قانون پنجمدوره: دوازده قانون زندگی / درس 6
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DO NOT LET YOUR CHILDREN DO ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU DISLIKE THEM
ACTUALLY, IT’S NOT OK
Recently, I watched a three-year-old boy trail his mother and father slowly through a crowded airport. He was screaming violently at five-second intervals—and, more important, he was doing it voluntarily. He wasn’t at the end of this tether. As a parent, I could tell from the tone. He was irritating his parents and hundreds of other people to gain attention. Maybe he needed something. But that was no way to get it, and his parents should have let him know that. You might object that “perhaps they were worn out, and jet-lagged, after a long trip.” But thirty seconds of carefully directed problem-solving would have brought the shameful episode to a halt. More thoughtful parents would not have let someone they truly cared for become the object of a crowd’s contempt.
I have also watched a couple, unable or unwilling to say no to their two-year-old, obliged to follow closely behind him everywhere he went, every moment of what was supposed to be an enjoyable social visit, because he misbehaved so badly when not micro-managed that he could not be given a second of genuine freedom without risk. The desire of his parents to let their child act without correction on every impulse perversely produced precisely the opposite effect: they deprived him instead of every opportunity to engage in independent action. Because they did not dare to teach him what “No” means, he had no conception of the reasonable limits enabling maximal toddler autonomy. It was a classic example of too much chaos breeding too much order (and the inevitable reversal). I have, similarly, seen parents rendered unable to engage in adult conversation at a dinner party because their children, four and five, dominated the social scene, eating the centres out of all the sliced bread, subjecting everyone to their juvenile tyranny, while mom and dad watched, embarrassed and bereft of the ability to intervene.
When my now-adult daughter was a child, another child once hit her on the head with a metal toy truck. I watched that same child, one year later, viciously push his younger sister backwards over a fragile glass-surfaced coffee table. His mother picked him up, immediately afterward (but not her frightened daughter), and told him in hushed tones not to do such things, while she patted him comfortingly in a manner clearly indicative of approval. She was out to produce a little God-Emperor of the Universe. That’s the unstated goal of many a mother, including many who consider themselves advocates for full gender equality. Such women will object vociferously to any command uttered by an adult male, but will trot off in seconds to make their progeny a peanut-butter sandwich if he demands it while immersed self-importantly in a video game. The future mates of such boys have every reason to hate their mothers-in-law. Respect for women? That’s for other boys, other men—not for their dear sons.
Something of the same sort may underlie, in part, the preference for male children seen most particularly in places such as India, Pakistan and China, where sex-selective abortion is widely practised. The Wikipedia entry for that practice attributes its existence to “cultural norms” favouring male over female children. (I cite Wikipedia because it is collectively written and edited and, therefore, the perfect place to find accepted wisdom.) But there’s no evidence that such ideas are strictly cultural. There are plausible psycho-biological reasons for the evolution of such an attitude, and they’re not pretty, from a modern, egalitarian perspective. If circumstances force you to put all your eggs into one basket, so to speak, a son is a better bet, by the strict standards of evolutionary logic, where the proliferation of your genes is all that matters. Why?
Well, a reproductively successful daughter might gain you eight or nine children. The Holocaust survivor Yitta Schwartz, a star in this regard, had three generations of direct descendants who matched such performance. She was the ancestor of almost two thousand people by the time of her death in 2010.77 But the sky is truly the limit with a reproductively successful son. Sex with multiple female partners is his ticket to exponential reproduction (given our species’ practical limitation to single births). Rumour has it that the actor Warren Beatty and the athlete Wilt Chamberlain each bedded multiple thousands of women (something not unknown, as well, among rock stars). They didn’t produce children in those numbers. Modern birth control limits that. But similar celebrity types in the past have done so. The forefather of the Qing dynasty, Giocangga (circa 1550), for example, is the male-line ancestor of a million and a half people in northeastern China.78 The medieval Uí Néill dynasty produced up to three million male descendants, localized mainly in northwestern Ireland and the US, through Irish emigration.79 And the king of them all, Genghis Khan, conqueror of much of Asia, is forefather of 8 percent of the men in Central Asia—sixteen million male descendants, 34 generations later.80 So, from a deep, biological perspective there are reasons why parents might favour sons sufficiently to eliminate female fetuses, although I am not claiming direct causality, nor suggesting a lack of other, more culturally-dependent reasons.
Preferential treatment awarded a son during development might even help produce an attractive, well-rounded, confident man. This happened in the case of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, by his own account: “A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.”81 Fair enough. But “feeling of a conqueror” can all too easily become “actual conqueror.” Genghis Khan’s outstanding reproductive success certainly came at the cost of any success whatsoever for others (including the dead millions of Chinese, Persians, Russians and Hungarians). Spoiling a son might therefore work well from the standpoint of the “selfish gene” (allowing the favoured child’s genes to replicate themselves in innumerable offspring), to use the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ famous expression. But it can make for a dark, painful spectacle in the here and now, and mutate into something indescribably dangerous.
None of this means that all mothers favour all sons over their daughters (or that daughters are not sometimes favoured over sons, or that fathers don’t sometimes favor their sons). Other factors can clearly dominate. Sometimes, for example, unconscious hatred (sometimes not-so-unconscious, either) overrides any concern a parent might have for any child, regardless of gender or personality or situation. I saw a four-year old boy allowed to go hungry on a regular basis. His nanny had been injured, and he was being cycled through the neighbours for temporary care. When his mother dropped him off at our house, she indicated that he wouldn’t eat at all, all day. “That’s OK,” she said. It wasn’t OK (in case that’s not obvious). This was the same four-year-old boy who clung to my wife for hours in absolute desperation and total commitment, when she tenaciously, persistently and mercifully managed to feed him an entire lunch-time meal, rewarding him throughout for his cooperation, and refusing to let him fail. He started out with a closed mouth, sitting with all of us at the dining room table, my wife and I, our two kids, and two neighbourhood kids we looked after during the day. She put the spoon in front of him, waiting patiently, persistently, while he moved his head back and forth, refusing it entry, using defensive methods typical of a recalcitrant and none-too-well-attended two-year old.
She didn’t let him fail. She patted him on the head every time he managed a mouthful, telling him sincerely that he was a “good boy” when he did so. She did think he was a good boy. He was a cute, damaged kid. Ten not-too-painful minutes later he finished his meal. We were all watching intently. It was a drama of life and death.
“Look,” she said, holding up his bowl. “You finished all of it.” This boy, who was standing in the corner, voluntarily and unhappily, when I first saw him; who wouldn’t interact with the other kids, who frowned chronically, who wouldn’t respond to me when I tickled and prodded him, trying to get him to play—this boy broke immediately into a wide, radiant smile. It brought joy to everyone at the table. Twenty years later, writing it down today, it still brings me to tears. Afterward, he followed my wife around like a puppy for the rest of the day, refusing to let her out of his sight. When she sat down, he jumped in her lap, cuddling in, opening himself back up to the world, searching desperately for the love he had been continually denied. Later in the day, but far too soon, his mother reappeared. She came down the stairs into the room we all occupied. “Oh, SuperMom,” she uttered, resentfully, seeing her son curled up in my wife’s lap. Then she departed, black, murderous heart unchanged, doomed child in hand. She was a psychologist. The things you can see, with even a single open eye. It’s no wonder that people want to stay blind.
Everybody Hates Arithmetic
My clinical clients frequently come to me to discuss their day-to-day familial problems. Such quotidian concerns are insidious. Their habitual and predictable occurrence makes them appear trivial. But that appearance of triviality is deceptive: it is the things that occur every single day that truly make up our lives, and time spent the same way over and again adds up at an alarming rate. One father recently spoke with me about the trouble he was having putting his son to sleep at nightfn1—a ritual that typically involved about three-quarters of an hour of fighting. We did the arithmetic. Forty-five minutes a day, seven days a week—that’s three hundred minutes, or five hours, a week. Five hours for each of the four weeks of a month—that’s twenty hours per month. Twenty hours a month for twelve months is two hundred and forty hours a year. That’s a month and a half of standard forty-hour work weeks.
My client was spending a month and a half of work weeks per year fighting ineffectually and miserably with his son. Needless to say, both were suffering for it. No matter how good your intentions, or how sweet and tolerant your temperament, you will not maintain good relations with someone you fight with for a month and a half of work weeks per year. Resentment will inevitably build. Even if it doesn’t, all that wasted, unpleasant time could clearly be spent in more productive and useful and less stressful and more enjoyable activity. How are such situations to be understood? Where does the fault lie, in child or in parent? In nature or society? And what, if anything, is to be done?
Some localize all such problems in the adult, whether in the parent or broader society. “There are no bad children,” such people think, “only bad parents.” When the idealized image of an unsullied child is brought to mind, this notion appears fully justified. The beauty, openness, joy, trust and capacity for love characterizing children makes it easy to attribute full culpability to the adults on the scene. But such an attitude is dangerously and naively romantic. It’s too one-sided, in the case of parents granted a particularly difficult son or daughter. It’s also not for the best that all human corruption is uncritically laid at society’s feet. That conclusion merely displaces the problem, back in time. It explains nothing, and solves no problems. If society is corrupt, but not the individuals within it, then where did the corruption originate? How is it propagated? It’s a one-sided, deeply ideological theory.
Even more problematic is the insistence logically stemming from this presumption of social corruption that all individual problems, no matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical. Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.
Was it really a good thing, for example, to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s? It’s not clear to me that the children whose lives were destabilized by the hypothetical freedom this attempt at liberation introduced would say so. Horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors. We tear them down at our peril. We skate, unconsciously, on thin ice, with deep, cold waters below, where unimaginable monsters lurk.
I see today’s parents as terrified by their children, not least because they have been deemed the proximal agents of this hypothetical social tyranny, and simultaneously denied credit for their role as benevolent and necessary agents of discipline, order and conventionality. They dwell uncomfortably and self-consciously in the shadow of the all-too-powerful shadow of the adolescent ethos of the 1960s, a decade whose excesses led to a general denigration of adulthood, an unthinking disbelief in the existence of competent power, and the inability to distinguish between the chaos of immaturity and responsible freedom. This has increased parental sensitivity to the short-term emotional suffering of their children, while heightening their fear of damaging their children to a painful and counterproductive degree. Better this than the reverse, you might argue—but there are catastrophes lurking at the extremes of every moral continuum.
The Ignoble Savage
It has been said that every individual is the conscious or unconscious follower of some influential philosopher. The belief that children have an intrinsically unsullied spirit, damaged only by culture and society, is derived in no small part from the eighteenth-century Genevan French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.82 Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time.
The noble savage Rousseau described, however, was an ideal—an abstraction, archetypal and religious—and not the flesh-and-blood reality he supposed. The mythologically perfect Divine Child permanently inhabits our imagination. He’s the potential of youth, the newborn hero, the wronged innocent, and the long-lost son of the rightful king. He’s the intimations of immortality that accompany our earliest experiences. He’s Adam, the perfect man, walking without sin with God in the Garden before the Fall. But human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves. In general, people improve with age, rather than worsening, becoming kinder, more conscientious, and more emotionally stable as they mature.83 Bullying at the sheer and often terrible intensity of the schoolyard84 rarely manifests itself in grown-up society. William Golding’s dark and anarchistic Lord of the Flies is a classic for a reason.
Furthermore, there is plenty of direct evidence that the horrors of human behaviour cannot be so easily attributed to history and society. This was discovered most painfully, perhaps, by the primatologist Jane Goodall, beginning in 1974, when she learned that her beloved chimpanzees were capable of and willing to murder each other (to use the terminology appropriate to humans).85 Because of its shocking nature and great anthropological significance, she kept her observations secret for years, fearing that her contact with the animals had led them to manifest unnatural behaviour. Even after she published her account, many refused to believe it. It soon became obvious, however, that what she observed was by no means rare.
Bluntly put: chimpanzees conduct inter-tribal warfare. Furthermore, they do it with almost unimaginable brutality. The typical full-grown chimp is more than twice as strong as a comparable human being, despite their smaller size.86 Goodall reported with some terror the proclivity of the chimps she studied to snap strong steel cables and levers.87 Chimps can literally tear each other to pieces—and they do. Human societies and their complex technologies cannot be blamed for that.88 “Often when I woke in the night,” she wrote, “horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind—Satan [a long-observed chimp] cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound in his face … Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes.”89 Small gangs of adolescent chimps, mostly male, roam the borders of their territory. If they encounter foreigners (even chimps they once knew, who had broken away from the now-too-large group) and, if they outnumber them, the gang will mob and destroy them, without mercy. Chimps don’t have much of a super-ego, and it is prudent to remember that the human capacity for self-control may also be overestimated. Careful perusal of book as shocking and horrific as Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking,90 which describes the brutal decimation of that Chinese city by the invading Japanese, will disenchant even a committed romantic. And the less said about Unit 731, a covert Japanese biological warfare research unit established at that time, the better. Read about it at your peril. You have been warned.
Hunter-gatherers, too, are much more murderous than their urban, industrialized counterparts, despite their communal lives and localized cultures. The yearly rate of homicide in the modern UK is about 1 per 100,000.91 It’s four to five times higher in the US, and about ninety times higher in Honduras, which has the highest rate recorded of any modern nation. But the evidence strongly suggests that human beings have become more peaceful, rather than less so, as time has progressed and societies became larger and more organized. The !Kung bushmen of Africa, romanticized in the 1950s by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as “the harmless people,”92 had a yearly murder rate of 40 per 100,000, which declined by more than 30% once they became subject to state authority.93 This is a very instructive example of complex social structures serving to reduce, not exacerbate, the violent tendencies of human beings. Yearly rates of 300 per 100,000 have been reported for the Yanomami of Brazil, famed for their aggression—but the stats don’t max out there. The denizens of Papua, New Guinea, kill each other at yearly rates ranging from 140 to 1000 per 100,000.94 However, the record appears to be held by the Kato, an indigeneous people of California, 1450 of whom per 100,000 met a violent death circa 1840.95 Because children, like other human beings, are not only good, they cannot simply be left to their own devices, untouched by society, and bloom into perfection. Even dogs must be socialized if they are to become acceptable members of the pack—and children are much more complex than dogs. This means that they are much more likely to go complexly astray if they are not trained, disciplined and properly encouraged. This means that it is not just wrong to attribute all the violent tendencies of human beings to the pathologies of social structure. It’s wrong enough to be virtually backward. The vital process of socialization prevents much harm and fosters much good. Children must be shaped and informed, or they cannot thrive. This fact is reflected starkly in their behavior: kids are utterly desperate for attention from both peers and adults because such attention, which renders them effective and sophisticated communal players, is vitally necessary.
Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental or physical. This is damage by omission, rather than commission, but it is no less severe and long-lasting. Children are damaged when their “mercifully” inattentive parents fail to make them sharp and observant and awake and leave them, instead, in an unconscious and undifferentiated state. Children are damaged when those charged with their care, afraid of any conflict or upset, no longer dare to correct them, and leave them without guidance. I can recognize such children on the street. They are doughy and unfocused and vague. They are leaden and dull instead of golden and bright. They are uncarved blocks, trapped in a perpetual state of waiting-to-be.
Such children are chronically ignored by their peers. This is because they are not fun to play with. Adults tend to manifest the same attitude (although they will deny it desperately when pressed). When I worked in daycare centres, early in my career, the comparatively neglected children would come to me desperately, in their fumbling, half-formed manner, with no sense of proper distance and no attentive playfulness. They would flop, nearby—or directly on my lap, no matter what I was doing—driven inexorably by the powerful desire for adult attention, the necessary catalyst for further development. It was very difficult not to react with annoyance, even disgust, to such children and their too-prolonged infantilism—difficult not to literally push them aside—even though I felt very badly for them, and understood their predicament well. I believe that response, harsh and terrible though it may be, was an almost universally-experienced internal warning signal indicating the comparative danger of establishing a relationship with a poorly socialized child: the likelihood of immediate and inappropriate dependence (which should have been the responsibility of the parent) and the tremendous demand of time and resources that accepting such dependence would necessitate. Confronted with such a situation, potentially friendly peers and interested adults are much more likely to turn their attention to interacting with other children whose cost/benefit ratio, to speak bluntly, would be much lower.
Parent or Friend
The neglect and mistreatment that is part and parcel of poorly structured or even entirely absent disciplinary approaches can be deliberate—motivated by explicit, conscious (if misguided) parental motives. But more often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents—if that—and parents are more, not less, than friends. Friends have very limited authority to correct. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken, as the capacity of children to perceive or care about long-term consequences is very limited. Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.
It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment. Proper discipline requires effort—indeed, is virtually synonymous with effort. It is difficult to pay careful attention to children. It is difficult to figure out what is wrong and what is right and why. It is difficult to formulate just and compassionate strategies of discipline, and to negotiate their application with others deeply involved in a child’s care. Because of this combination of responsibility and difficulty, any suggestion that all constraints placed on children are damaging can be perversely welcome. Such a notion, once accepted, allows adults who should know better to abandon their duty to serve as agents of enculturation and pretend that doing so is good for children. It’s a deep and pernicious act of self-deception. It’s lazy, cruel and inexcusable. And our proclivity to rationalize does not end there.
We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare96 and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement.97 Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves. These are equally ungrounded assumptions. Children are perfectly capable of attempting to subsist on hot dogs, chicken fingers and Froot Loops if doing so will attract attention, provide power, or shield them from trying anything new. Instead of going to bed wisely and peacefully, children will fight night-time unconsciousness until they are staggered by fatigue. They are also perfectly willing to provoke adults, while exploring the complex contours of the social environment, just like juvenile chimps harassing the adults in their troupes.98 Observing the consequences of teasing and taunting enables chimp and child alike to discover the limits of what might otherwise be a too-unstructured and terrifying freedom. Such limits, when discovered, provide security, even if their detection causes momentary disappointment or frustration.
I remember taking my daughter to the playground once when she was about two. She was playing on the monkey bars, hanging in mid-air. A particularly provocative little monster of about the same age was standing above her on the same bar she was gripping. I watched him move towards her. Our eyes locked. He slowly and deliberately stepped on her hands, with increasing force, over and over, as he stared me down. He knew exactly what he was doing. Up yours, Daddy-O—that was his philosophy. He had already concluded that adults were contemptible, and that he could safely defy them. (Too bad, then, that he was destined to become one.) That was the hopeless future his parents had saddled him with. To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field.
No, I didn’t. I just took my daughter somewhere else. But it would have been better for him if I had.
Imagine a toddler repeatedly striking his mother in the face. Why would he do such a thing? It’s a stupid question. It’s unacceptably naive. The answer is obvious. To dominate his mother. To see if he can get away with it. Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned. (People often get basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and mortal. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not. The same can be said for depression, laziness and criminality.) If I can hurt and overpower you, then I can do exactly what I want, when I want, even when you’re around. I can torment you, to appease my curiosity. I can take the attention away from you, and dominate you. I can steal your toy. Children hit first because aggression is innate, although more dominant in some individuals and less in others, and, second, because aggression facilitates desire. It’s foolish to assume that such behaviour must be learned. A snake does not have to be taught to strike. It’s in the nature of the beast. Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people.99 They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others. They do so to explore, to express outrage and frustration, and to gratify their impulsive desires. More importantly, for our purposes, they do so to discover the true limits of permissible behaviour. How else are they ever going to puzzle out what is acceptable? Infants are like blind people, searching for a wall. They have to push forward, and test, to see where the actual boundaries lie (and those are too-seldom where they are said to be).
Consistent correction of such action indicates the limits of acceptable aggression to the child. Its absence merely heightens curiosity—so the child will hit and bite and kick, if he is aggressive and dominant, until something indicates a limit. How hard can I hit Mommy? Until she objects. Given that, correction is better sooner than later (if the desired end result of the parent is not to be hit). Correction also helps the child learn that hitting others is a sub-optimal social strategy. Without that correction, no child is going to undergo the effortful process of organizing and regulating their impulses, so that those impulses can coexist, without conflict, within the psyche of the child, and in the broader social world. It is no simple matter to organize a mind.
My son was particularly ornery when he was a toddler. When my daughter was little, I could paralyze her into immobility with an evil glance. Such an intervention had no effect at all on my son. He had my wife (who is no pushover) stymied at the dinner table by the time he was nine months of age. He fought her for control over the spoon. “Good!” we thought. We didn’t want to feed him one more minute than necessary anyway. But the little blighter would only eat three or four mouthfuls. Then he would play. He would stir his food around in his bowl. He would drop bits of it over the high chair table top, and watch as it fell on the floor below. No problem. He was exploring. But then he wasn’t eating enough. Then, because he wasn’t eating enough, he wasn’t sleeping enough. Then his midnight crying was waking his parents. Then they were getting grumpy and out of sorts. He was frustrating his mother, and she was taking it out on me. The trajectory wasn’t good.
After a few days of this degeneration, I decided to take the spoon back. I prepared for war. I set aside sufficient time. A patient adult can defeat a two-year-old, hard as that is to believe. As the saying goes: “Old age and treachery can always overcome youth and skill.” This is partly because time lasts forever, when you’re two. Half an hour for me was a week for my son. I assured myself of victory. He was stubborn and horrible. But I could be worse. We sat down, face to face, bowl in front of him. It was High Noon. He knew it, and I knew it. He picked up the spoon. I took it from him, and spooned up a delicious mouthful of mush. I moved it deliberately towards his mouth. He eyed me in precisely the same manner as the playground foot monster. He curled his lips downward into a tight frown, rejecting all entry. I chased his mouth around with the spoon as he twisted his head around in tight circles.
But I had more tricks up my sleeve. I poked him in the chest, with my free hand, in a manner calculated to annoy. He didn’t budge. I did it again. And again. And again. Not hard—but not in a manner to be ignored, either. Ten or so pokes letter, he opened his mouth, planning to emit a sound of outrage. Hah! His mistake. I deftly inserted the spoon. He tried, gamely, to force out the offending food with his tongue. But I know how to deal with that, too. I just placed my forefinger horizontally across his lips. Some came out. But some was swallowed, too. Score one for Dad. I gave him a pat on the head, and told him that he was a good boy. And I meant it. When someone does something you are trying to get them to do, reward them. No grudge after victory. An hour later, it was all over. There was outrage. There was some wailing. My wife had to leave the room. The stress was too much. But food was eaten by child. My son collapsed, exhausted, on my chest. We had a nap together. And he liked me a lot better when he woke up than he had before he was disciplined.
This was something I commonly observed when we went head to head—and not only with him. A little later we entered into a babysitting swap with another couple. All the kids would get together at one house. Then one pair of parents would go out to dinner, or a movie, and leave the other pair to watch the children, who were all under three. One evening, another set of parents joined us. I was unfamiliar with their son, a large, strong boy of two.
“He won’t sleep,” said his father. “After you put him to bed, he will crawl out of his bed, and come downstairs. We usually put on an Elmo video and let him watch it.”
“There’s no damn way I’m rewarding a recalcitrant child for unacceptable behaviour,” I thought, “and I’m certainly not showing anyone any Elmo video.” I always hated that creepy, whiny puppet. He was a disgrace to Jim Henson’s legacy. So reward-by-Elmo was not on the table. I didn’t say anything, of course. There is just no talking to parents about their children—until they are ready to listen.
Two hours later, we put the kids to bed. Four of the five went promptly to sleep—but not the Muppet aficionado. I had placed him in a crib, however, so he couldn’t escape. But he could still howl, and that’s exactly what he did. That was tricky. It was good strategy on his part. It was annoying, and it threatened to wake up all the other kids, who would then also start to howl. Score one for the kid. So, I journeyed into the bedroom. “Lie down,” I said. That produced no effect. “Lie down,” I said, “or I will lay you down.” Reasoning with kids isn’t often of too much use, particularly under such circumstances, but I believe in fair warning. Of course, he didn’t lie down. He howled again, for effect.
Kids do this frequently. Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Careful analysis of the musculature patterns of crying children has confirmed this.100 Anger-crying and fear-or-sadness crying do not look the same. They also don’t sound the same, and can be distinguished with careful attention. Anger-crying is often an act of dominance, and should be dealt with as such. I lifted him up, and laid him down. Gently. Patiently. But firmly. He got up. I laid him down. He got up. I laid him down. He got up. This time, I laid him down, and kept my hand on his back. He struggled, mightily, but ineffectually. He was, after all, only one-tenth my size. I could take him with one hand. So, I kept him down and spoke calmly to him and told him he was a good boy and that he should relax. I gave him a soother and pounded gently on his back. He started to relax. His eyes began to close. I removed my hand.
He promptly got to his feet. I was impressed. The kid had spirit! I lifted him up, and laid him down, again. “Lie down, monster,” I said. I pounded his back gently some more. Some kids find that soothing. He was getting tired. He was ready to capitulate. He closed his eyes. I got to my feet, and headed quietly and quickly to the door. I glanced back, to check his position, one last time. He was back on his feet. I pointed my finger at him. “Down, monster,” I said, and I meant it. He went down like a shot. I closed the door. We liked each other. Neither my wife nor I heard a peep out of him for the rest of the night.
“How was the kid?” his father asked me when he got home, much later that night. “Good,” I said. “No problem at all. He’s asleep right now.”
“Did he get up?” said his father.
“No,” I said. “He slept the whole time.”
Dad looked at me. He wanted to know. But he didn’t ask. And I didn’t tell.
Don’t cast pearls before swine, as the old saying goes. And you might think that’s harsh. But training your child not to sleep, and rewarding him with the antics of a creepy puppet? That’s harsh too. You pick your poison, and I’ll pick mine.
Discipline and Punish
Modern parents are terrified of two frequently juxtaposed words: discipline and punish. They evoke images of prisons, soldiers and jackboots. The distance between disciplinarian and tyrant or punishment and torture is, indeed, easily traversed. Discipline and punish must be handled with care. The fear is unsurprising. But both are necessary. They can be applied unconsciously or consciously, badly or well, but there is no escaping their use.
It’s not that it’s impossible to discipline with reward. In fact, rewarding good behaviour can be very effective. The most famous of all behavioural psychologists, B.F. Skinner, was a great advocate of this approach. He was expert at it. He taught pigeons to play ping-pong, although they only rolled the ball back and forth by pecking it with their beaks.101 But they were pigeons. So even though they played badly, it was still pretty good. Skinner even taught his birds to pilot missiles during the Second World War, in Project Pigeon (later Orcon).102 He got a long way, before the invention of electronic guidance systems rendered his efforts obsolete.
Skinner observed the animals he was training to perform such acts with exceptional care. Any actions that approximated what he was aiming at were immediately followed by a reward of just the right size: not small enough to be inconsequential, and not so large that it devalued future rewards. Such an approach can be used with children, and works very well. Imagine that you would like your toddler to help set the table. It’s a useful skill. You’d like him better if he could do it. It would be good for his (shudder) self-esteem. So, you break the target behaviour down into its component parts. One element of setting the table is carrying a plate from the cupboard to the table. Even that might be too complex. Perhaps your child has only been walking a few months. He’s still wobbly and unreliable. So, you start his training by handing him a plate and having him hand it back. A pat on the head could follow. You might turn it into a game. Pass with your left. Switch to your right. Circle around your back. Then you might give him a plate and take a few steps backward so that he has to traverse a few steps before giving it back. Train him to become a plate-handling virtuoso. Don’t leave him trapped in his klutz-dom.
You can teach virtually anyone anything with such an approach. First, figure out what you want. Then, watch the people around you like a hawk. Finally, whenever you see anything a bit more like what you want, swoop in (hawk, remember) and deliver a reward. Your daughter has been very reserved since she became a teenager. You wish she would talk more. That’s the target: more communicative daughter. One morning, over breakfast, she shares an anecdote about school. That’s an excellent time to pay attention. That’s the reward. Stop texting and listen. Unless you don’t want her to tell you anything ever again.
Parental interventions that make children happy clearly can and should be used to shape behaviour. The same goes for husbands, wives, co-workers and parents. Skinner, however, was a realist. He noted that use of reward was very difficult: the observer had to attend patiently until the target spontaneously manifested the desired behaviour, and then reinforce. This required a lot of time, and a lot of waiting, and that’s a problem. He also had to starve his animals down to three-quarters of their normal body weight before they would become interested enough in food reward to truly pay attention. But these are not the only shortcomings of the purely positive approach.
Negative emotions, like their positive counterparts, help us learn. We need to learn, because we’re stupid and easily damaged. We can die. That’s not good, and we don’t feel good about it. If we did, we would seek death, and then we would die. We don’t even feel good about dying if it only might happen. And that’s all the time. In that manner, negative emotions, for all their unpleasantness, protect us. We feel hurt and scared and ashamed and disgusted so we can avoid damage. And we’re susceptible to feeling such things a lot. In fact, we feel more negative about a loss of a given size than we feel good about the same-sized gain. Pain is more potent than pleasure, and anxiety more than hope.
Emotions, positive and negative, come in two usefully differentiated variants. Satisfaction (technically, satiation) tells us that what we did was good, while hope (technically, incentive reward) indicates that something pleasurable is on the way. Pain hurts us, so we won’t repeat actions that produced personal damage or social isolation (as loneliness is also, technically, a form of pain). Anxiety makes us stay away from hurtful people and bad places so we don’t have to feel pain. All these emotions must be balanced against each other, and carefully judged in context, but they’re all required to keep us alive and thriving. We therefore do our children a disservice by failing to use whatever is available to help them learn, including negative emotions, even though such use should occur in the most merciful possible manner.
Skinner knew that threats and punishments could stop unwanted behaviours, just as reward reinforces what is desirable. In a world paralyzed at the thought of interfering with the hypothetically pristine path of natural child development, it can be difficult even to discuss the former techniques. However, children would not have such a lengthy period of natural development, prior to maturity, if their behaviour did not have to be shaped. They would just leap out of the womb, ready to trade stocks. Children also cannot be fully sheltered from fear and pain. They are small and vulnerable. They don’t know much about the world. Even when they are doing something as natural as learning to walk, they’re constantly being walloped by the world. And this is to say nothing of the frustration and rejection they inevitably experience when dealing with siblings and peers and uncooperative, stubborn adults. Given this, the fundamental moral question is not how to shelter children completely from misadventure and failure, so they never experience any fear or pain, but how to maximize their learning so that useful knowledge may be gained with minimal cost.
In the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty, the King and Queen have a daughter, the princess Aurora, after a long wait. They plan a great christening, to introduce her to the world. They welcome everyone who loves and honours their new daughter. But they fail to invite Maleficent (malicious, malevolent), who is essentially Queen of the Underworld, or Nature in her negative guise. This means, symbolically, that the two monarchs are overprotecting their beloved daughter, by setting up a world around her that has nothing negative in it. But this does not protect her. It makes her weak. Maleficent curses the princess, sentencing her to death at the age of sixteen, caused by the prick of a spinning wheel’s needle. The spinning wheel is the wheel of fate; the prick, which produces blood, symbolizes the loss of virginity, a sign of the emergence of the woman from the child.
Fortunately, a good fairy (the positive element of Nature) reduces the punishment to unconsciousness, redeemable with love’s first kiss. The panicked King and Queen get rid of all the spinning wheels in the land, and turn their daughter over to the much-too-nice good fairies, of whom there are three. They continue with their strategy of removing all dangerous things—but in doing so they leave their daughter naïve, immature and weak. One day, just before Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, she meets a prince in the forest, and falls in love, the same day. By any reasonable standard, that’s a bit much. Then she loudly bemoans the fact that she is to be wed to Prince Philip, to whom she was betrothed as a child, and collapses emotionally when she is brought back to her parents’ castle for her birthday. It is at that moment that Maleficent’s curse manifests itself. A portal opens up in the castle, a spinning wheel appears, and Aurora pricks her finger and falls unconscious. She becomes Sleeping Beauty. In doing so (again, symbolically speaking) she chooses unconsciousness over the terror of adult life. Something existentially similar to this often occurs very frequently with overprotected children, who can be brought low—and then desire the bliss of unconsciousness—by their first real contact with failure or, worse, genuine malevolence, which they do not or will not understand and against which they have no defence.
Take the case of the three-year-old who has not learned to share. She displays her selfish behaviour in the presence of her parents, but they’re too nice to intervene. More truthfully, they refuse to pay attention, admit to what is happening, and teach her how to act properly. They’re annoyed, of course, when she won’t share with her sister, but they pretend everything is OK. It’s not OK. They’ll snap at her later, for something totally unrelated. She will be hurt by that, and confused, but learn nothing. Worse: when she tries to make friends, it won’t go well, because of her lack of social sophistication. Children her own age will be put off by her inability to cooperate. They’ll fight with her, or wander off and find someone else to play with. The parents of those children will observe her awkwardness and misbehaviour, and won’t invite her back to play with their kids. She will be lonely and rejected. That will produce anxiety, depression and resentment. That will produce the turning from life that is equivalent to the wish for unconsciousness.
Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad guy (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain. Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.
You might object, as modern parents sometimes do: why should a child even be subject to the arbitrary dictates of a parent? In fact, there is a new variant of politically correct thinking that presumes that such an idea is “adultism:”103 a form of prejudice and oppression analogous to, say, sexism or racism. The question of adult authority must be answered with care. That requires a thorough examination of the question itself. Accepting an objection as formulated is halfway to accepting its validity, and that can be dangerous if the question is ill-posed. Let’s break it down.
First, why should a child be subject? That’s easy. Every child must listen to and obey adults because he or she is dependent on the care that one or more imperfect grown-ups is willing to bestow. Given this, it is better for the child to act in a manner that invites genuine affection and goodwill. Something even better might be imagined. The child could act in a manner that simultaneously ensures optimal adult attention, in a manner that benefits his or her present state of being and future development. That’s a very high standard, but it’s in the best interests of the child, so there is every reason to aspire to it.
Every child should also be taught to comply gracefully with the expectations of civil society. This does not mean crushed into mindless ideological conformity. It means instead that parents must reward those attitudes and actions that will bring their child success in the world outside the family, and use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviours that will lead to misery and failure. There’s a tight window of opportunity for this, as well, so getting it right quickly matters. If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends. The research literature is quite clear on this. This matters, because peers are the primary source of socialization after the age of four. Rejected children cease to develop, because they are alienated from their peers. They fall further and further behind, as the other children continue to progress. Thus, the friendless child too often becomes the lonely, antisocial or depressed teenager and adult. This is not good. Much more of our sanity than we commonly realize is a consequence of our fortunate immersion in a social community. We must be continually reminded to think and act properly. When we drift, people that care for and love us nudge us in small ways and large back on track. So, we better have some of those people around.
It’s also not the case (back to the question) that adult dictates are all arbitrary. That’s only true in a dysfunctional totalitarian state. But in civilized, open societies, the majority abide by a functional social contract, aimed at mutual betterment—or at least at existence in close proximity without too much violence. Even a system of rules that allows for only that minimum contract is by no means arbitrary, given the alternatives. If a society does not adequately reward productive, pro-social behavior, insists upon distributing resources in a markedly arbitrary and unfair manner, and allows for theft and exploitation, it will not remain conflict-free for long. If its hierarchies are based only (or even primarily) on power, instead of the competence necessary to get important and difficult things done, it will be prone to collapse, as well. This is even true, in simpler form, of the hierarchies of chimpanzees, which is an indication of its fundamental, biological and non-arbitrary emergent truth.104 Poorly socialized children have terrible lives. Thus, it is better to socialize them optimally. Some of this can be done with reward, but not all of it. The issue is therefore not whether to use punishment and threat. The issue is whether to do it consciously and thoughtfully. How, then, should children be disciplined? This is a very difficult question, because children (and parents) differ vastly in their temperaments. Some children are agreeable. They deeply want to please, but pay for that with a tendency to be conflict-averse and dependent. Others are tougher-minded and more independent. Those kids want to do what they want, when they want, all the time. They can be challenging, non-compliant and stubborn. Some children are desperate for rules and structure, and are content even in rigid environments. Others, with little regard for predictability and routine, are immune to demands for even minimal necessary order. Some are wildly imaginative and creative, and others more concrete and conservative. These are all deep, important differences, heavily influenced by biological factors and difficult to modify socially. It is fortunate indeed that in the face of such variability we are the beneficiaries of much thoughtful meditation on the proper use of social control.
Minimum Necessary Force
Here’s a straightforward initial idea: rules should not be multiplied beyond necessity. Alternatively stated, bad laws drive out respect for good laws. This is the ethical—even legal—equivalent of Occam’s razor, the scientist’s conceptual guillotine, which states that the simplest possible hypothesis is preferable. So, don’t encumber children—or their disciplinarians—with too many rules. That path leads to frustration.
Limit the rules. Then, figure out what to do when one of them gets broken. A general, context-independent rule for punishment severity is hard to establish. However, a helpful norm has already been enshrined in English common law, one of the great products of Western civilization. Its analysis can help us establish a second useful principle.
English common law allows you to defend your rights, but only in a reasonable manner. Someone breaks into your house. You have a loaded pistol. You have a right to defend yourself, but it’s better to do it in stages. What if it’s a drunk and confused neighbour? “Shoot ‘em!” you think. But it’s not that simple. So, you say, instead, “Stop! I have a gun.” If that produces neither explanation nor retreat, you might consider a warning shot. Then, if the perpetrator still advances, you might take aim at his leg. (Don’t mistake any of this for legal advice. It’s an example.) A single brilliantly practical principle can be used to generate all these incrementally more severe reactions: that of minimum necessary force. So now we have two general principles of discipline. The first: limit the rules. The second: Use the least force necessary to enforce those rules.
About the first principle, you might ask, “Limit the rules to what, exactly?” Here are some suggestions. Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defence. Do not torture and bully other children, so you don’t end up in jail. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner, so that people are happy to have you at their house, and pleased to feed you. Learn to share, so other kids will play with you. Pay attention when spoken to by adults, so they don’t hate you and might therefore deign to teach you something. Go to sleep properly, and peaceably, so that your parents can have a private life and not resent your existence. Take care of your belongings, because you need to learn how and because you’re lucky to have them. Be good company when something fun is happening, so that you’re invited for the fun. Act so that other people are happy you’re around, so that people will want you around. A child who knows these rules will be welcome everywhere.
About the second, equally important principle, your question might be: What is minimum necessary force? This must be established experimentally, starting with the smallest possible intervention. Some children will be turned to stone by a glare. A verbal command will stop another. A thumb-cocked flick of the index finger on a small hand might be necessary for some. Such a strategy is particularly useful in public places such as restaurants. It can be administered suddenly, quietly and effectively, without risking escalation. What’s the alternative? A child who is crying angrily, demanding attention, is not making himself popular. A child who is running from table to table and disrupting everyone’s peace is bringing disgrace (an old word, but a good one) on himself and his parents. Such outcomes are far from optimal, and children will definitely misbehave more in public, because they are experimenting: trying to establish if the same old rules also apply in the new place. They don’t sort that out verbally, not when they are under three.
When our children were little and we took them to restaurants, they attracted smiles. They sat nicely and ate politely. They couldn’t keep it up for long, but we didn’t keep them there too long. When they started to get antsy, after sitting for forty-five minutes, we knew it was time to go. That was part of the deal. Nearby diners would tell us how nice it was to see a happy family. We weren’t always happy, and our children weren’t always properly behaved. But they were most of the time, and it was wonderful to see people responding so positively to their presence. It was truly good for the kids. They could see that people liked them. This also reinforced their good behaviour. That was the reward.
People will really like your kids if you give them the chance. This is something I learned as soon as we had our first baby, our daughter, Mikhaila. When we took her down the street in her little foldup stroller in our French Montreal working-class neighbourhood, rough-looking heavy-drinking lumberjack types would stop in their tracks and smile at her. They would coo and giggle and make stupid faces. Watching people respond to children restores your faith in human nature. All that’s multiplied when your kids behave in public. To ensure that such things happen, you have to discipline your children carefully and effectively—and to do that, you have to know something about reward, and about punishment, instead of shying away from the knowledge.
Part of establishing a relationship with your son or daughter is learning how that small person responds to disciplinary intervention—and then intervening effectively. It’s very easy to mouth clichés instead, such as: “There is no excuse for physical punishment,” or, “Hitting children merely teaches them to hit.” Let’s start with the former claim: there is no excuse for physical punishment. First, we should note the widespread consensus around the idea that some forms of misbehavior, particularly those associated with theft and assault, are both wrong and should be subject to sanction. Second, we should note that almost all those sanctions involve punishment in its many psychological and more directly physical forms. Deprivation of liberty causes pain in a manner essentially similar to that of physical trauma. The same can be said of the use of social isolation (including time out). We know this neurobiologically. The same brain areas mediate response to all three, and all are ameliorated by the same class of drugs, opiates.105 Jail is clearly physical punishment—particularly solitary confinement—even when nothing violent happens. Third, we should note that some misbegotten actions must be brought to a halt both effectively and immediately, not least so that something worse doesn’t happen. What’s the proper punishment for someone who will not stop poking a fork into an electrical socket? Or who runs away laughing in a crowded supermarket parking lot? The answer is simple: whatever will stop it fastest, within reason. Because the alternative could be fatal.
That’s pretty obvious, in the case of parking lot or outlet. But the same thing applies in the social realm, and that brings us to the fourth point regarding excuses for physical punishment. The penalties for misbehavior (of the sort that could have been effectively halted in childhood) become increasingly severe as children get older—and it is disproportionately those who remain unsocialized effectively by age four who end up punished explicitly by society in their later youth and early adulthood. Those unconstrained four-year-olds, in turn, are often those who were unduly aggressive, by nature, at age two. They were statistically more likely than their peers to kick, hit, bite and take away toys (later known as stealing). They comprise about five per cent of boys, and a much smaller percentage of girls.106 To unthinkingly parrot the magic line “There is no excuse for physical punishment” is also to foster the delusion that teenage devils magically emerge from once-innocent little child-angels. You’re not doing your child any favors by overlooking any misbehavior (particularly if he or she is temperamentally more aggressive).
To hold the no excuse for physical punishment theory is also (fifth) to assume that the word no can be effectively uttered to another person in the absence of the threat of punishment. A woman can say no to a powerful, narcissistic man only because she has social norms, the law and the state backing her up. A parent can only say no to a child who wants a third piece of cake because he or she is larger, stronger and more capable than the child (and is additionally backed up in his authority by law and state). What no means, in the final analysis, is always “If you continue to do that, something you do not like will happen to you.” Otherwise it means nothing. Or, worse, it means “another nonsensical nothing muttered by ignorable adults.” Or, worse still, it means, “all adults are ineffectual and weak.” This is a particularly bad lesson, when every child’s destiny is to become an adult, and when most things that are learned without undue personal pain are modelled or explicitly taught by adults). What does a child who ignores adults and holds them in contempt have to look forward to? Why grow up at all? And that’s the story of Peter Pan, who thinks all adults are variants of Captain Hook, tyrannical and terrified of his own mortality (think hungry crocodile with clock in his stomach). The only time no ever means no in the absence of violence is when it is uttered by one civilized person to another.
And what about the idea that hitting a child merely teaches them to hit? First: No. Wrong. Too simple. For starters, “hitting” is a very unsophisticated word to describe the disciplinary act of an effective parent. If “hitting” accurately described the entire range of physical force, then there would be no difference between rain droplets and atom bombs. Magnitude matters—and so does context, if we’re not being wilfully blind and naïve about the issue. Every child knows the difference between being bitten by a mean, unprovoked dog and being nipped by his own pet when he tries playfully but too carelessly to take its bone. How hard someone is hit, and why they are hit, cannot merely be ignored when speaking of hitting. Timing, part of context, is also of crucial importance. If you flick your two-year-old with your finger just after he smacks the baby on the head with a wooden block, he will get the connection, and be at least somewhat less willing to smack her again in the future. That seems like a good outcome. He certainly won’t conclude that he should hit her more, using the flick of his mother’s finger as an example. He’s not stupid. He’s just jealous, impulsive and not very sophisticated. And how else are you going to protect his younger sibling? If you discipline ineffectively, then the baby will suffer. Maybe for years. The bullying will continue, because you won’t do a damn thing to stop it. You’ll avoid the conflict that’s necessary to establish peace. You’ll turn a blind eye. And then later, when the younger child confronts you (maybe even in adulthood), you’ll say, “I never knew it was like that.” You just didn’t want to know. So, you didn’t. You just rejected the responsibility of discipline, and justified it with a continual show of your niceness. Every gingerbread house has a witch inside it that devours children.
So where does all that leave us? With the decision to discipline effectively, or to discipline ineffectively (but never the decision to forego discipline altogether, because nature and society will punish in a draconian manner whatever errors of childhood behavior remain uncorrected). So here are a few practical hints: time out can be an extremely effective form of punishment, particularly if the misbehaving child is welcome as soon as he controls his temper. An angry child should sit by himself until he calms down. Then he should be allowed to return to normal life. That means the child wins—instead of his anger. The rule is “Come be with us as soon as you can behave properly.” This is a very good deal for child, parent and society. You’ll be able to tell if your child has really regained control. You’ll like him again, despite his earlier misbehaviour. If you’re still mad, maybe he hasn’t completely repented—or maybe you should do something about your tendency to hold a grudge.
If your child is the kind of determined varmint who simply runs away, laughing, when placed on the steps or in his room, physical restraint might have to be added to the time out routine. A child can be held carefully but firmly by the upper arms, until he or she stops squirming and pays attention. If that fails, being turned over a parent’s knee might be required. For the child who is pushing the limits in a spectacularly inspired way, a swat across the backside can indicate requisite seriousness on the part of a responsible adult. There are some situations in which even that will not suffice, partly because some children are very determined, exploratory, and tough, or because the offending behaviour is truly severe. And if you’re not thinking such things through, then you’re not acting responsibly as a parent. You’re leaving the dirty work to someone else, who will be much dirtier doing it.
A Summary of Principles
Disciplinary principle 1: limit the rules. Principle 2: use minimum necessary force. Here’s a third: parents should come in pairs.107 Raising young children is demanding and exhausting. Because of this, it’s easy for a parent to make a mistake. Insomnia, hunger, the aftermath of an argument, a hangover, a bad day at work—any of these things singly can make a person unreasonable, while in combination they can produce someone dangerous. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to have someone else around, to observe, and step in, and discuss. This will make it less likely that a whiny provocative child and her fed-up cranky parent will excite each other to the point of no return. Parents should come in pairs so the father of a newborn can watch the new mother so she won’t get worn out and do something desperate after hearing her colicky baby wail from eleven in the evening until five in the morning for thirty nights in a row. I am not saying we should be mean to single mothers, many of whom struggle impossibly and courageously—and a proportion of whom have had to escape, singly, from a brutal relationship—but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.
Here’s a fourth principle, one that is more particularly psychological: parents should understand their own capacity to be harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry and deceitful. Very few people set out, consciously, to do a terrible job as father or mother, but bad parenting happens all the time. This is because people have a great capacity for evil, as well as good—and because they remain willfully blind to that fact. People are aggressive and selfish, as well as kind and thoughtful. For this reason, no adult human being—no hierarchical, predatory ape—can truly tolerate being dominated by an upstart child. Revenge will come. Ten minutes after a pair of all-too-nice-and-patient parents have failed to prevent a public tantrum at the local supermarket, they will pay their toddler back with the cold shoulder when he runs up, excited, to show mom and dad his newest accomplishment. Enough embarrassment, disobedience, and dominance challenge, and even the most hypothetically selfless parent will become resentful. And then the real punishment will begin. Resentment breeds the desire for vengeance. Fewer spontaneous offers of love will be offered, with more rationalizations for their absence. Fewer opportunities for the personal development of the child will be sought out. A subtle turning away will begin. And this is only the beginning of the road to total familial warfare, conducted mostly in the underworld, underneath the false façade of normality and love.
This frequently-travelled path is much better avoided. A parent who is seriously aware of his or her limited tolerance and capacity for misbehaviour when provoked can therefore seriously plan a proper disciplinary strategy—particularly if monitored by an equally awake partner—and never let things degenerate to the point where genuine hatred emerges. Beware. There are toxic families everywhere. They make no rules and limit no misbehaviour. The parents lash out randomly and unpredictably. The children live in that chaos and are crushed, if they’re timid, or rebel, counterproductively, if they’re tough. It’s not good. It can get murderous.
Here’s a fifth and final and most general principle. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It’s more important even than fostering individual identity. That Holy Grail can only be pursued, in any case, after a high degree of social sophistication has been established.
The Good Child—and the Responsible Parent
A properly socialized three-year-old is polite and engaging. She’s also no pushover. She evokes interest from other children and appreciation from adults. She exists in a world where other kids welcome her and compete for her attention, and where adults are happy to see her, instead of hiding behind false smiles. She will be introduced to the world by people who are pleased to do so. This will do more for her eventual individuality than any cowardly parental attempt to avoid day-to-day conflict and discipline.
Discuss your likes and dislikes with regards to your children with your partner or, failing that, a friend. But do not be afraid to have likes and dislikes. You can judge suitable from unsuitable, and wheat from chaff. You realize the difference between good and evil. Having clarified your stance—having assessed yourself for pettiness, arrogance and resentment—you take the next step, and you make your children behave. You take responsibility for their discipline. You take responsibility for the mistakes you will inevitably make while disciplining. You can apologize, when you’re wrong, and learn to do better.
You love your kids, after all. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Better to let your little monsters know what is desirable and what is not, so they become sophisticated denizens of the world outside the family.
A child who pays attention, instead of drifting, and can play, and does not whine, and is comical, but not annoying, and is trustworthy—that child will have friends wherever he goes. His teachers will like him, and so will his parents. If he attends politely to adults, he will be attended to, smiled at and happily instructed. He will thrive, in what can so easily be a cold, unforgiving and hostile world. Clear rules make for secure children and calm, rational parents. Clear principles of discipline and punishment balance mercy and justice so that social development and psychological maturity can be optimally promoted. Clear rules and proper discipline help the child, and the family, and society, establish, maintain and expand the order that is all that protects us from chaos and the terrors of the underworld, where everything is uncertain, anxiety-provoking, hopeless and depressing. There are no greater gifts that a committed and courageous parent can bestow.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
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