I’ve heard a few times tales of toddlers that listen when their parents tell them no. They follow routines, order, and don’t dare to push back on the rules. I was in a conversation with someone who stated her cousin had 3 of these mythical creatures living in her home. This person then went on to praise all of her cousin’s discipline and parenting techniques stating how well they worked. Meanwhile, my kid is ripping through the house like a tornado asking for a snack for the 97th time. I had a quick moment where I felt bad about myself as a parent and questioned a lot of what I do thinking I’m not strict enough. But then I gave myself a quick dose of reality about young children and their behavior. Children are not minions that blindly follow any leader- they are built to test boundaries, have big feelings, and explore their environment with a supportive caregiver.
I don’t know much about this mother with the perfectly behaved children, but I was told she gives “the look” and the children fall in line. “The look” is the equivalent of basically saying “Listen to what I tell you now or there will be big consequences” (probably a spanking). So when a child behaves in the moment due to the threat of physical punishment or a harsh consequence, that child is following a directive out of fear. There is no doubt that fear-based parenting creates compliance in the short term as in the child will stop the undesired behavior immediately. However, the long-term outcomes for this type of parenting aren’t good. Children that are parented this way tend to act out when parents are not around, be sneaky about their misbehavior, and guess what? They don’t come and talk to their parents about the tough stuff later in adolescence.
Now let’s be clear, many of us were parented this way, and I’m bound to have a reader that thinks, “Well I was parented this way, and I turned out ok.” Many of us have qualities we work hard to change about our selves as adults. Shame and a poor self-image, for example, are something that many of us struggle with as adults as a result of a harsh parenting style. This is not to vilify our parent, most of them did the best they could with the tools they were given, but if we have better tools now, we should certainly use them. If we can do a little better with each generation, we can change the culture of parenting.
So what do we do instead? Understand that perfect behavior should never be the goal. Children are developmentally supposed to push limits and throw tantrums. Moms often complain that their children behave well for everybody except them. Of course, they do! They feel the most comfortable to be their worst self with you. You are their safe space and the person that can handle them at their worst. This is a level of trust that they have with you. The key is to find the middle ground. Guide them and teach them what they need to know and look at “misbehavior” as a clear sign that they need your help managing something. If your child is running through a restaurant screaming, that child is struggling to sit and wait for their food. Perhaps they are tired, or its too noisy there, or maybe they didn’t get enough sleep-the possibilities are endless. So you could threaten “Sit down now and stop it, or you will lose dessert and TV privileges for the day” which may work at the moment. Or you can notice this isn’t working and take them outside for a break until the food comes.
We are all trying our best here, and we need to give moms a break. I’m working hard on not caring what people think about my parenting and/or my child’s behavior. It’s hard to do sometimes but so liberating to free myself from other peoples judgment. So if I see your child acting crazy, please know I think you are a great mom, and you don’t have to put on a discipline show in front of me. Live your life, mama.