Be clear: Back in my day, mumbling under one’s breath and slamming doors and talking back to the ‘rents was an indictable offense punishable by a meeting with an open hand, leather strap, or a freshly shorn switch, accompanied by lots of shrill screaming and an extended stay in your bedroom sans TV, radio, and any form of human contact.
Let’s just say that when it came to kids disrespecting authority, my mom, Bettye, didn’t play. She and my Dad raised my brother and I without the benefit of parent coaches, without a parade of childrearing segments on morning news shows, without a subscription to best-selling parenting magazines. What she knew and what she practiced and what worked for her was one simple philosophy: Children were to be seen, not heard, and their opinions on most subjects—no matter how much they made sense—definitely weren’t welcome. Keeping my mouth shut and doing as I was told was the only option. For me, it was about self-preservation—survival.
But I promised myself that when I had children of my own, I would use different tactics to get them to obey me—tactics that didn’t involve physical, verbal or mental intimidation. My goal: To have my children respect rather than fear me. Instead of hitting, I reasoned—rather than holler and scream like a banshee when they did something wrong, I praised when they did something right. “You’re the adult and therefore smarter than them,” I’d tell myself. “Use your Mighty Isis smart powers to get them to bend to your will.”
At least that’s what all the parenting books said I should do.
None of them warned, though, of the visceral reaction I’d have when the 12-year-old, refusing to yield to mommy pressure to show her little sister some mercy, muttered under her breath, or the 9-year-old, ticked that she didn’t get her way (again) stomped off, leaving slammed doors in her wake. I can’t say I was prepared, either, when my older daughter, who, toe-to-toe, is tall enough to look me in the eye, actually started walking around the house with her little flat chest poked out, making clear in word and deed that she thinks she’s smarter, stronger, and faster than me.
Like I’m a slow, weak, idiot.
This! This is what throws me off. Because, though I’m no punk when it comes to disciplining my kids, I feel like the discipline techniques I use should earn me a little respect, right? That they should appreciate my embracing of the new school parenting techniques—the ones that spare them the rod. I mean, if one of my girls is, say, running through the living room when I’ve just told her not to, I’m not yelling and slapping and sending her to her room; I’m using my grown-up logic to help her understand the consequences of running through a room full of glass, and breakables, and sharp objects, and imploring her to learn the value of self-control—a teachable moment that ultimately makes her feel good when she makes a better choice all on her own later on down the line.
The saving grace is that though my tweens have plenty of their “can’t get right” moments behind our closed doors, they do show deference and respect to their elders outside of our home. Family elders, teachers, coaches, even teenage babysitters (if you remove their 18-year-old brother out of that group!)—my girls give them all the respect any one child can muster. I can’t help but to think that it’s because we’ve taught them to not only think logically about the consequences they’d face if they refused to follow the rules of the grown-ups in charge—loss of recess if they act up in class, less play time on the soccer field if they don’t listen to coach—but also made clear to them that getting into trouble over such things is not an option. After all, Mommy would be sorely disappointed with reports of bad behavior. And the mere idea of making their mother disappointed stings my girls more than any open hand or belt or switch ever could.
I try my best to remind myself of such things when the muttering and the door slamming and the “that’s not fair” outbursts invade our otherwise peaceful house: My girls are, ultimately, good girls. At least this is what their teachers and their coaches and their babysitters and other grown folk charged with their care outside of my presence tell me.
For this, at least, I’m grateful.