It is bad enough to be a parent trying to get your kids to behave, but then to have to give people parenting advice as a pediatrician is quite daunting. While I am never slow to tell others what I think (I am doing this blog, aren't I?), I sometimes wonder why I can be so confident in the exam room and yet so unsure of myself at home. Sometimes, however, the two work to help each other and I learn something at home that is especially useful for advice for my patients, or I figure something out while talking with patients that is especially applicable at home.
One of those "synergy moments" happened recently when I was discussing parenting with a parent of a toddler. "How do I get him to obey me?" the exasperated mother asked me. As I discussed this with her, I noted that she seemed to think that obedience of the child is the ultimate job of parenting.
I have thought that too in the past (especially before I had kids), but it occurred to me that this is absolutely the wrong way to parent. The only kids I have ever seen that are "perfectly obedient" to their parents are the ones who are totally controlled by the parents. The only way to really control someone is through fear. Some children are so afraid to disobey, fearing either physical violence or emotional manipulation, that they fanatically follow their parents' commands. These children appear to be well-disciplined - they don't talk back, they stop doing things when asked, they speak only when spoken to. Yet is this really what we want as parents?
I have to say, I have learned much of this lesson through my wife, as I am far more prone to want to control other people (I am a doctor, remember). She seems to be content to "pick her battles" while I find myself frustrated at my inability to get obedience out of my children, not because they don't obey, but because they don't always obey. Early on in parenthood, I felt that any time a child disobeyed, you were letting them down by not teaching them obedience. Many hold to this "spare the rod and spoil the child" version of parenting. I now don't think this is the case.
Don't get me wrong, I don't feel that a home is a democracy. We are supposed to discipline our children. We don't sit down with a two year-old and reason out the benefits of not running into the street or not biting the cat. Discipline necessarily involves imposing unwanted circumstance on another person for their own benefit. It is the duty of the parent to do this. But instead of wanting to make children learn obedience, I see now that we really want to teach them to know the difference between good decisions and bad decisions. To learn this, children must feel safe enough to disobey their parents and not risk losing the love or protection of the parents. When they do disobey, only a parent that the child trusts will be able to really teach the lessons that are needed to become happy and productive adults.
So, when my child disobeys, I have to ask whether confronting that behavior at that time will help my child learn, or if it will simply inflame their anger. This is especially appropriate for me because I have three teenagers at home. My kids are learning independence and are questioning what I say. "My way or the highway" is not a very effective message to send your teenager. I have found that letting certain things go (such as a sharp word directed at me) and then discussing it later is far more productive than always going toe-to-toe with them on every "you're an idiot" look I get from them.
Realizing this has made parenting much less stressful for me and has allowed me to give more productive advice to my patients.
So now what about that room-cleaning issue? Can I find a break-through on that one?