August 10, 2011

The Arranged Marriage

A few weeks ago, some good friends of mine posted a link to a CNN editorial about parents' inability to control children in public places ("Permissive parents: Curb your brats"). While everybody agrees with the need for discipline, I have to take exception to many of the author's points.

If you're the kind of parent who allows your 5-year-old to run rampant in public places like restaurants,
...we want to kill you for letting your brat ruin our dinner.

Or our plane ride. Or trip to the grocery store. Or the other adult-oriented establishments you've unilaterally decided will serve as an extension of your toddler's playpen because you lack the fortitude to properly discipline them, in public and at home.
With an opening like that, you wouldn't expect anything of real substance in the remainder of the article,and you would be right. This is a spleen-venting rant, pure and simple, that is more suited for a personal blog or distilled to a single angry Twitter post. You wouldn't expect it to be posted to and have the author flout his experienced journalistic credentials in the masthead of the article.

As a counterpoint to the bile towards parents with difficult kids, he offers nothing but platitudes and worn-out generalities:
we know you don't discipline them at home because you don't possess "the look." If you had "the look," you wouldn't need to say "sit down" a thousand times. If you had "the look," you wouldn't need to say much of anything at all.
He goes on to trot out such useless gems as "Spanking should not be completely off the table" and bemoaning cases where kids "are not put in check" for their behavior.

I absolutely agree that "The Look" is the crown jewel of parenting; a sign of real success that gently reminds the child of a carefully-built set of discipline tactics and constant parental vigilance. But situations where "The Look" is all that is required is the Horatio Alger story of parenting, a Steve Jobs among a sea of regular computer programmers. Sure, you see it from time to time, hear about it from people, but the simple fact that it gets noticed is BECAUSE it is so rare to find. A Gold Standard to aspire to, surely, but every parent who fails to instantaneously switch off a child's behaviors with a theatrical flick of the eye should not consider themselves a failure.

If parenting were simple, there would be a singular training manual for every situation, and every bit of advice would instantly work for every child, parent and situation. However, here in the real world, things are a bit more complex. ( currently has 96,235 listings in it's "Parenting and Family" section.) The most important factors to take into account are the unique personalities of each parent and child involved. Children are NOT blank canvasses on which parents can paint whatever they want, each child has their own personality to throw into the mix. Any parent of multiples can tell you that methods that work for your first child will not work for future siblings without significant modification.

Parents and Non-parents alike have to accept a simple, cardinal truth:

Parenting is an ARRANGED MARRIAGE.

You cannot choose your children based on which temperament would best fit with your personality and parenting style. You have to change yourself and create a system on the fly to make a system where both you and the child can flourish. (Or at least stay sane.)

I am a parent of a child with ADHD who often has behavior problems, so I am directly in the sights of Mr. Granderson's blanket accusation, calling all parents of non-angelic kids lazy or "spineless". Like most parents, I dedicate a good amount of my week to taking care of my offspring, and this includes not just direct interaction with them, but also planning of their activities and constructive discussions about improving their behavior with fellow parents. Like many, I spend a good bit of money for Matthew to see a counselor on a regular basis, and have spent hundreds on parenting and behavior books.

I am in constant contact with his teacher, and have developed a Behavior Plan with many involved parties at the school so we can coordinate our efforts and methods in order to be more effective. Thanks to all of this, my son's grades and behavior has improved significantly. Like many, I am very mindful of him being a nuisance to others in malls or restaurants and try a number of tactics to curb bad behavior, that have been laid out in our books or discussed with the professionals.

My son still has issues, however, and sometimes outbursts happen in public. So by the author's judgment, despite all my efforts, I am "spineless" and lazy. You would think that given the author's long history covering sports, he would know better than to participate in such parental "Armchair Quarterbacking". You can never know all the facts of the situation. Maybe the kid has Asperger's Syndrome and this is a GOOD day by contrast. Maybe the parents are divorced, or one of them is dying of a terrible disease. The fact is that you CAN'T know, and making a snap-judgment and instantly assuming that you know the cause of bad behavior AND just how to fix it is just as insulting and unfounded as the man who hasn't ever played football yelling instructions to his team's quarterback on the TV. And it's just as helpful, too.

Sometimes the child's purpose for misbehaving is to get the parent to leave, and the best action is to stay and make them learn that you cannot be controlled. Parents do not bring misbehaving kids to public places to "parade their undisciplined children around like royalty", most of us just try to get them back home as quickly as possible. Just because a child might be screaming for Ice Cream doesn't mean his parents are always buying it for him. Quite the contrary, that kind of outburst is a sign that his parents are refusing to give into his demands. BEING a good parent and telling your kids "No" is often what causes public outbursts. Kids are smart little manipulators and they know parents are more likely to give in if a tantrum is thrown in a public setting, so it is important to stay strong and bear the stink-eye looks from spectators in order to improve behaviors in the future.

Outbursts happen and sometimes there is just no helping the situation. Simply spanking him or taking him out of the situation is NOT the answer. With many kids, spanking only encourages hitting and violent outbursts from them. He mentions "I have seen a small child slap her mother in the face with an open hand, only to be met with "Honey, don't hit Mommy." Most times this is not the cringing reply from a weak parent, but a measured, calm response to violent outbursts that is strictly prescribed by child psychologists when the knee-jerk reaction to spank the kid raw on the spot has failed in the past. Gandhi's method of countering violence with steadfast calm looked like folly to outsiders as well, but it got the job done in the long term. This brings us to our second cardinal truth:

Parenting is a long game.

We are sorry for the 2-minute distraction from your cup of Starbucks and your morning paper, but get over yourself and think of the parent for a minute: You may be witnessing a short scene in a multi-day attempt for a kid to wear down a parent's resolve, and that parent has to endure and stay the course for however long it lasts. Behavior is NOT as simple as "Getting the Discipline in early" as the author suggests. Kids never let you rest on your laurels, so the establishment of good behavior early in their lives is never a guarantee for smooth sailing from then onwards. Some kids are like the Raptors from Jurassic Park, constantly attacking their fences and testing for weaknesses to exploit.

These parents are usually their own worst critics, and they beat themselves up enough if their kids' behavior in public causes some stares, but these events happen IN PUBLIC, which means that in the end, they have just as much right to be there as you do. The moment you walk out of your front door, and INTO "Public", you risk being exposed to kids behaving badly, homelessness, depressives, greed, hunger, unemployment, intolerance and hundreds of other downers that might take you out of your self-imposed comfort zone for a few minutes, but that is REAL LIFE. The author is quite right, there ARE Adults-Only cruises, flights and other places for a reason. And I wouldn't be surprised if many of the patrons of these are parents themselves, taking a short break from the constant struggle and responsibility of raising a child. And who could blame them?

Parenting is an unpaid second job that is unappreciated by most everyone at the time. Sometimes glimpses of a person-in-progress are not pretty. It is a grueling decades-long struggle to mold these kids into productive members of society and not every moment of that struggle is palatable. But every moment of parental toil and frustration is worth it if the final product is a well-rounded, happy member of society.

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