Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We Aren't Raising Children, We Are Shaping Adults.

I have avoided posting details about my childhood here.  Mostly in deference to my parents, whom I do not wish to hurt by dredging up the pain of something they can't change.  I have decided to break that silence and post about it today.  I know without a doubt that they love me unconditionally and that they did the best possible job they could have under the circumstances.
 In their hindsight, I know they wish they had done some things differently and I believe they would be far different parents today than they were then.  I commend them for that admission.  Some parents of their generation would defend until their dying breath the (wrong) choices they made in raising their children.  So, with that disclaimer out of the way, which I hope relieves them of an guilt they might have should they happen to read this, I move on to the meat of the post.

I was spanked.  A lot.  In fact as a young child I remember relaying to my sister, who is three years older than I, that a remarkable thing had happened one day - we had not gotten a spanking ALL DAY.  So, I think it is safe to say, I was spanked almost daily and sometimes multiple times a day, with anything handy, a shoe, a hairbrush, a wooden spoon, a paddle or in the absence of an object, with a hand.  I never knew when it might come.  I remember not having a clear idea of what was wrong or right until AFTER I did something and then got a spanking for it.  I would try hard not to commit the same infraction once I knew it was wrong, but there was always something else to learn, something new to discover was hit-worthy behavior.  I learned to hide a lot; to endeavor to make myself invisible in order that I not attract the wrong kind of attention.  I retreated into myself and became an introspective day-dreamer.  I would pretend I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose mother was a source of comfort and solace.  I wondered what it would be like to be her.

When I got too old to spank, which inevitably happens when spanking is the primary form of discipline, a new method of punishment had to be explored.  My mom turned to back-handing and guilt.  If I said something remotely out of line - SWACK.  With the knuckles.  On the mouth.  It got my attention alright.  But did it teach me proper respect?  Not in the least.  It may have taught me to avoid saying certain things, taught me to flinch every time my mom raised her hand in my vicinity, but it did nothing toward being respectful because it's the right thing to do, which in my opinion, should be the objective of parenting.  If smacking didn't work the guilt card was played - Why are you doing this to me?  You had better not embarrass me with your behavior. Those were frequently used weapons.  I was a very sensitive child and really just wanted everyone to be happy, so I would behave a certain way out of guilt that if I didn't, I would cause my mom pain or embarrassment.

When I became a parent, I read several parenting/discipline books.  With my first child, I did try the Dare to Discipline method I was taught was a biblical standard for discipline in children.  It never felt right though; I knew all too well how spanking can wear a child down without actually teaching them anything.  There was an incident when my daughter was two and my first son not yet one that cemented in my mind and heart that there had to be a better way.  When my son started walking, my daughter would walk up to him and slap him on the back and push him over.  Exasperated by this behavior, I told my husband about it.  His response was - spank her.  I thought that was the most ridiculous advice I had ever heard.  Tell a child not to hit by hitting her?  The incongruity just seemed absurd to me.  That day I vowed to find some different tools of discipline for my children.

I wanted my children to respect authority, but to also question the status quo.  I wanted them to understand that I was their strongest advocate, but would not smooth the path for every bump in the road they encountered.  I really wanted them to learn when it is okay to buck the system and when it is more appropriate to go along to get along.  I did give them boundaries, and tried my best to inform them of where the boundaries were BEFORE they did the behavior.  I couldn't expect them to act well in the store for instance, if I didn't tell them what was expected of them before we got inside the store.  Oh, they pushed the boundaries, of course; all kids do.  Usually a stern reprimand or a distraction would help them to stay on track.  They were great little kids.  Models for good behavior, especially in public.  I was feeling pretty good about my parenting.  Then something happened - they became teenagers.

Now that they are 15, 14, 13 and 11, I have to teach them a whole new set of boundaries and I am struggling to do this in the right way.  Now, a generation ago, I would simply and literally knock some sense into them.  That is not an option for me.  I was told by someone that if I chose not to slap them, I had to be willing to take the consequences and suck it up regarding their disrespect.  Either smack them or live with disrespectful, mean teenagers?  Those are my only two options?  I just can't seem to wrap my head around this notion.

The thing is, I know they know how to be respectful because they do it every day, at school, at church, with friends' parents, etc.  They know the proper behavior, they just choose not to direct the good behavior at me, but instead take out all of their pent up teenage-frustration on the only person with whom they feel perfectly safe - Me.  I know they can't continue to use me as their verbal punching bag, but it does give me some comfort to know that they trust me not to punch the living daylights out of them and don't just act as if they respect me out of fear.  I will have to do what I did when they were little - find another way.  I know the yelling and ranting I have resorted to of late is not working.

On second thought, rather than reinventing the wheel and finding something completely new, I should just revisit what I know works - giving them clear instructions on what is acceptable behavior up front with unambiguous consequences for infractions.  I also have to realize that their unacceptable behavior is not about me.  I have been taking it way too personally.  Realizing that it is not about me has been a real eye-opener.

Parenting under any circumstances is not for the faint of heart and my family is no exception. Not only that, it is a long row to hoe.  Spanking, back-handing, slapping, etc. may give us the instant gratification we seek as validation that we are 'doing it right' as they fall in step behind us, but it is my belief that this is a short lived victory at best.  What children need, what adults need, is self-discipline, not capitulation out of fear.  They have to learn to behave a certain way because it is the right thing to do. In order to teach them this, we have to instill values, not fear.  And doing this is definitely an act of delayed gratification; the end result not realized until they are grown and on their own.  I don't know about you, but what I want, at the end of the parenting gig, are adults who respect me because I loved them enough to take the time to teach them real, lasting lessons in human interaction.

I know I don't have all the answers, I stumble around trying to learn as I go here, but I am trying.  I am willing to do what it takes to end up with well adjusted adults in the end.  My goal is to raise contributing members of society who want to come and visit me out of love and genuine respect, not obligation.  I hope to be up to the challenge.  Lots of direction and prayer are the order of the day.  I had better get started.