Parenting is infinitely complicated, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to greatly oversimplify it by saying it all comes down to managing the carrot and the stick.
Some parents are into the stick-heavy approach, meaning they believe in high expectations, firm discipline and obedience. They believe children are naturally defiant, lazy, and need to be wrestled into social conformity before developing into jail bound deviants.
Other parents, however, swing in the carrot direction. They believe children are naturally well-intentioned, creative, and mostly need gentle guidance to help them reach complete self-actualization.
Up until recently, I’ve been a carroting parent. I’ve been afraid of stunting my kids’ creativity by worrying about tidiness or of crushing their spirits by being hard on them.
These beliefs seemed to jibe with our society’s feel-good approach to life, as well as our tendency to view it as a zero-sum game. Motherhood means sacrifice, we think, because your suffering means a better life for your children. Always making your kids happy means they’ll grow up feeling validated and safe.
But here’s the thing: anyone who has ever flown on airplanes has sat through safety demonstrations. They always tell you that in case of an emergency, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else, like your kids.
And this makes sense. You won’t be much help to anyone if you’re passed out from lack of oxygen, so you better make sure you can breathe before worrying about someone else.
We can grasp this concept on the physical level, but somehow not on the emotional one.
It feels almost sacrilegious to say this, but parents are people too.
We need guidelines and rules for our children… not just for them, but for our own sanity.
It almost feels like you aren’t supposed to have feelings after becoming a parent. You don’t matter anymore because it’s all about the kids. In fact, I think many people are afraid of having kids because they secretly fear the complete loss of their own identities.
And that’s not entirely unfounded. Babies, by definition, demand an enormous amount of time and energy. They look to you to fulfill every wish, and we act as though parents should suppress their own needs to do so.
But we can’t, and it’s dangerous to believe we can.
Even the most kindhearted parent eventually figures out it’s impossible to completely satisfy their child. There is no limit to a child’s desires: they will always want more and want it faster. They will want a cup and then a bigger cup and they want it now, and they’re livid that the cup you brought is green instead of red. They want the cup yesterday and right before they strip off their clothes and run across the busy street.
A parent who never limits his child’s freedoms and desires will eventually find his life intolerable. He will be unhappy because he’s reduced to an emotionally-battered servant to an increasingly demanding master. The child will be unhappy because the Universe itself has limits that frustrate his whims.
And at some point, the parent will lose his sh*t.
It’s going to happen. It has to happen. It’s a pressure cooker that never quits grinding the soul.
I’ve been taking my four-year-old to a liberal, play-based preschool that requires parents to work shifts every week. This experience has taught me a lot about why we need both carrots AND sticks to raise our children without becoming completely miserable ourselves.
At first, this place seemed like the answer to my prayers. Instead of forcing academic regurgitation on three-year-olds, for example, they let kids run around exploring, with very few rules.
VERY few, meaning the kids aren’t allowed to beat each other up and that’s about it.
Kids don’t have to participate in activities and don’t have to clean up after themselves. Parents are there to clean, get kids whatever they want, and make sure no one gets hurt.
As you can imagine, it’s a paradise for children. It fosters creativity, confidence, and is incredibly fun.
But for parents? That’s another matter.
For instance, about an hour before the day is over, parents need to clean everything up before the afternoon shift. The teachers conduct activities inside to gather the kids, but kids aren’t forced to attend.
So you find yourself scrambling to gather the clay-encrusted pots and pans chucked all over the outside yard. You scrub them off as quickly as you can before putting everything away and sweeping the entire outside area…
Then some kid comes along, looks you square in the face, chucks a bunch of clean pans into wet clay and kicks a pile of dirt onto the freshly-swept sidewalk. He’s not curious about the world around him; he wants to find out exactly how much he can get away with.
And he grins as he watches you scramble to clean it all up again…
Before picking up more pans and chucking them back into the dirt.
Again and again.
You can suggest he go inside to join the other kids, but can’t make him do it. And the kids know this, so they usually won’t.
The adults are frustrated, but aren’t allowed to get angry at the kids. So what do they do? Where does that energy go?
Toward other adults, of course. The parents and teachers start sniping and barking orders at each other for help. Everyone’s stress levels keep rising and since kids have a faint grasp of consequences, they keep rattling your chains to watch you dance.
By the time your shift is over, you’re scrambling to get the hell out of there, to do ANYTHING besides manage a gaggle of children at play.
This is an example of too much carrot, a world where adults are overworked and humiliated, desperate to stop catering to the whims of petty tyrants, where a child screams “JUMP” and adults can only negotiate how high.
A world where parenting becomes a hated chore instead of an adventure, where your growing resentment threatens to infect anything it touches.
We need a better carrot-and-stick balance… to figure out which bowl neither breaks our kids’ spirits nor our own, which bowl is “just right.”
Children aren’t sinners or saints, but both. Like grown-ups, they can be selfish, loving, sadistic, compassionate, or confused at any given moment. They’re curious not just about the world, but also the furthest limits of their power.
And we’ve got to keep those limits reasonable, folks. Or we’re gonna lose our collective minds.