forged like a knife. Both can cut when necessary, but only one can be enjoyed for its beauty.
For children to grow up into independent adults, they need some level of obstinacy. And the parents of those independent kids need to set boundaries. Striking the balance between those two has been my goal since my first kid started walking.
Maybe I’m wrong. I won’t know for sure until my kid decides whether or not he’s moving back in with me after college. I have my suspicions. In the meantime, carry on my wayward son. I’ll have Band-Aids on demand.