Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why Can't You Behave?

Dear Friends,

Today, Ben didn't do what I wanted him to do. He misbehaved. He hit another person, so I hit him on the behind, just so he knows that hurting is unacceptable behavior. He ran into the street, so I yelled at him and grabbed his arm, just so he knows that is dangerous. He wouldn't eat the food I gave him, so I explained he could either eat that food, or none at all, because I didn't have time to be a short order cook. He wouldn't eat at the table, at the time I served dinner, so I told him that he could wait to eat, since we don't eat anywhere but at the table.

Ben was super dirty, but refused to take a shower, so I picked him up and plunked him in there anyway for a quick wash. Same with brushing his teeth, washing his hands, and changing his clothes—I mean, who wants to live with someone all dirty?

And don't get me started on bedtimes! If Ben will not go to sleep when I want him to, alone in a room down the hall, at the time I think it should be "bedtime," then there is going to be trouble. The best I can do is tell him it is "quiet time," leave him with a book—well, he can't read yet, so I guess a quiet toy—and shut the door, so I can have a little down-time.

When Ben yells at me, I take away his iPhone. When he throws something, I take away his laptop.  When he grabs something that doesn't belong to him, I snatch it out of his hand and give it back to the person. When Ben does anything I don't like, I pull him out of the room for a "time out," and sit down with him to explain all of the reasons his behavior is unacceptable.

I have read lots of magazine articles and online advice about how to control Ben and get him to behave how I think he should. I understand I must be persuasive, firm, tough if necessary; I must use discipline, time-outs, punishment, physical force as a last resort, and of course take away privileges.

Yelling, hitting, crying, grabbing, pushing, threatening, wiggling, running into the street, eating cookies in the living room, playing wildly at bedtime, refusing to bathe, being loud during naptime, forgetting to feed the dog, not helping with the dishes and housecleaning—what's a wife to do? 

No, I don't mean "mother." I mean "wife." What if my husband were not behaving in ways that I want him to? What if his actions did not fit the behaviors I expect and have in mind as "ideal"?

So here it is: If I attempted to "correct" my spouse the same way mainstream society would have me "correct" my child, we would be in a world of hurt.

If I hit, grabbed, yelled at, took treasured items away from, dragged into a time out room, forced into a bathtub, put a toothbrush in his mouth, insisted he eat at the table and only certain foods at certain times, and went to bed when I said so—to my husband? You would think I were a crazy woman. And if my husband did that to me? You would advise me to head to the nearest domestic violence shelter with the kids.

Okay. So there has to be another way. A gentler way. A loving, kind, respect-filled way to parent.

Perhaps I can start by trying to understand my children's behavior. What are they trying to express? Do they have all the skills and tools of communication they need to navigate relationships, share toys, and deal with feelings of frustration and helplessness in a world of controlling grown-ups?

I can envision a kinder, more peaceful world where, rather than trying to orchestrate my children's behaviors, I instead strive to lovingly model the behaviors that I'd like to see more of—both in my children and in myself (and maybe even in my spouse, for that matter).

Perhaps through their behavior, children are expressing an unmet need in the best way they can, given their limited life experience. Perhaps my family would be better off if I directly address what might be going on: attempt to figure out their need and then do my very best to fulfill it. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, and my child is communicating a mutual need to slow down and re-connect. Maybe we both need a "time-in" to snuggle up and eat cookies together on the couch. I have seen in action that when I make respectful requests of my children, they have learned to do that of me and others. What if my children had dirty hair for a week—is my relationship with them more important than a loss of dignity from being bodily forced into the bathtub? I say YES!


I'm back to finish this post. After percolating on this subject for the past 24 hours, I realize it all boils down to this: If I wouldn't treat my spouse this way—controlling, cajoling, forcing, persuading, and otherwise trying to mold him into my idea of "right" behavior—then I will not treat my child this way. My child is a fraction of my size, has not even a fraction of my power in the relationship, and is entirely vulnerable and dependent on me for their very life. I will treat this gift with care. My children are precious and inquisitive and learning each moment about every aspect of Life. They are watching my every move as to how I treat them and others. And I want to model my idea of "right" behaviors—my ideals—and pass those along in the most loving, gentle, cooperative, kind and respectful way possible.

Have I yelled at my children? Yes. Have I grabbed, nagged, pressured, threatened to take things away, and set arbitrary limits? Unfortunately, yes. Am I proud of those moments? No! Every time I have attempted to follow mainstream's guide to childrearing, I have instead experienced a profound dis-connect with my children and my internal guide of how I wish to be (call it a conscience). I am continually learning how to love my children better, how to parent better, how to be more compassionate and patient with them and especially with myself (and hey, how about my spouse here, too).

More than anything, I am learning how to become the person I hope my children will admire and ultimately wish to emulate. There can be no greater legacy than this.


  1. Very good advice. I try not to wield authority just because I can, or because I think we should conform to an ideal of family.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Julie!
    I like to think of "power with" vs. "power over."
    Then everybody "wins"!

  3. Carrie, this is very insightful and brave. It takes a lot of courage to question the way we are expected to parent by virtually everyone. It reminds me of horse whisperers compared to horse breakers ad one involves taking time and self reflection to develop a relationship of mutual respect and one expects instantaneous results created through power and fear. That said, I have a long way to go to being a parent who doesn't use such tactics bur your post sirs in my mind and heart and encourages me to try. Every day.


  4. Thank you, Jenny, for your thoughtful and encouraging remarks! May we all parent (and simply LIVE) with peace in our hearts and our relationships as much as possible!