Earning my kids’ respect

I am not a spanking parent. I swatted Anya on the tush a few times when she was a toddler – moments of desperation, because she seemed bound and determined to injure herself. (She was particularly fond of doing things like running away from me into a crowded parking lot, or streaking up a rickety flight of stairs…both of which she did in a 10-minute window one day when she was 2.) But I didn’t find it particularly helpful, so I quit. I don’t spank Kai, either. But I have swatted his hands and yelled when he’s done things that are especially dangerous, such as trying to suck on the phone charger cable (the child seems determined to shock himself on that thing).

And I’m done with it.

Because Kai’s returning the favor now. When I do things he doesn’t like (waiting in a long line at the grocery store, for instance, or changing his diaper), he slaps me and yells. Anya, too, mimics all of my behavior – not just the parts I’m proud of. 

There is nothing like seeing your parenting come back to you from the mouths and hands of your children to show you what you really look like. And it’s abundantly clear to me that the uglier parts – the yelling, the hand slapping, the stern tone – aren’t working. The kids are not seeing that I do these things when what I am saying is particularly important. No, they see my actions as tools I use to get my way. Might is right. Which is how they use them. And that wasn’t at all what I was going for.

I just want them to listen to me. I want them to not electrocute themselves/break bones/destroy property. Because, you know, I love them, and I want to see them make it to adulthood. Really, is that too much to ask?

I’ve had decent luck with Anya using the one-word approach. (Not sure where I read about that, but it’s been transformative.) Instead of saying “Please put your shoes on the shoe rack,” I say “Shoes.” And she puts her shoes on the shoe rack. In fact, I don’t always have to remind her; she just does it. (This, of course, doesn’t work on Kai yet.)

Unfortunately, that approach never seems to work when she’s in imminent danger. Nothing short of screaming does. And even when I scream, half the time she still looks me in the eye and does exactly what I just told her not to do. Kai, though he is more interested in being obedient, is the same way.

I know part of the problem lies with me. I am a helicopter parent. Paranoid, anxious, hovering, overprotective. And a child that hears “No” constantly will eventually just tune it the hell out. Hence the escalation required in cases of physical danger. I need to relax and let the kids win a few battles every now and then. Let them smack the crap out of each other. Let Kai eat off the kitchen floor. Let Anya make a huge mess in the bathroom sink. We’d all get less frustrated that way. And they might just listen when I say “No” to things that will likely end in a trip to the ER. (Okay, I may be dreaming there.)

I also need to work a bit more on establishing boundaries. For instance, Kai’s going through a biting phase, in addition to the slapping. Our nursing relationship helps tremendously with his tantrums, but obviously I can’t nurse him if he’s biting. I’ve started setting him down and refusing to continue/begin nursing when he bites, which has been effective. The process is…painful. But we’re getting there.

I’m trying to establish additional boundaries, as well. Mommy needs to be able to work and eat and bathe and pee, and they need to accept that. What helps is simply giving them my undivided attention whenever I can. Most of their acting out these days is a bid for attention. (Anya’s even told me that she doesn’t care if it’s bad attention.) In fact, when things start spiraling out of control, I don’t put them in time out – I go with them to time out. We sit down and hug each other; Anya and I talk quietly and calmly about what’s going on and how we can fix it. It’s been a fairly effective method thus far. But I could do more. I need to make sure I set aside time for them each day, so we stay connected; maybe then the tantrums will come less frequently.

That’s all well and good, but I still yell more than I’d like. I would yell less if I stopped allowing myself to become stretched so thin. I have noticed that I only yell when I am stressed out; everything is a much bigger deal to me then, and I lose my temper much more quickly. I have always expected a lot from myself, but I’ve gotten worse about it since becoming a mother. I need to take a breath, cut myself some slack, let some things slide. Work less. Play more.

I’m also reconsidering my tone. I don’t think the problem is what I say; when Anya is running wild at my parents’ house, “Do we need to leave?” is a good response. But perhaps a different tone would be more effective. Less stern, more concerned. She loves pitting me against my parents. I need to redirect her attention in those moments, return her focus to her behavior rather than our reactions to it.

And the magic words work both ways. “Thank you for listening” is more effective than any amount of yelling, threats/bribes, or begging.

I know I will lose my temper, and they will lose theirs. But the conventional wisdom of stern tone/yelling/hand slapping has failed with both of my children. And it just feels wrong when I do it. It’s not the kind of person I am, and certainly not the kind of parent I want to be. So I’m abandoning it in favor of a gentler approach. A more respectful approach.

Really, that seems to be at the heart of the issue: Respect. If I want them to listen to me, they have to respect me. And there are only two ways to earn respect: Fear and reciprocity. I won’t do fear. So if I want their respect, I have to show them that they have mine.

We’ll see how it goes.


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