Questions and answers. Who doesn’t love ‘em? Just the other day, when the four of us were driving home from a family event, our boys slipped into fierce, rapid-fire question mode. My husband found it exhausting (though certainly better than breaking up fights!), but I like it, even when it’s tiring: I like answering their questions. Or anyone’s questions, really. (Speaking of which, if you have a moment, read this Q&A I did with my friend Meagan Francis on her wonderful blog, The Happiest Mom. I love that we can find the large overlap between Happy Mom and Mean Mom).
I bring up the Q&A format because, as I promised, I am going to answer a couple of questions posed by readers back in this post. Feel free to agree, disagree, add your own advice, and of course, ask more questions! Here we go:
Dear Mean Mom,
I have issues with stubbornness in all three of my children. It’s a daily battle to get them to clean up toys or follow the minimal rules (don’t climb over gates, don’t hit, don’t climb and get things down from shelves.) I’ve tried special coins and then getting to buy something from a special trinket box at the end of the week with the coins, worked for a week, then the next two weeks were hell. Then we tried regular money and that again worked for a week. Am I just expecting too much for them not to get bored with a new system and then try to battle it? They also have short attention spans and want to spend hours with handheld games (which because of that they get taken away for days at a time). Long winded… so, do I just hover and scream until they do as they are told? Or do I give up? Because there isn’t anything left to take away for punishment!
Have you met my two boys? I engage in daily multiple battles on many fronts — clear away your plates, don’t use your sleeve as a napkin, have you met my friend Mr. Fork? Because no, string beans don’t fall into the same “finger food” category as sandwiches (an actual heated discussion with my 7-year-old last week. His argument: “Everybody knows you can eat green beans with your fingers!”). The problem isn’t, I don’t think, stubbornness, at least I don’t believe that’s at the root of it. The problem is that they are children, and children want to do the least amount of what they consider “work” and the maximum amount of unfettered play. They don’t want to know from rules and limits and boundaries.
The other problem is that it’s easier and much more tempting to let them be that way; to allow even the “minimal” rules you speak of slide. I’d take a dual approach here. First, dogged consistency. Don’t climb over the gates. We don’t hit. Please stop climbing the shelves. Over and over and over and over. And then over again. But try your best to do it without much emotion. Dead, dead calm, but consistent. Me, I refuse to give up on some baseline table manners even though at times it seems completely hopeless, because I’m convinced something will click sometime, such as when they get interested in girls, and then they’ll have something to remember (such as napkins, and forks). Second, don’t emphasize the negative over the positive. Standing there yelling over them doesn’t work, and I can say because I do sometimes resort to yelling, and I know it doesn’t work. Even while I’m yelling, I realize how spectacularly it’s not working. Praise them, but not in an obviously over the top way, for the times they did a good job. “Good for you guys playing so nicely together. Makes mommy so happy!”
I don’t know if others will disagree, but a rewards system (stickers, trinkets, charts) have never worked all that well for us, which could very well be because I’ve never been convinced they work, so the times I’ve attempted to institute a system like that I’ve done so in a half-baked way. I think I still have a piece of oaktag and a packet of sticker stars somewhere I’ve never used. Behavioral experts have told me that rewards are not the best idea anyway, because they set up external motivations for the kid, not internal ones (be good to get a sticker or a toy, rather than be good because it feels good inside). I think they can work, on behavioral issues in particular, but maybe your kids aren’t into the trinkets. Maybe it’s the promise of a special outing. But my advice would be to keep it all veeerrry low key. Here’s the deal, kids: stick to the rules all week, and we can go to the ice cream place after dinner on Friday. Then just give them one or two warnings, and that’s that. If they are not up to snuff, they don’t go. Then the key would be to not cave. Even if you wanted the ice cream, too.
And I’d nix the handheld games for a good long while. But that could just be me.
Dear Mean Mom,
How do you balance not being a helicopter parent with keeping kids safe? With the constant stream of news stories of kids being abducted or molested, rampant bullying with dire results, and other unimaginable horrors, how do you let go enough of your kids to allow them to grow and learn without leaving them dangerously unprotected?
Yes, well, we’re all worried, aren’t we? But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t be, not to such an amped-up degree that it leads us to keeping our kids hyper sheltered, beating those helicopter blades over their heads. It’s not healthy for anyone, and I’d argue (and I’m not the only one!) that it’s unnecessary. You mention the constant stream of news stories. Think about those news stories for a minute. Is it the same story being flogged over and over on the news shows and cable channels? They have a lot of time to fill, too much in my opinion, and those stories, unfortunately, are lurid enough to keep viewers from changing the channel. But it’s false. Nancy Grace may tell you that your kids are in grave danger, but I’d rather listen to statistics, which tell me that my children are far safer than I likely was.
Helicoptering is a bad, bad trap, because (a) it doesn’t work – you can’t protect your child from everything, no matter how hard you try; and (b) it leaves your kids stunted, unable to make decisions on their own. You can and should grasp a toddler’s hand to cross a street. A 6 year old should have already learned how to look both ways. When you consistently overprotect, you are looking at your children as immensely and incurably fragile. I prefer to presume my children are smart and strong and capable, which will go a long way toward keeping them safe.
The world is a scary place, and it’s often dangerous. But it always has been. And parents’ jobs have always been to protect their children, but also to teach, and model, good common sense and good habits and smarts. Helicoptering does not do that; it just seeks to encircle kids in bubble wrap. It’s like we dropped the teaching part, and doubled down on the protecting part.
My suggestion, since I can’t say all this as well as she can, is to go to my friend Lenore Skenazy’s blog, Free Range Kids. She’s far smarter than I am on this score, and reading a few back posts might help you enormously.
Anyone else got a question? Or a comment on my answers here? Keep it coming, and you all get ice cream this Friday!