I was on the phone with my cousin the other day when I nearly made her pee her pants. It went down like this:
Her: So then grandma says I have to move that old green car out of the back garage and I told her that car hadn’t been driven in while, so we needed to…
Me: THAT’S IT! WE DON’T BITE… GO TO YOUR ROOM!
I explained my outburst wasn’t directed at her and she said she’d already picked up on that… she just hadn’t realized I ever yelled at my kids. She did it all the time, so she wasn’t being judgey, but she’d never even heard me raise my voice.
Like ever, for any reason.
And the truth is, I don’t like yelling at my kids. I don’t like being the bad guy. I hate having to make hard calls about what expectations are age-appropriate, or when to stop explaining rules and start handing out consequences.
I know other parents feel the same. You love your kids with every fiber of your being and want nothing more than see them smile and be truly happy.
Which is why you have to make those calls.
Kids test limits
Kids are born knowing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. It’s only natural for them to start trying to figure everything out.
This means everything from what does cat vomit taste like to what happens when you stick forks into the light socket. Or punch someone in the face. Or run across a busy intersection.
You can tell them with increasing conviction about why it’s not a good idea to try these things, but it’s only a matter of time before they start wondering what happens when they do the exact opposite of what you just said. And running into busy intersections is no time for theoretical object lessons.
It’s better for you to teach them limits than for them to run into them headfirst
When my kids would throw tantrums and clock me in the face, it hurt. Still, they’re tiny enough for me to shake it off. They don’t really know what they’re doing.
But… what happens if they think it’s absolutely fine to hit people whenever they’re frustrated? When they haul off and backhand a dangerous animal or someone truly scary?
In other words, dealing with it now means them not getting the crap beat out of them someday, when they mess with the wrong person.
Humans are social animals
It’s an imperfect comparison, but what happens when people never discipline their dog?
The dog barks and jumps on people, pees everywhere and maybe even bites people. And no one wants it around. The dog stops being welcome.
Not teaching your dog how to behave is a disservice to your dog, because the dog ends up rejected and lonely.
The same thing happens to us. When your kid becomes an obnoxious tyrant no one can stand, your kid will end up feeling rejected and lonely. Because no one will like them or want them around. You want your children to be welcome at social events, which means suffering though the frustrating work of reining them in.
You don’t want them to miss out on opportunities
Kids don’t naturally want to sit still or be quiet. They want to yell, throw things, take their shoes off just anywhere and run around screaming like maniacs. Maybe while throwing their shoes.
And when they’re babies, it’s impossible to convince them to calm down. But at some point in their development, you have to enforce the idea that sitting down and not screaming is an absolute requirement.
Otherwise, you can never take them out to restaurants or really, in public at all. That means they can’t participate in a huge number of fun activities, from going out shopping to seeing a movie to going to Disneyland. The sooner your kid learns how to conduct him or herself in public, the more fun things they’ll get to do.
Learning how to control yourself is critical
A huge part of our ability to cope with life demands involves making ourselves do things we don’t want to do.
Think about it: we get up early and drive to our jobs, even though we’d rather sleep in, eat Cheetos and watch TV all day. We wait in lines, even though it’s boring. We pay our bills, even though we’d rather buy something fun. We don’t throw things at people who annoy us.
Essentially, we learn to delay instant gratification in order to reap larger rewards down the line. People actually tested this in the 60’s and 70’s… Stanford researchers gave kids marshmallows while promising them even more marshmallows if they could keep from eating them for 15 minutes.
They call it the Marshmallow Test. The kids who managed to not immediately eat their marshmallow later had higher SAT scores and ultimately were more successful.
It’s one of those academic experiments that proves what intuitively makes sense when you think about it–learning to not always act on your impulses is an enormously helpful life skill.
Kids gain self-esteem from feeling competent
Last week, when I told my daughter Brontë to clean up her room, she demanded that I help her.
She said, “I could clean it by myself but together, it would be FABULOUS CLEAN!”
I chuckled, but then made her do it anyway.
Many of my friends thought that was harsh. They felt she’d come up with such an entertaining response, I should’ve caved and helped her clean her room.
But here’s the thing… When she’d finished, I marveled at how awesome her room looked and gave her a strawberry cupcake scratch-n-sniff sticker for doing such a great job.
She was incredibly proud of how nice her room looked. When her grandparents stopped by later, she showed off her sticker then asked them both to come see her room, which she cleaned up ALL BY HERSELF.
It’s good to push kids to do things, to set standards. Obviously, you shouldn’t make them chase moving targets by aways finding fault with their efforts. If they can never please you, they’ll eventually decide there’s no reason to keep trying.
If I’d caved, I would’ve denied my daughter pride in her accomplishment. Set limits, but reward your kids when they follow through (that reward can be your attention and approval). This is what makes kids feel capable.
Kids are irrational
Even if you were committed to always making your children happy, it would be impossible.
See, somewhere around age 1 1/2 to 2 years old, they get obsessed with telling you “NO!” It’s the power of refusal, a child’s first sense of control over its environment. I’d offer my two-year old daughter Brontë a piece of cheese, for example, and she’d predictably scream “NO!”
So I’d put the cheese away, and she’d start screaming because she wanted the cheese. I’d offer it to her again and she’d refuse it. This would happen over and over again as my daughter struggled through some existential toddler crisis of needing cheese while simultaneously needing to exert her powers of refusal.
As they grow older, more sophisticated versions of the same dynamic just keep playing out. Now, it’s about being hysterically tired while refusing to take a nap and someday, it’ll be paying to go on a diet while sneaking food on the side or impulsively buying stuff then not making rent.
At some point, we all need to learn hard lessons about not always getting everything we want. Otherwise, we’ll boomerang endlessly through self-defeating contradictions.
And because desire is a bottomless pit
It’s counterintuitive, but having everything you want doesn’t make people happy.
Because there’s always something more. Buy your kid every toy he asks for and I guarantee that at no point will he decide “Hmm, I have a lot of toys. This is enough toys. I think I’m good now.”
Eventually, either your bank account or patience will reach its end. You’ll tell him “no” and he’ll feel that agony of refusal as sharply at the 300th toy as with the 5th.
Maybe even more so, since he’d started thinking he was a god with endless abilities to command any toys that caught his fancy, and now he’s having to come to grips with the limits of his power.
And even if he had all the toys in the universe, he’d be angry about not being able to fly. It’s the ancient tragedy of people who seem to have everything and yet still, never think it’s enough.
It’s the prison of entitlement–believing you should automatically have access to anything your whims desire. You fail to appreciate what you already have because you’ve never experienced the frustrations of not having it.
I’ve witnessed this time and time again when watching spoiled kids in Disneyland. When my cousin and I were little, by contrast, we thought Disneyland was the best thing that could ever happen to you. We were 6000 shades of ecstatic whenever we found ourselves in Disneyland and would talk about very last detail for years on end.
But by now, I’ve seen countless kids in Disneyland throwing enormous fits about stupid things. One of my husband’s coworkers recently took his kids to Disneyland and had to go to SEVEN DIFFERENT RESTAURANTS before his kids were satisfied with the menu. Then they just wanted to go back to the hotel and watch TV.
It’s easy to write them off as spoiled brats who don’t appreciate what their parents did for them. The money their parents saved up, the things they didn’t buy that they really wanted, in hopes of seeing their kids have the time of their lives. Instead, the kids complained about everything not being good enough.
Yet when you look at it another way, those kids were miserable. They must be miserable most of the time, since even Disneyland couldn’t help. You have to feel sorry for them, because their failure to appreciate their blessings probably means they’ll fail to appreciate many of the great things that will happen throughout their lives. Until it’s too late.
And this is why, my friends, we have to impose guidelines and order unto our children.
So much of the world is neither really good nor bad, but a reflection of how we choose to experience it. We make our children happy by helping them appreciate not already being entitled to the things that they get, by helping them recognize that they, while still important, are not automatically the center of everyone’s universe.
I don’t condone harsh discipline or being nastier to your kids than the situation requires. And I realize that’s a tough line to draw as we all do the best that we can.
But I hope to comfort other parents who feel bad about refusing their children, setting strict limits, or meting out consequences. There are plenty of experts who will make you feel like you’re screwing your kids up if they’re ever unhappy.
I believe you’re making an important sacrifice. You’re accepting your child being temporarily angry at you because in the long run, they’ll end up much happier.
Just try to be fair, reasonable, and consistent. Kids feel most secure when they understand the rules and live in a strong, predictable universe.