John Rosemond: ParentingFor some kids, the hard way is the only way to learn
Stand-up parenting is a rare thing these days, and if my ears are properly set to the ground, becoming rarer all the time. Parents stand up when they prove to their children they mean exactly what they say. By so “meaning,” they become, in their children’s eyes, “mean.” Such was the case with a school-age boy who recently learned a valuable lesson in the hardest of ways.
At their most recent conference, the boy’s teacher told his parents that he was talking excessively in class and not following her directions very well.
The parents subsequently sat him down and told him that his participation in an upcoming field trip depended on his completely solving those problems. They made it perfectly clear that they were not willing to accept a partial solution.
Several days later, the teacher reported an incident. Two days later, she reported yet another. That evening, they told him he wasn’t going on the field trip, which was still 10 days away. As one might expect, he had a major meltdown, during which he denied that his classroom behavior was a problem and threatened to be “really bad” if they didn’t change their minds. They stood their ground.
“For the next 10 days,” wrote his mother, “we had the best-behaved son. The teacher even asked us to change our minds, calling our attention to his greatly improved classroom behavior.”
But they didn’t change their minds. They followed through as promised, telling me that if they hadn’t, the whole exercise would have been “a joke.”
Indeed, and a waste of everyone’s time and energy. Since that watershed event, the boy’s behavior has been sterling, both at home and at school. The mother writes, “The respect we saw after this one hard lesson was huge.
He now knows that his dad and I are on the same page and that we don’t say one thing and then do something else entirely.”
I know there are folks out there who will think these parents went too far, that they should have reconsidered their ruling after the teacher’s plea, and that in not doing so they were being unreasonable. I disagree, but then I believe in being “mean,” as previously defined. Therefore, I completely support what these parents did. They invoked what I call the Agony Principle:
Parents and teachers should not agonize over a child’s misbehavior if the child is perfectly capable of agonizing over it himself.
The Agony Principle embodies the fact that children have to learn some lessons the hard way. For this little boy, this was one such lesson. Had his parents let him go on the field trip, he would have learned nothing of value. He would have learned that when he gets himself in trouble, he can get himself out of it by playing contrite. He would have learned, in short, to be manipulative, to play games. Instead, he learned that when his parents lay down the law, he needs to pay close attention. In fact, he learned that he needs to make sure things never get to the point where his parents feel the need to lay down the law, because once they do, they are going to follow through.
These parents are throwbacks, for sure, by which I mean that they would have felt more at home 50-plus years ago, when stand-up parenting was the norm. For example, when my parents told me, in January 1960, that one more report of misbehavior from any of my teachers would result in me repeating the seventh grade, excellent grades notwithstanding, I believed them. The next day, and for the rest of the year, I held my ADHD in check. To this day, I absolutely know they would have followed through. Stories of that sort are not unusual in my generation. It’s unfortunate that today’s kids, by and large, are deprived of the same degree of certainty in their lives.
It is a fact that today’s kids are not as happy, as carefree, as kids in the 1950s. Childhood depression, once a relatively rare thing, is on the edge of epidemic today. The irony is that the 1950’s child was held to higher standards at home and at school, and the 1950’s parent was almost universally “mean.” I have to believe that there’s a correlation between “mean” parents and happy children. The research says as much. It says that the happiest, most well-adjusted children are also the best-behaved children. I simply propose that the parents in question say what they mean and mean exactly what they say.
JOHN ROSEMOND is a family psychologist. He answers parents’ questions on his Web site: www.rosemond.com.