We have a new family upstairs. They are nice. The mother is Israeli, the father is American, and they’ve all been living in America for the last six years so the kids are all American. The mother has been stopping by a lot for help/questions/stuff she needs to borrow, which is fine with me; I’m glad to pass along the favors, since we got plenty of them at the beginning.
Friday night she stopped by after she realized she didn’t have a Shabbos tablecloth. I found an extra for her and we stood there chatting as the kids sat at the table devouring their Friday night chicken soup and banana nut bread. I hadn’t made chicken soup in a couple of months (too hot) and the banana bread was really good if I do say so, so they were all happily blessed out and very quiet.
Suddenly she looked at them and said, “Your kids are so good. How are your kids so good? Why are they so quiet? How do you do that?”
And it turned into a whole long conversation about parenting, because she really truly had no idea how she was supposed to get her kids to behave. “I threaten them but then I don’t know what to do. I put them in time out and then just come out and laugh!” So we talked about it for a while and it got me thinking.
Now, if you have met my children (or, um, babysat for all four of them at once) you will know that my children are anything but perfect. They act up and they test limits and they can be obnoxious and they do all kinds of things they shouldn’t do. But mostly? They are really sweet kids. I mean, I’m their mother, so I’m biased, but I do think this is true. The other day, Barak sat down on the couch with Iyyar and taught him to read the word “and.” Then he read him “Where the Wild Things Are” and every time he got to the word “and,” he’d point at it and say, “What’s that?” and Iyyar would triumphantly crow, “And!”
(Sorry, just had to tell that story. It was so cute.)
Anyway, like I said it got me thinking. About parenting, about how I was parented, about the aspects of the way I was raised that I incorporate and those I avoid like the plague. And also about what I see other people doing sometimes, things that make me want to jump up and scream “don’t! don’t! don’t!”—not that I do.
I should probably mention, if you’re not already aware, that I am permanently afraid that I am really messing my kids over. I don’t think I am, but it’s a subject of constant worry. So maybe I’m completely self-deluded and a terrible parent and you shouldn’t listen to anything I say, but for what it’s worth, this is what I told my neighbor, and these are the things that make me want to jump up and scream “don’t!”
1. Don’t threaten your kid if you’re not going to follow up. “Put that down or you will lose it until tomorrow, that’s one,” followed by “Put that down or you will lose it until tomorrow, that’s two,” has to be followed by, “Okay, I said three and you didn’t put it down, so now it’s gone until tomorrow at X time.” Tears and screaming and whatever, as the object goes away and stays away until tomorrow at X time. If tears and screaming continue, you might extend the object’s time-out. No positive consequences should ever, ever, ever come from whining, screaming, misbehaving, or pitching a fit.
Counting only to two, then saying “I said put that down!” and yanking the object out of child’s hand as you roll your eyes is not helpful to anyone. You don’t teach anything that way, other than that it’s OK to not listen. Use your judgment when you see that the kid is tired or hungry or strung out, but in general, Be Consistent.
2. Don’t say derogatory things about your child in their hearing. Saying that Plony doesn’t listen, doesn’t respect you, thinks rules don’t apply to him, doesn’t play nicely, doesn’t do his homework, isn’t nice to his friends and ergo doesn’t have any, can’t pay attention, thinks he’s so smart and will find out someday… not helpful. Really. If you’re talking to your friend about your kids and your kids are at all within earshot, or even IN THE SAME HOUSE, don’t talk this way. Say, “it’s hard for him to listen and we need to really work on that,” or “I’m worried about how he does X,” or “she needs to work on Y.” Because saying negative things about your child’s character is asking your child to live up to your expectations. And overhearing things like, “They think they don’t need to listen to me,” isn’t going to encourage them to listen. Trust me.
3. You are in charge. Not your kids. If there is a rule it should be a rule. Yes sometimes we make exceptions about cookies after school or artificial coloring or bedtime, but if the rule is that if you hit you spend ten minutes in your room and your kid hits, no matter how much you don’t feel like getting off the couch to wrestle him into his room, you have to do it. If you told him, come here or we’re going home right now, and he doesn’t come, no matter how much you don’t want to go home, you have to do it. Don’t just roll your eyes. Don’t just yell. Cf: Be Consistent. Kids want to know the expectations. If they don’t know what the limits are, the only way for them to find out is to test them. And if the limits change all the time, they have to be testing all the time. That isn’t fun for anyone.
4. Don’t just punish. Debrief. Talk about it afterwards. Nicely. With hugs and kisses and reassurance. Even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it.
5. Last, but first. Don’t be mean. Don’t be mean. Don’t be mean. If you want your kid to speak nicely, speak nicely to your kid. If you want them to say please, you also have to say please. If you tell them they’re bad, they’ll believe it. Be polite to them. Treat them with respect if you expect them to treat other people with respect. Don’t think that they should have to earn your respect but you should get it automatically. If you love each other, you respect each other.