As a parent, I have enormous power to influence. Huge, vast, colossal, humbling, heartbreaking power to influence. When I stop and think about it, it brings me to my knees. I could not see this when my children were smaller and my ability to influence them into commonplace civilized behaviors (like, say, wearing clothes in public) seemed inadequate. I see it now, and it makes me a little trembly: oh, God, make me the mother they deserve. Make me the example they need.
As a parent, especially the parent of a small child, I have considerable power to coerce. This power has its limits. I can tell you from long-ago but still vivid experience that the toddler who has sunk his teeth into your arm can keep them there despite vigorous attempts on your part to remove them. I am really grateful in hindsight that my firstborn was a take-it-to-the-mat kind of kid because he taught me something important: there's only so much good behavior you can compel, and compelling is costly. Compelling shapes the parent as well as the child.
This is hard to see when your kids are small, but compelling is a short-term strategy. If one of my teenagers said to me, "No, I absolutely refuse to do what you're telling me," I could not physically make him do it. They're both taller and heavier than I am. (I can still pick them up, but I wouldn't get very far.) I could say, "Then I'm taking your car keys" or "Then I'm grounding you," but my take-it-to-the-mat kid is still a take-it-to-the-mat kid, whose tendency is to say, "You go right ahead and see if I care." His brother is still the kid who crumples inside when an authority figure disapproves of his behavior, taking harsh words to heart long after everyone else has forgotten them. So that's not how we do things around here.
Coercing good behavior is a short-sighted strategy as well as a short-term one. Remember that thing I said a few days ago about two goals in tension? (You probably don't, because I'm writing, like, the Moby-Dick of blog series here. Middle paragraph of this post.) It's like I have an imaginary checking account from which I draw my mothering funds. If I spend my money on the snowmobile of BECAUSE I SAID SO AND HURRY UP DAMMIT, it might feel really good. I can rev my figurative engine and zoom down the hills at speed, feeling macho and invincible. The thing about snowmobiles, though, is that they're expensive. If I sink $15,000 into a snowmobile, I might not have the funds to cover the broken leg (i.e., the injured dignity) I get when it pitches me out. I might not be able to pay for the rescue operation when I trigger an avalanche (i.e., losing my kids' respect over time).
The croissant approach is like saving for retirement: month after month, you take the money you might rather have spent on snowmobiling and put it in your 401K. Sometimes it's painful, sometimes you'd rather buy plane tickets to somewhere fun, dernit, but you're taking the long view. (This analogy is probably offending every single person who likes Supernanny, but I'm going with it anyway.) If my daughter is being loud in church, as just happened on Sunday after a long stretch of better behavior ("BORING," she announced in an outside voice, as I withered inside), my short-term goal of getting her to straighten up THIS INSTANT IF NOT SOONER may be at odds with my long-term goals of teaching her to regulate her own behavior and learn to love the Mass. What I wanted to do, frankly, was seize her by the earlobe and hiss "NOT APPROPRIATE" in a Voldemortian voice. What I did do was remind her of our expectations, with clear disapproval in my face and voice, and give her a minute to collect herself. If she hadn't quieted down in that minute, of course I would have taken her out. But another thing I have learned is that inserting a pause is good medicine for an angry or embarrassed parent as well as a defiant child. Expecting instant compliance might make me look like a better parent. I think that acknowledging how often kids need a little time to pull themselves together has made me be a better parent. I also think it has taught them how to pull themselves together after a conflict, which is a life skill worth having.
(Here I pause for a moment of self-doubt. It is deeply ingrained in our culture, this idea that good parents say "jump" and good kids immediately say "how high?" I believe, I really do, that it is easier to find the joy in jumping if you are given a minute to gather your own momentum.)
Bribes and threats are attempts to compel. They are extremely motivating for some kids, but it's short-term motivation that actually erodes long-term uptake of the target behavior. (On which topic, see Alfie Kohn.) If your kid is not motivated by a given bribe or threat, you have to decide how far you're willing to up the stakes. If obedience becomes an economic transaction, your kid might choose not to buy in.
Here I am going to offend a bunch of people again (sorry!), but I think that steady reliance on bribes and threats is something like a steady diet of Noodle-roni and chicken nuggets. Noodle-roni is quick and easy and it's designed to be tasty, and we all know every kid in America eats chicken nuggets with alacrity. That approach is everywhere, but I am skeptical about its long-term benefits. The transition to a new menu takes time. If you serve a kid accustomed to Noodle-roni and chicken nuggets a dinner that consists of grilled salmon, sauted kale, and baked sweet potato, he's going to say, "...Are you kidding me?" He's not going to say, "I've been longing to eat this kale ever since I saw its beautiful dusky blue-green leaves at the CSA pickup." Tastes can change. I would honestly rather eat a bowl of garlicky CSA kale these days than a bowl of Oreos. But (here I go again) change is slow. A kid whose only exposure to pumpkin has been the pumpkin spice frappuccino (is there such a thing? I feel like there's pumpkin spice everything these days -- pumpkin spice library paste, pumpkin spice motor oil...) is going to be slower to perceive the sweetness of a wedge of roasted pumpkin. With time and persistence he can learn to enjoy it, though, just as he can learn to find the joy in duty.
I use some strategies that would look familiar to any mom. But I frame them differently than many sources do, and it makes a difference for me that I think my kids perceive. When my oldest kid was an indomitable toddler, I would put him in time-out when he did something wrong. He wouldn't stay in the chair, so I buckled him in his booster seat. Once buckled, he would kick his feet until the chair beneath him tipped over (his motto: "live free or die"), so I laid it back on the floor until the timer went off to let us both know he could get out. This was -- what's the word? -- insane, but everyone said he should get a time-out if he misbehaved. Right? Right??? I believe I could have broken him eventually, but I think he is the kind of kid for whom the Pearls' plumbing supply line tactics would cause broken kidneys before they caused a broken will. It dawned on me slowly that I didn't want to break anything, didn't want to dominate my indomitable boy. The goal wasn't to overmaster him but to teach him to master himself. It is right and appropriate for 2yo boys to need support in the self-mastery department.
These days at my house if you can't follow the rules at the dinner table, you go sit on the steps until you can. But it's not "the naughty stair" and you don't stay there until I decide you're done sitting. You always, always decide for yourself when you're ready to come back. Take the time you need to pull it together, and then come join us again. No shame, no wrath (or very little wrath, very seldom), no worries. (This happens...maybe every three weeks or so? Less than that, now that I think about it.)
Sometimes I do things that look punitive; I do assign extra chores to kids who don't do theirs or do them badly. I explain it like this: when I have to get after you to do a job or to do it better, that takes up space in my head and minutes in my day and it makes me grumpy. Since you added something to my plate, you'll need to remove something as well. Usually there's an option, A or B. (This happens a couple of times a month.)
Sometimes I do things that could look bribe-y: I may offer kids something to look forward to after an unpleasant experience. But I always say after, not if. Getting your tooth filled is not negotiable, and I will not attempt to bribe you into compliance. But I will sit near you and hold your hand, and I will tell you softly about the outing I have planned for afterward when we can talk together about how we don't like getting our teeth filled. (This one I can't quantify.)
These are small differences, maybe, but they have changed me and the way I think about my children's struggles.
You guys, it's important to me that you know I am writing about my best self, who disappears with troubling frequency. But it boils down to this: Do I believe in the capacity of the human soul to respond freely to grace? You'd better believe I do. And my highest goal as a parent is to show my kids that grace is real, and transformative, and available for the asking.