Sunday, September 13, 2015

On Mouth Washing and Other Parental Practices

Yesterday I read David Gets in Trouble by David Shannon to forty kindergarteners and not a single one of them knew why David had a bar of soap in his mouth on the page with the caption:  But Dad says it too!  Most of them thought he was in trouble for eating soap. I looked at the other two adults in the room and we realized that we were witnessing a historical moment:  Parents no longer threatened to wash their kids’ mouths with soap to stop them from using foul language.  And let me tell you, this particular public health practice is used on at least three continents that I know of.  This gives me hope that we as human parents are evolving.

Maybe the next things to go would be threatening them with being picked up by the police if they behave badly.  In fact, I wish we could just stop all threats, bribes and alternate explanations (a.k.a little lies).  All these practices are short term parenting strategies that 1) make us feel that we have addressed the situation and not allowed the child to “get away” with bad behavior, 2) get us out of an uncomfortable situation of having to reason and give explanations that are comprehensible to a little one and 3) with luck, will get immediate, albeit temporary compliance. 

I know what it's like.  I have been there.  We are at a friend's house.  The kids are playing nicely.  My children are being charming.  The adults are marveling at their wit and intelligence.   Then it comes time to go.  I know that dealing with change in one's plans is a test for some of them.  I know that I will be facing a volcano when I try to get them to leave.  So I come up with an alternate explanation. I tell them that the hosts have to leave to go somewhere else and there won't be anyone to play with anyway.  I am just  trying to preempt a scene of kicking and screaming and refusal to leave.  I am trying to spare the child, myself and the hosts an ugly and uncomfortable situation.  But in the process I am withholding from my child the opportunity to learn self-control and ultimately how to manage his own will to live a happy life.

I wish all children could walk around with an “under construction” sign on their backs so that we as parents could approach our job as builders of character and not managers of behavior.  Every tantrum, every strong expression of will, every push back on what is needed and appropriate is a human child’s opportunity to shape his character; to learn to be considerate of others, to control his will or to tell the truth.

And those of us who have either passed the stage of little-child rearing or don’t yet have children, we could hold our tongues and our judgments so that mother or father in the supermarket or at the restaurant, feels comfortable doing what is right and not what is expedient.  Because we all stand to benefit from parenting that builds character in the future adults that will run our world.

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