Discipline sans menaces 


Lorsque j’ai commencé à éduquer mes enfants à la maison, la première chose que j’ai remarquée fut l’omniprésence de mes enfants. Soudainement, nous étions ensemble toute la journée. Et la soirée. Et la fin de semaine aussi. Il nous fallait apprendre à vivre ensemble et à respecter l’espace vital de chacun. Pas une tâche facile dans une famille grand format.

 Le respect de l’espace vital de chacun ne se fait pas qu’au plan physique, il faut aussi apprendre à se traiter avec respect minute après minute, heure après heure. Je dis souvent à la cantonade qu’il est impossible d’élever des enfants sans pots-de-vin — et je ne parle pas d’un verre de rouge après l’heure du coucher — mais pour plusieurs d’entre nous, les menaces plutôt que les promesses sont la pierre angulaire de notre approche disciplinaire. Sur les forums Internet que je fréquente, les approches basées sur les menaces ou le retrait de privilèges foisonnent. Pendant longtemps, j’ai souscrit à ces approches, préférant faire référence aux “conséquences” d’une action plutôt qu’à une punition.

J’ai rapidement appris que nos jeunes enfants (et même nos adolescents!) n’avaient pas assez de contrôle sur leur environnent pour que notre approche disciplinaire puisse reposer sur les conséquences naturelles d’une action. Pensez-y. Un enfant joue près du four, un enfant désobéi et va jouer dans la rue, un enfant mord un autre enfant. Les conséquences naturelles de ces actions sont physiquement ou emotivement inatteignables. Qui va laisser son enfant se brûler sévèrement ou se faire frapper par une voiture par acquis de discipline? Et pour la morsure, les remords et la perte d’un ami sont à plusieurs années de faire une différence. Il arrive souvent aussi que les conséquences naturelles soient trop onéreuses pour la famille ou se résument à punir toute la famille pour les actions d’une petite personne. C’est le cas lorsque nous promettons à bout de nerf d’annuler Noël, un voyage à Disney ou de quitter le resto sur le champ. Nous devons tous nous rabattre sur des conséquences inventées pour faire une impression: retrait de privilèges, isolation, confiscation de jouets, privation de dessert.


Cette approche a plus ou moins de succès selon le tempérament de nos enfants et le notre évidemment. Certain enfants choisiront toujours la “conséquence” histoire de garder le contrôle sur une situation qui leur échappe. Certains parents passeront rarement aux actes histoire d’éviter un face-à-face explosif. L’appel aux conséquences est d’une utilité limitée, surtout lorsque celles-ci sont inventées et doivent être mises-en-œuvre par les parents. L’utilité des conséquences naturelles est leur renforcement naturel, sans avoir recours aux discours, à la répétition et à la punition. La conséquence inventée (par exemple, range ta vaisselle sale ou perd ton tour de PS3) doit être imposée par le parent tout comme les mesures punitives. C’est donc une punition déguisée en conséquence.

Un autre problème avec le recours aux menaces et à la perte de privilèges, particulièrement dans le contexte de l’instruction en famille, c’est que la plupart de nos enfants mènent une vie dans laquelle le privilège est partie intégrante, c’est-à-dire qu’il est difficile d’isoler le privilège pour pouvoir l’enlever. Au jour le jour, une fois que nous avons retiré le privilège d’écran ou le dessert, peut-être une sortie chez un ami ou une fête d’anniversaire, on arrive à bout de munitions. Mes enfants perdent souvent leur privilège de télévision ou leur iPod avant 9:00 du matin. Lorsqu’on manque de “conséquences”, on doit se rabattre sur notre autorité toute simple. Et c’est ainsi que je me suis rendu compte que mon autorité, sans menaces, était plutôt mince.


C’est ainsi que je me suis embraquée dans un défi de discipline sans menaces.

J’imagine que vous attendez que je vous admette que tout marche à merveille ou que tout a foiré? Ni l’un ni l’autre. C’est une aventure à long terme. Mais je peux vous dire que nous avons beaucoup de chemin à faire avant d’arriver à un résultat tangible. La discipline interne est le travail d’une vie, si j’en crois mon expérience.

Le rodage ne s’est pas fait sans frictions. Libérés du contrôle artificiel qu’imposaient les “conséquences”, la fratrie est graduellement tombée dans le chaos le plus total. Le travail d’école est tombé en friche et le niveau de criage, d’insultes et de chamaillage ont atteints un nouveau record (ce qui n’est pas peu dire). Mon autorité ne tenant qu’à un fil, je suis devenue irascible, impatiente et généralement irrationnelle. La conclusion de mon expérience de discipline sans menaces était déprimante d’une manière ou d’une autre: soit je devais remettre les menaces au menu, soit je devais me déclarer vaincue et à la merci de mes enfants.

Avec un peu de recul et de réflexion, j’ai réalisé que le recours aux menaces me permettais de ne pas imposer de limites strictes, d’encadrement ferme. Une fois au bout du rouleau, je n’avais qu’à brandir  le retrait de privilèges pour que les choses se placent. J’ai appris que sans menaces, je devais être beaucoup plus claire et prévisible quand il en venait aux attentes et aux limites. Éliminer les menaces me forçait à être à la fois plus tendre et plus ferme. J’ai du établir des règles de conduite dans la maison — autant au niveau du comportement que de l’espace physique — que je dois faire respecter sans exception sous peine de me perdre dans l’anarchie. D’une certaine manière, c’est un style de vie plus restrictif qu’avant mais j’ai espoir qu’avec un peu de temps et beaucoup de pratique nous allons arriver à un point d’équilibre. En somme, j’essaie d’être moins “réactive”, c’est-à-dire que je n’attends pas d’être en face d’une situation critique avant de réagir. J’essaie de ne pas me rendre au bout du rouleau. J’y arrive en ayant recours aux routines et aux séquences, en baissant le volume pour garder le calme et en n’ayant pas les yeux plus gros que la panse au niveau de la discipline. Je prends un bouchée à la fois, un changement à la fois, et je mâche et remâche jusqu’à ce que le morceau soit passé.

Heureusement, j’ai l’occasion de pratiquer souvent!

 

 

 

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Why I don’t spank or “The day my daughter slayed me.”


Yesterday, I was advised to spank my children for getting out of bed after bedtime. I was venting about our bedtime routine, gone wild with the longer summer days and the end of napping for the twins. Our twins are 2-and-a-half and our daughter is 5. All three have a hard time stopping long enough to let sleep overcome them. After sharing with friends everything we had tried, one of them suggested spanking them if they got out of bed. I was taken aback, a little speechless, and blurted out: “They would have no idea why I’m hitting them.” I would have liked to be able to say: “I never spank my children.”

I used to spank but I don’t anymore. When my four older children were young, I believed that spanking was part of any parent’s discipline toolbox. I believed, as I had been told by other parents, that nothing cleared the air like a good swat on the bum. That spanking was the only way to ensure compliance in certain situations. That some defiant behaviours such as willful disobedience and lying should be nipped in the bud quickly and unequivocally through spanking. The books I read were reasonable. Nobody suggested spanking infants or school-aged children. Every author or speaker insisted that parents should never spank in anger. That the bum-swat should be applied swiftly and unemotionally to children who are too young to understand the gravity of their actions. All the while, spanking made my children angry or miserable, not compliant. And rather than be unemotional about it, I was racked by guilt and the impression that there had to be a better way to raise respectful and considerate children. The reality was that I always spanked in anger: when I wasn’t angry, I could always find more constructive and respectful ways to get what I needed from my children.

When my 5th child was born, I decided to stop spanking. I decided that if hitting my child was the only way to gain the upper hand, I deserved to lose that hand. I would drop an argument before resorting to spanking. You see, the problem with spanking or yelling or any anger-fuelled response is that it works. It works to blow-off steam; it works to obtain compliance from our children; it works to leave a lasting impression. The problem with spanking is not whether it works or not, but why it works so well. A toddler who resorts to hitting and biting understands how expedient physical punishment can be. And when I spanked my children, however rarely, I felt at the mental capacity of a toddler. There had to be a better way, for my children and for myself as I sought to become a better parent.

Why does spanking work? Is it merely the fear of pain that snaps our children back on the straight and narrow? Is the pain inflicted on your bum by a parent the same as the pain that is inflicted by a fall on the playground? Does spanking work on defiance just like a fat lip works on couch acrobatics? Or is there something about the pain inflicted by a parent that makes it more efficient? Any parent of a playground acrobat knows that pain is not always a deterrent. My two-year-old son was chasing a soccer ball in the driveway when the ball rolled under our van. Without thinking twice about his height in relation to the van’s clearance, he ducked under the van but hit the bumper then the pavement face first. He stood-up, shook himself up, and carried on the pursuit with a bad case of road rash. Without a single tear. Yet, the same day, when he was particularly defiant at bed time, I flicked his diaper area with one finger to hurry him along and the screams of pain were completely disproportionate to the “pain” I had inflicted. If pain was the only deterrent involved in spanking, toddlers who bite, hit and shove would be widely respected at home and on the playground. There is a singularity to parents hitting children that makes the pain more searing. We often justify spanking by saying that we do not really hurt our children. We know, even if we do not like to admit it, that spanking is not about the physical pain we inflict but about its emotional impact on our children. Spanking works. Not because it hurts but because the hurt comes from our hand.

When we hit our children, no matter how good the reason seems to be, we use the love and trust that bind us to our children against them. We play-up their natural fear of losing our love and affection and use it against them. Because let’s be honest here, what makes spanking so expedient is not the fear of physical pain but the fear of loss. And the loss feared is the most profound. Hitting our children, when it works in achieving compliance, is hitting at their core, not their bums. This breaks my heart when I think about it. In hindsight, I am glad that spanking never worked for us. I take comfort in the fact that it made my children angry rather than compliant. I am thankful that they were secure enough in my love to call my bluff.

Spanking works, but it works for the wrong reasons. It is also a behavior that is self-reinforcing because it yields immediate results while giving vent to our frustration. The positive feedback loop afforded by spanking when we are at our wits’ end quickly becomes hardwired. Even 10 years after I made the decision to stop spanking, I can still be heard threatening my children with a bum-whacking whenever I reach the end of my rope. I never follow through and they know that. But I hate that my mind still goes there more often than I like to admit. And my children, when looking after their younger siblings, can often be heard threatening them with a spanking if they don’t straighten-up. The urge to hit in frustration is a powerful one. Once our brain has tasted the relief, it is hard to give it up.

I still hit the wall. Often. It happens when my children are simply so defiant and disobedient that hitting seems to be the only way to get respect. It happens at bedtime when the children take 2 hours to fall asleep and I need a break. It happens when they run away from me in a busy parking lot. It happens when I am desperately trying to leave and my efforts are met with stubborn resistance. It happens when my children are disrespectful and mean to me and each other. It happened recently when the twins and my 5 year-old were playing in the bath tub. That was the day my daughter slayed me.

The children were in the bath tub, all 3 of them. I turned my back for 5 seconds to pick-up my crying infant and in that split second, they dumped the entire content of a large jug of expensive body wash in the bath tub. I didn’t realize it immediately until they started crying because the soap was hurting them. Yes, soap, in large quantity, will burn your skin. I was so mad! This was not the first time. Earlier, we had vacuumed the entire content of a sunscreen bottle carefully massaged into our carpet. For my children, if it can be dumped or smeared, it has no reason to stay in a container. This is an ongoing issue with my 3 youngest, one of whom is old enough to know better. My daughter was crying that the soap was hurting her private parts. I was mad at her for letting the twins dump a $15 soap bottle in the bath without even calling me. In exasperation I said: “I am so mad at you, I really feel like giving you a good spanking!” And she blurted out, in tears:

“No! Don’t hit my bum! My bum already hurts! I don’t need a spanking when my bum hurts like this, I NEED A HUG!!”

I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Even today, I can’t think about this episode without feeling a big lump in my throat. When our children push us to the limit, they are more likely in need of more care and affection than a sound ass-whippin’. My children resist bed time when I am too busy to take them to the park after dinner. My 8 year-old middle child is rude when I’ve been putting off our game of Uno once too many. My 5 year-old is defiant when she needs more thoughtful attention, not more spanking. As for my toddlers, their thirst for discovery, their curiosity and their unbridled energy are qualities than needs careful supervision until they can be channeled into useful accomplishments. I will no longer hit my children in response to my failures to parent in a thoughtful and intentional way.

Parenting will bring you to your knees. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong. But ultimately, the flaws of stubborn determination, independence and curiosity will blossom into their most successful qualities. Don’t spank it out of them.

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1-2-3 Magic. Is it really?


It’s been a quiet blogging season. The demands of early pregnancy (now in its 24th week), toddler twins and work have essentially squeezed writing time right out of my schedule. In my few writing moments, I struggle to find inspiration. The topics abound but my writing rings hollow. I have ideas that I struggle to put in order. I have half-started posts on a range of subjects, from teenagers to sleep training to sibling rivalry, with nothing to add. But a recent post in a Facebook parenting group had me reflecting and my reflection lead me to a few ideas I would like to share.

A parent asked for thoughts and opinions on the discipline book “I-2-3 Magic” by Thomas W. Phelan. It was all the rage when my older children (born between 1996 and 2002) were younger. Her questions led me to revisit the 1-2-3 Magic method of discipline and reflect on my own experience. Like most disciplinary methods, the 1-2-3 Magic approach to discipline is rooted in an equal mix of sound psychological information, half-baked assumptions and a one-size-fits-all solution. As with most parenting books, it is very difficult to accept it or discredit it on the whole.

**** As usual with all my discipline posts, this only applies to children who are mentally and physically healthy. Parents of children with special needs such as mental health issues, brain injuries or autism spectrum disorder, or parents who themselves struggle with these issues, may define successful discipline differently and achieve great success with methods that are otherwise problematic for “conventional” children. I am not an expert, just a mom with opinions. *****

The 1-2-3 Magic approach is based on the observation that parents talk too damn much. And this is true. Whether you are a screamer, a ranter, a lecturer or a cajoler, even if you engage in endless explaining in the hope that your child will understand the logic of your position and concede your victory, chances are your discipline involves way too much talking. Studies have repeatedly shown that children (and teenagers!) tune out after a very short period of talking. With the 1-2-3 Magic approach, you let a negative outcome, a time-out period, do the talking. A short explanation may be given, followed by a count to 3. If by 3 the behaviour has not stopped, the child is put in a time-out. The book’s subtitle “Effective Discipline for Children 2 to 12” infers that this method is appropriate for children older than 6. My educated opinion as a mother of almost 9 is that if you are still counting your child past Senior Kindergarten (5 years-old), you have a much bigger issue on your hands than day-to-day discipline. The fact that you may still count a 12 year-old illustrates my main concern with the method: it teaches the children to be compliant without allowing them to develop inner discipline and compliance born of trust in their parents’ lead. If you wonder why this matters, you will find out the hard way when you have teenagers.

My own experience with the 1-2-3 Magic Method (and its acolytes) is that it made my children manipulative and self-centered. When you put children in the driver’s seat of deciding whether they prefer complying or taking the time-out, you get children who become extraordinarily efficient at figuring out what is good for them in less than 3 seconds. I was discussing this with my husband while doing dishes the other evening and I said: “If you give children the choice between ‘stop hitting your brother’ and ‘go to your room’, some will choose the room 100% of the time, as long as they can shove one last time… and come out to hit again” and my 14 year-old chimed-in “That’s me!”  Her observation was only half-accurate: she never had an aggression problem but her explosive temperament means that her frustration is expressed impulsively without thinking about the consequences. Sending her to her room after the fact still allowed the release of anger in inadequate ways and the memory of previous time-outs was never motivation enough to check her angry outbursts at the door.

This example illustrates two of my main concerns with the method. First, this one-size-fits-all approach to behaviour modification doesn’t consider the importance of knowing your child’s individual temperament in finding effective discipline. Temperament, also known as our natural pattern of reactions, not only determines whether a discipline approach will be effective in modifying the behaviour but also in determining what will motivate our child to do the right thing. My second issue is that it doesn’t emphasize the importance of attachment in ensuring some compliance from our children or, at the very least, explain the absence of compliance, especially as the children grow-out of the preschool years and approach the challenging 6-10 years of age. As Gordon Neufeld so aptly writes it in his excellent book “Hold On to your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers”:

“When we focus so narrowly on what we should be doing, we become blind to our attachment relationship with our children and its inadequacies. Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired. Attachment is not a behavior to be learned but a connection to be sought.”

The simplicity of methods like 1-2-3 Magic is what appeals to parents who have a tendency to loose themselves in explanations or rants. But the same simplicity can hide the appearance of attachment voids and the growth of attachment-related issues that are often harder to address during the teenage years, when our children are well beyond the reach of time-outs and punishments. For parents who are inclined to fall within what Dr. Phelan calls the Talk-Persuade-Argue-Yell-Hit Syndrome, 1-2-3 Magic can prevent the constant attacks on attachment caused by age-inappropriate verbal diarrhea. But what we need to remember most of all is that if you need to talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit (even if you only make it to argue and yell) every time you ask something, you are more likely dealing with a relationship problem rather than a behaviour problem.

As parents, we can’t help but notice when our grip on our children is slipping. We get caught in endless arguments, tantrums, and crisis. We are unable to ensure compliance, ever. Parents who rely on coercive methods of discipline, also known under the euphemisms of “consequences” and including time-outs and isolation, watch themselves get caught in a “consequence rut” or in a “last man standing” contest. I often recall a grocery store trip on December 23rd when two active little boys would not leave the candy display alone while their mother waited in line at the cash register. “At 3, if you haven’t stopped, we’re not going to Florida!” and I was dying to reply: “As if!!” But here is the utter powerlessness of a parent who cannot simply ask her boys not to play with the candies.

As with any relationship, the parent-child relationship needs to be nurtured and built-up. Often, our children’s misbehaviours are warning bells we better not ignore. The constant resort to time-outs can prevent us from listening to our child and improve our game. To be effective teachers, we need to first discipline ourselves. How many tantrums could be avoided if we simply provided our children with a calmer, more structured environment? How much aggression could be prevented if we simply took time to reconnect and empathize with an overwhelmed child? How many meltdowns could be nipped in the bud if we simply respected our child’s shyness and reluctance to embrace new situations? Those are all “discipline” problems that are within us as parents to solve, if we would only discipline ourselves and put order in our environment.  When we punish our children for responding in an age-appropriate manner to our own lack of structure and discipline, we effectively demand more maturity from our children than we are able to display ourselves.

Does it mean that we must put-up with anything?  What about strong-willed children? In the words of Gordon Neufeld (because I couldn’t write it better):

“We may believe that our child is stubborn or willful and that we have to break him of his defiant ways. Yet young children can hardly be said to have a will at all, if by that is meant a person’s capacity to know what he wants and to stick to that goal despite setbacks or distractions. “But my child is strong-willed,” many parents insist. “When he decides that he wants something he just keeps at it until I cannot say no, or until I get very angry.” What is really being described here is not will but a rigid, obsessive clinging to this or that desire. An obsession may resemble will in its persistence but has nothing in common with it. Its power comes from the unconscious and it rules the individual, whereas a person with true will is in command of his intentions. The child’s oppositionality is not an expression of will. What it denotes is the absence of will, which allows a person only to react, but not to act from a free and conscious process of choosing.”

As parents, we need to be able to demand compliance from our children. We may not always be able to connect and empathize with our children first, especially in dangerous situations. The work of building a strong relationship of trust, whereby a child will follow our lead most of the time, happens in the little moments between the meltdowns and the impulsive behaviour. Our power to discipline is not built through coercion as the meltdowns happen. In fact, the opposite is true: by the time we are locked in a power struggle or facing a temper tantrum, our power to teach is all but gone.  We need to think ahead and own-up to our share of responsibility in causing our children’s misbehaviours.

I often wonder how often my children would send me off to my room if they could…

Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography http://jsparksphotography.zenfolio.com/)
Preventing meltdowns, one snuggle at a time. (photo by Jenna Sparks Photography http://jsparksphotography.zenfolio.com/)

More than friends


I wanted to call this post “I am not friend with my kids” but it really sounds awful doesn’t it?

It was in reference to this widely shared blog post: I am friends with my kids. I started answering in my head before reading the text, on the basis of the title alone. When I finally took the time to read, I realized that, gah, I completely agreed with the gist of the author’s ideas.  The title is definitely an attention grabber but her position is more nuanced.

Parenting with respect is crucial to the development of a strong and healthy relationship with our children. If the importance of mutual respect in parenting is eluding you, you haven’t reached the teenage years yet.  When we live in the fast-paced and eminently physical world of young children, the immediate nature of parenting with a Big Stick can be appealing. But when you wake-up one morning with the real, potentially life-altering, problems of the teen age, it’s too late to wish for wide open lines of communication if they never existed. Our children need to know that they are loved and that we appreciate their presence in our lives. It is not a guarantee of smooth sailing but how would you rather cross the Atlantic? In a sailboat or a canoe?

While a healthy parenting relationship has a lot in common with friendship, it is a unique relationship that shouldn’t be so readily assimilated to the sometimes fickle and often temporary nature of friendship. Especially children’s friendships.  My children have dozens of friends but I’m their only mother. If I am their friend, who will be their mother?

The type of parenting illustrated in the blog post I am friend with my kids stands in opposition to what I would call “traditional” types of parenting. As a parent who opposes — as I do — corporal punishment, harsh consequences, isolation and threats as parenting tools, the author draws parallels between parenting and friendship along those lines: I don’t hit my friends, I don’t threaten my friends, I don’t isolate my friends when they are sad, I seek to understand my friends, I don’t yell at my friends. But if parenting can have some of the attributes of friendship, it is also so much more! I have skin in the game. My children’s friends do not.

Skin in the game matters because it gets us through the sort of tough times that friendship would not weather. Children can be little jerks. They can be rude, ungrateful, demanding. Year after year. Like friendship, the parent-child relationship is reciprocal but the giving and the receiving play-out over a lifetime. If my friends treated me like my kids do over a 20 year period, the relationship would probably die by the wayside, as the ebb and flow of life took us along different paths.  My kids are a ton of fun, don’t get me wrong. But the giving sure outweighs the receiving. In other words, the fact that my children have not yet died of exposure is the surest sign that not being their friend works to their benefits.

Skin in the game is also what motivates us to teach hard lessons and uphold unpopular principles for their own long-term good. My friends don’t care what I eat. My friends don’t care if I never eat a fruit. They may care if I eat like an animal and never invite me out but that’s about it. In fact, much of the learning that happens in the family such as self-discipline, impulse-control and good, caring manners, enables us to have and maintain healthy friendships later in life. Healthy relationships don’t start with friendship. Family is the root relationship from which all other healthy (or unhealthy) relationships flow.  Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet, learning to make way to others, learning to love people we don’t always like, learning to work when we don’t feel like it can all be taught in the family and better prepare our children to face the big wide world of relationships: from friendships to partnerships to employment relationships. But they are not always easy lessons and may not endear us to our children (or vice versa). How would you feel if one of your friends was on your case about your eating habits the same way we are with our children? Sounds a little off, doesn’t it?

As the giving and receiving of the parent-child relationship plays out over a lifetime, I can see the relatively-near future when our parents will become more dependent and, as age takes its toll, more fragile and irascible. Caring for an elderly parent bears some eerie resemblance with the care they provided us as we were growing-up. They can become demanding, ungrateful, and frustrated by their limitations. And just like they cared for us when we were little jerks, we will let them treat us in ways we would never accept from a friend. We will give of ourselves in ways we never thought we could. This is the way unconditional love flows.

I want my children to expect more than friendship from their parents. I want to be more than friends.

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Teenagers: Learning from their mistakes pt 2


I concluded my previous post on teens and discipline by telling you about the essay as a discipline tool. You can find part 1 of Learning from their mistakes here.

Have you ever sent a child to her room to think about what she’d done? Do you really think, while she’s there, that she is pondering on the great wrong she’s done to you? If you do, I hate to burst your bubble. Your child is more likely reflecting on how great a victim she is. Assuming she is not reading, sleeping, surfing the Net or watching TV (but your children don’t have TV in their room, right?? If they do, we must have words). Let’s be honest: when we send a child to their room to “think”, what we are really saying is:

I’m really annoyed by your behaviour, please get out of my space while I regain my composure.

Agreed?

The result of sending a child to his room may not always be as intended but we are on to something with the idea of reflecting on one’s behaviour and understand where it failed. The problem with “go to your room” is that we are not nurturing our children’s budding moral development by shooing them off to “think” by themselves.

When it comes to teenagers, the development of a reliable sense of right and wrong is essential and time sensitive: a teenager in grade 10 (15-16) could be moving out to study in 2-3 years. If they are not learning self-control, impulse-management and developping a moral fiber, they can be in for a world of trouble. When I tell my teenagers to “go think about what you’ve done” I mean it in a way I may not have meant when they were little.

In Good Discipline, Great Teens, Dr. Ray Guarandi suggests using essays instead of lectures to teach discipline. I met Dr. Ray some years ago when I was on the organizing committee for a parenting conference where he was the speaker. His talks are like stand-up routines: we laughed so hard it hurt. But don’t get fooled by the funnies: while his delivery is hilarious, his approach to discipline is serious. After the conference, we went out for dinner with Dr. Ray and I asked him: “That strong discipline approach sounds great in theory but the parents I know who have discipline problems with their teenagers never had a backbone. Shouldn’t they change their approach gradually?”. His reply really left an image that inspires most of my parenting nowadays. He said: “Did you ever drink sour milk thinking it was fresh? When you realize you have a mouthfull of sour milk, do you spit it out gradually or all at once?” When there is something wrong with your children, whether its too much backtalk, too much computer or failing grades, you need to face it head on. Here is a quote from Good Discipline, Great Teens that encapsulates Dr. Ray’s approach:

Dear Dr. Ray, Any words for dealing with a fifteen-year-old who is verbally demeaning to his two younger sisters (…), sometimes abusively so?

Yes. Stop him.

He does give more pointed advice on ways to stop the bad behaviour. But he doesn’t buy the “teens will be teens” schtick. At all. Yes, teens will be teens and this may involve some attitude, back talk and abuse. But it doesn’t mean that you, as parent, have to take it, indulge it or bear it out. Being called over and over on their bad behaviour — and believe me, I have two teens, I cannot overstate how often “over and over” means — is how we imprint on their developping brain what is morally and socially acceptable (and what will get them sued, fired or dumped).

But back to essays. Last December, my husband and I were confronted with a discipline problem involving two of our four oldest children. The offense involved going behind our backs to do something they knew they were not allowed to do. For a few weeks before they got busted, these two children were increasingly short-tempered, rude and difficult. I thought maybe they were overtired or reacting to the twins’ birth, whatever. In hindsight, I think that living a lie was eating away at their souls. When we confronted them, it was very important for us to convey that the material offense wasn’t nearly as big a deal as the lying. The way we approached this was to have a family meeting where we told them (again) about the family rule they had transgressed and why it was in place. We told the children that we knew that two of them had gone beyond our backs. The transgressors were grounded for at least two weeks (except for school and sports) and their computer priviledges were removed (the computer was the instrument of the transgression). Then we assigned them with two written projects. The projects had to be handed-in before the computer priviledges could be regained and the grounding lifted. Both children had to present a written apology with an explanation of what went through their heads when they decided to go behind our backs. They also had to write an essay (500 words for the youngest and 2000 for the oldest) on personal integrity, personal dignity and respect for parental authority. The oldest of the two also had to do a bit of research on why the family rule he-or-she had transgressed was important.

When they handed back their essays and apologies, I was taken aback with how much thought they had put into their work. Here are some exerpts, published with permission from their authors (as long as I keep them anonymous). On respect for parental authority the youngest of the two wrote:

You can see your parents like your boss at work. They tell you what to do and you must obey. But instead of paying you with money, they pay you with love. Another difference is that you will never get fired. In other words, they will always love you no matter what you do.

On personal integrity, the oldest of the two wrote (I really wish I could quote the entire essay, it’s that good):

Integrity. The first image that comes to mind is that of a brick wall. Solidly built, unshakeable and most of all, strong. Every component, every brick, is held together by mortar. Remove a brick and the wall isn’t complete. Remove the mortar and the wall doesn’t hold.

Personal human integrity isn’t all that different. Your values are the bricks, held together by honesty, your mortar. Without your values, your wall of integrity isn’t complete. Without honesty, your bricks will not hold together.

Giving them an essay topic allowed us to put the emphasis on the lesson we wanted the children to learn. The grounding and removal of priviledges were tools to make sure that the children had the time and leisure to work on their essays and also provided motivation for finishing the essays in a timely fashion. I am now thinking of using essays as a gateway for earning more priviledges. For instance, before allowing your child/teen to have a Facebook page, you could ask for a short essay (500 words is very manageable for a 10-12 year-old child) on data mining or online privacy protection or cyber-bullying. Making your teens do the research and writing will always beat a lecture, take it from me.

Teenagers: Learning from their mistakes pt 1


If I title a post on parenting teenagers “Learning from their mistakes” you may think that the post will be about getting teenagers to learn from their mistakes. But I’m not so delusional as to give you such hope: I have to assume that teenagers learn from their mistakes because I once was a teenager, I learned from my mistakes, and I am a relatively well adjusted adult. Beyond that, beats me. No, the title of this post refers to what I — the parent — am learning from disciplining my teens in the great adventure of parenting.

When my four oldest children were little, countless well-meaning strangers told me to enjoy them while they were young because once they hit the teenage years it would be all downhill from there. I was never afraid of the teenage years however. I had a happy teenage-hood. I remember getting along well with my parents and my siblings. I had no interest in drugs and alcohol and I had no major academic issues (I had no clue about anything mathematics or scientific but I did get my high school diploma. This suggests that I had enough of a clue to pass whatever it was I had to pass. But it’s still a mystery.) My experience chatting with other parents is that the amount of fear a parent feels toward their children’s upcoming teenage years is directly proportional to the amount of grief they gave their own parents as teenagers. Call it cosmic payback.

Now that we are more firmly rooted in teenage-dom with each passing year (we have two card-carrying teenagers with a third one coming up the pipe) I can say that parenting teenagers  — so far — has been an experience in mixed emotions. It’s in equal parts more fun, challenging and infuriating than parenting young children.

It’s more fun because teenagers have a sense of humour. They are quirky, they love a good joke and their malleable brain seems to have an infinite capacity to memorize skits and one-liners. It’s easy to laugh with them (and sometimes at them…). Their sense of humour if often dark and off-kilter and if you don’t take yourself too seriously — because they can give it as well as they take it — you can be in for a good time. I also find that my teenagers are keen observers of human nature without the politically correct varnish that develops with age. A varnish is not always a bad thing but sometimes I wish I still had the ability to call a spade a spade the way my teens do.

Having fun with gourds
Teenagers like to make funny faces

It’s more challenging  because the stakes are higher. Higher stakes mean that you are under pressure to make the right discipline call at the right time. What do I mean by that? When raising young children, you often make discipline calls that are either bone-headed or counter-productive. Have you ever spanked a child in anger? Hit a child for hitting a sibling? Flew off the handle after catching a liar? Great. Now your child is learning that hitting is a good way to blow off steam, hitting is a good response to injury and that his lying skills need improvement. The consequences of those bad discipline calls are mild. Unless you repeat them regularly over several years, they won’t make your child into violent liar.  If the balance of your parenting is loving and forgiving you’ll get another kick at the can in a few days. But teenagers can make mistakes that will hunt them for the rest of their lives: get pregnant, flunk high school and crash a car full of friends. Even if your concerns are of a lesser order of magnitude — as mine are, thank God — you still need to be on the ball and ready to roll. Your teen is flunking high school math because he couldn’t be bothered? Sure you can take his iPod away for a week. He still flunked math. And closed the door to every paycheque-friendly faculty, like engineering, medicine, business, dentistry, you name it! I don’t want my teens to learn a life-lesson from flunking math and science out of sheer laziness: I want them to succeed. If they decide to get an English major, it won’t be because nobody else would let them in. Get it? Stakes, higher.

It’s more frustrating because teens push your buttons at a more adult level and really bring you face to face with your shortcomings as a parent. When you lose your “composure” at a 3 year-old, they still come to you for comfort. When you fly off the handle and start ranting at a teenager (two big teenage no-nos, don’t ask me how I know), they think you’re a loser. (Now, if you have done your job right up to this point, your teenagers will know better than to tell you to your face — although my son has been known to exhibit a death wish in that regard: the kid has no filter.) What really rounds-up the challenging and frustrating parts is the well-documented fact that teens really think that they have reached the apogee of knowledge and good judgement. Now, if you reach the apogee of knowledge and good judgement at 15, and the only way from an apogee is down, you can imagine where, in a teen’s mind, the parent is situated on the apogee-to-perigee-continuum: it takes 15 years to get to the top, and it’s all downhill from there, and you are say, almost 40, it means that you’ve been on a downward trajectory from knowledge and good judgement for, like… (40 – 15 = uh…)  25-ish years, rounded-up to the nearest brain fart.

Teenagers challenge, push buttons and seek out limits. Sometimes, you will blow it as a parent and they will let you know. But sometimes you will be right… and they will still challenge, push buttons and explain to you why you are wrong, wrong, wrong. The high-wire number is to know when to stand firm and when to go hat in hand apologize for your mistakes. The first thing I learned from parenting teens is to take a step back and take a deep breath. Unless your child is at the police station right now it never hurts to put a little time between you and an issue (and even then, spending the night in prison might not be an entirely bad thing…). The second lesson I learned, which flows from the first one, is to lower your voice, ideally to the point where you are not saying any words. It never hurts to hear a teenager’s grievance. Sometimes they may be right! Just don’t confuse listening with arguing or agreeing. For instance, we have a strict, unbending and controversial no-sleepover rule. This is not popular with my oldest daughter. Listening to her grievance and why we are wrong, wrong, wrong will not make me agree with her. Nor will I argue for the zillionth time why this is so. But it doesn’t hurt to sit down and hear her out. Again.

In part 2 of this post,I will tell you about a discipline tool I took too long to get out of the toolbox: the essay.