Alfie Kohn has a great article in the NYT about unconditional love for one’s children. He covers a lot of current scientific research that backs up his main point: kids need to be loved. Withholding love and affection from a child to compel obedience is, he feels, a cruel but sadly not unusual punishment.
This article reminded me of a story from Everyday Blessings about a boy who, with two friends, destroyed a sheetrock wall in a hotel lobby out of boredom. Their mothers and the hotel staff waited for the fathers to return from their fishing trip. The first father returned, saw what his son had done, and beat him on the spot with his belt. The second father came back and beat his child even more severely. The third father came back, said nothing at all, and left. He returned an hour later with a load of sheetrock and repaired the damage the boys had done, all without ever speaking to his child.
There’s a powerful lesson about unconditional love there.
I have to confess, I’ve struggled with this as a mom. It sounds great on paper, but in practice…well. Let’s face it: kids push buttons. At least mine do. Sometimes they piss me off and I just don’t want to cuddle and validate their feelings. Sometimes I really need to put myself in time-out.
As anecdote to back up Mr. Kohn’s data, I can say I’ve never seen my daughter more scared and upset than when I’ve refused to talk to her until she calms down (something I do occasionally when she’s throwing a tantrum in the car and I feel staying engaged is dangerously distracting).
Ultimately, I doubt whether putting kids in time-out is the deciding factor of a good parent-child relationship. I suspect there are thousands of right paths to follow toward the goals most parents share: a happy, healthy, successful life for their grown-up kids.
Here’s what I try to do when I stumble.
- I’ve made amends. When I’m the one who throws a tantrum, when I raise my voice or make an unfair threat or refuse to play nice and just storm off to my room, I apologize. I talk it over with the kids when we’re all calm, and try to help us all learn from the situation.
- I keep getting better. I’m a big parenting geek. I read books and go to workshops and observe other parents and call my mom for advice. I pay attention to what happens between me and my kids and try to make it more like my fantasy life where we snuggle and read books and play in the dirt all day, and less like my real life where we spend half the morning looking for somebody’s lost shoes and discover in the process that our library books have playdough folded into the pages.
Which path are you on? Do you use time-outs? How do you manage your kids’ inevitable unpleasant behavior?