Jillian over at Petite Gamine wrote a really great post yesterday about her father’s, um, disciplinary tactics; I am not going to give it all away, but will encourage you all to head on over there and read it. And this is why: because the point wasn’t a “poor me” post about how she was raised, but how it affected her as a parent, and I though it was a very powerful piece. It resonated with me on several different levels, which inspired me to post about my own thoughts and feelings and how my parenting skills have been influenced by my own parents.
See, I made a vow when I had kids that I would never do the things my parents did. I would never expect them to be perfect in all things, or ground them for 9 weeks if there was anything less than an A on their report cards. I would never treat them as my personal slaves, expecting them to have dinner on the table and the house spotless when I get home from work. I would never manufacture work (not chores, but WORK) for them to do the exert my control over them. I would never make them pull down their pants and spank them with a belt. I would never force them to eat their dinner warmed up three days in a row because they didn’t finish it the first night. I would never….you get the hint. Some examples: we used to have a fireplace, and we had a huge stack of wood. One memorable summer, my sisters and I had to move the stack four times. Not for any reason, not because it was not in the right place, but because my parents could make us. My stepfather was in the Air Force, and we were in charge of ironing his shirts. If he pulled one out of the closet and it was wrinkled, he pulled every item out of the closet-hundreds of items-and make us iron them all again. I clearly remember being in first grade, standing on a chair and crying while I ironed-because I knew that no matter how carefully I did it, the shirts would wrinkle as soon as they were hung back up. One of many lessons in futility I learned at an early age.
I could go on and on about the travesty which was my childhood, but one thing I have learned as an adult is that you make whatever peace with it you can, and move on. Part of moving on has been, for me, therapy at different times in the past, my recovery from alcoholism, and my firm desire to raise happier, healthier kids than I was. The problem as I see it is not that I want better for them, but that I don’t always know how to go about doing things differently. I was raised to believe that The Adults were always right, even when common sense dictated otherwise; how do I encourage my own children to question me when there is a legitimate reason for doing so? And how do I effectively say, “This is non-negotiable and I don’t need to give you my reasons,” without having it be heard as “Because I am the boss?” How do I tell them it is okay to question some things I do or say without also giving them permission to run amok and not have respect for me? I was also raised to handle anger by watching my sisters and I become the whipping post for very adult fears and frustrations and angers; how do I handle my own feelings of anger and rage and inadequacy and hopelessness without my kids bearing the brunt of it? Because God knows that in MY house, it was “Hit first, ask questions later,” only later never came. Of course we got the lecture “This hurts me as much as it does you,” or worse still, “Why are you such a fucking baby? I will GIVE you something to cry about!” All of this and more, disguised as discipline or teaching respect or whatever euphemism came to mind first.
There are things I have learned over the years that work, though. One of them-maybe the biggest one-is that when I am genuinely angry, I do NOT touch my kids. Period. If I have to spank-and I have-I reserve it for the times when they were doing something clearly unsafe about which they had previously been warned. Like running out into the street (ahem, and sticking the their tongue out at me). I have popped all three of the bigger kids on the mouth one time each, all three for letting some unspeakable obscenity come out of their mouths at very young ages (and despite my language elsewhere, at home? We don’t say bad words much.). But if I get furious enough to really spank, I know that if I touch them, I might hurt them.
I also believe in time-outs. Not for the kids, but for ME. I refuse to pretend to my kids that I don’t ever get angry; I refuse to tell them they can’t get angry. But they have to have an opportunity to see an adult handle anger before they know how to, so I think it is important to verbalize: “I am so angry right now that I need to take a time out.” Screaming into a pillow, or hitting a punching bag, or taking a run-I think they work, thought some may not agree; in fact, one of the comments on Jillian’s post likened such behaviors to an adult temper tantrum. I respectfully disagree; because anger is a human emotion, it SHOULD be felt and dealt with, and whatever it takes for each of us to deal without hurting ourselves or someone else is okay in my book. Because I learned well how to hide what I was feeling and thinking and going through, until I thought maybe drinking and fucking strangers obsessively would somehow mask those feelings. Not so, my friend, not so.
And it helps to have people to talk to; people who can say “I have been there!” It helps to admit that we have those feelings of anger and also the desire to act on them. It helps to be in a place where we can say, “I just can’t do this and I need some help,” and then take it one step further and listen to the advice. I mean, we don’t like to admit we are anything less than perfect, so our first reaction tends to be, what? Anger? Defensiveness? “How DARE you tell me what I am doing wrong!” But, well, isn’t that why we say we need help? So for me, I have to not only swallow my pride and admit that I am fucking up, and then I have to really humble myself and listen to some solutions. Maybe, if ten people tell me something, I might get one good nugget out of it, and that one bit might make a huge difference in how I do things.
I also have people I look to for help; friends, other people’s families, books-not just about how to deal with my own anger and how it affects my kids, but other things, too. I look to my friend Janet for strategies that allow my kids to express their individuality (blue hair? It’s just hair; it grows back. Tattoos? Not while you are in my house, it’s permanent) without my own perceptions and judgements getting in the way. I look at the woman in my office who has excellent relationship with both her grown children, and I ask her what worked for them and I listen. I have learned how to give a genuine apology when I have been wrong, because that is another thing I have learned from another friend who is a really great parent.
Another thing that has worked for me is to use the tone of voice I use in public; pretend that someone is listening and watching me interact with my children. I would no more yell or chastise or
scream at my kids in public than I would pick my nose and eat it. We all know the voices we use around teachers or in bookstores, where other more progressive, more gentle, calmer mothers hang out with their literary kids; I talk to my kids so far as is possible the same way I speak to them there. For one thing, if I talk quietly, even when I am reprimanding, the kids respond a lot better, and also, I never want the kids to see the same kind of hypocrisy that I saw-presenting one face to the public and unleashing the monster behind our closed doors.
And I cannot demand respect from my kids if I don’t respect them. I can’t expect them to behave like normal productive human beings if I can’t show them how to do with that. I can’t expect them to learn how to deal with negative emotions if I don’t know how to do it myself. I fail-often. I sometimes say things to my kids that I can’t believe, and I yell so loud at times that my throat hurts. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and just can’t stand what I see, because for however brief a moment, I was my mother. It is so hard sometimes to be a parent, and it seems to me there is a lot of the “one step forward, two steps back” going on.
Still, I know that as long as I am aware of what I am doing and how I am feeling, as long as I keep making an honest effort, we will be okay. In the dark of night, I question my abilities as a parent and worry that I am harming them irreparably, but somehow I get up in the morning and start again. I also think that is an important lesson the kids can learn from me; that we make mistakes, we react badly, we say things we don’t mean, but we keep trying. We try every day to make the world a better place, to walk in peace and calm. When we are around people who genuinely love us, we want to do better and be better, and this is what I strive for. Not perfection-I would be crazy if I thought I would NEVER YELL again, never say something that hurt someone. But it is progress, and that makes all the difference.