Do I have to punish my kids more?
I’m sitting at the park watching my kid in his Star Wars sunglasses, with a huge cowlick and awkward shoes because every shoe he tried on was too tight & he chose shoes a full size too big. The other kid is in a striped red & tan thermal under his new black & orange BB-8 shirt and royal blue sweats with a hole in the knee. He’s got on new shoes he loves-loves-loves, and begged me to buy, even though they are a full 2 sizes too big. His shoes fall off when he walks. He’s wearing two pair of socks, one of them thermal, to try to make them fit. At least I have two kids the same age, so you won’t know which one I’m making fun of. At least they are both ridiculous. I’m certain their style will define a new level of cool someday. I’m cold, and wish I could leave, but it’s easier to sit here shivering than expend the energy it will take to wrangle them. I think back to who I was before kids… I wouldn’t have been caught out in public dressed the way I am with this hair. I would have scoffed at the idea that I’d sit and be miserable because my kids want to play, like how I scoffed at the friend who, besides working full time, cleaned the bathroom every day after her husband and 5-year-old son. Every day!! –“I will make my kids sit to pee!” I’d exclaimed. My kids don’t sit, and I clean the bathroom floor… almost every day. So much for being a righteous lesbian femme feminist. I used to be concerned about things like being a femme and being a feminist– my needs have been pretty much lost in the drama of raising kids. I’ll fix this when I have more energy. Promise. I got a MAC card for a gift last year, and it sits in my wallet as a reminder that my friends without kids think I’ve let myself go. It amuses me how little I actually care.
Here’s what I do care about. The boys are ramping up in the living room & I call from the kitchen a few times to settle down. I finally go in as one of my kids is about to leap from the piano bench to the couch, and I tell him, “No, don’t do that.” He tunes me out, so I stand between him and the couch, saying, “NO! You may NOT jump! Take it outside!” He pauses, then prepares to jump as I step away. I step back in, and it finally clicks for him that the game is over. He gets down, picks up a Lego, and angrily chucks it at me. I show him a shocked and angry face, and tell him he is taking a break. Right now. TIME OUT! I am angry. He THREW something at me! It didn’t hurt… but the gall!!
Big in my mind is a post I read recently in response to the recent huge viral outcry over a 6-month prison sentence for a upperclass, white rapist. The question, “how do we collectively change rape culture?” was answered in a post I read by a parent raising boys. The gist was this. They need structure! Consequences! To fall & fail & recover on their own. “No!” means “Stop!” And if they hurt someone, punish them! I had shared the post. In this moment, I am thinking, “Here is my chance to raise this child right!” He sits down in the chair where I’m pointing, looking defiant.
I lecture him about exactly why he is in trouble. “Number One! When I say stop, you STOP! When anyone says ‘no,’ ‘stop’ or ‘time out,’ you LISTEN! AND, number TWO! When someone makes you angry or hurts your feelings, you do NOT THROW THINGS AT THEM. You may SAY you’re angry or hurt. You may punch a pillow. But you may NOT throw anything at them.” He asks if he can throw a pillow… I say, exasperated, “No! Not even a pillow!”
At first he won’t look at me. Then, when I tell him to, he meets my eye and laughs. I tell him how very serious this is, and wait. I don’t actually have a plan, but I know I can’t let him off the hook. I’m not angry anymore. I repeat my lecture, and wait. I wait until finally, his energy drops, and he is done with sitting there. He is still mad, but he listens. The energy shifts. He finally nods at my lambasting. He finally gives in, meets my eye and holds it, seriously and a bit sadly. Punishment is being in the hot seat, having to listen to me rant. I hope the words sink in. I hope it is enough.
On some level, I know it is not enough. What is? Tougher punishment? Would I have taken away his Legos if I had gotten hurt? What would have been enough? We focus on stopping behavior, but how do we actually teach empathy? How do you manifest caring and respect for others? Sincere apologies? The desire to help? I’ve learned firsthand that these things are not learned through punishment. So I wrote this rant, which I think really could help raise better people.
Rape culture will not be changed if we just get better at punishing our boys. Negative consequences will not teach them, in a drunken, hormone-infused moment with an opportunity to take advantage of someone, to feel for and have respect for that person, and to make a choice based on empathy. Fear of consequence is important, but it’s not the whole enchilada. Empathy teaches empathy. Having respect for yourself and others teaches respect.
Just because you can does not mean you should. If we’re going to change rape culture, we have to stop taking advantage of our kids. If they grow up in a world where adults coerce them into things they don’t want, they learn it’s okay to coerce. If they are ignored or belittled when they say no, they learn to ignore “no.” Physical dominance is important for protection and lifting heavy objects. If we want rape culture to change, our daily interactions have to be governed by respect and kindness instead of dominance. If we take advantage of those weaker than us, our kids will, too.
Like all the other parents who have found themselves at wits end when your child does something awful or hurts someone else, I’ve focused on, “How do I STOP this behavior?” We’re so focused on that moment, the bigger answer gets lost. It’s not about that moment, it’s about the millions of other moments in their lives. It’s not about telling them to be nice, or punishing them when they’re not, it’s about being nice to them. It’s about listening to them, respecting their thoughts and their inherent right to be. It’s about saying, “I’m so sorry you got hurt, do you want a hug?” instead of “Buck up! That’s just a tiny cut! Be a man!” It’s about giving them choices so they learn how to ask. It’s about saying NO clearly and without nuance, so they learn both to say no and to accept it. Stopping bad behavior is part of parenting, but the real foundation is these building blocks of kindness and clear boundaries.
One more thing: Parents, we don’t need to make our boys tough in order to protect them from a harsh world. When you make your boys tough, you create the harsh world. Tough is the gumption to say how you feel. Tough is the courage to stand up for others, and the strength to apologise. When we raise tough boys, let this be what we’re talking about.
In the wake of the assault-with-Lego, my other kid called for me to come to the bathroom. He wanted me to wipe his bottom. I remember being about their age and falling asleep on the toilet waiting for my mom to come wipe a hanging chad. For a while, we had a deal where my kid wiped first, then I followed up. I’ve been trying to maintain no involvement in the bathroom (except cleaning the floor because I’m too tired to make the kids do it.) Recently, in a hurry, I took the first wipe a couple times. Now my kid thinks it’s all up for negotiation. It’s not. He yells, “IT’S NOT FAIR THAT YOU WON’T WIPE MY BUTT!” I get to calmly answer back, “Just because you want something doesn’t make it fair!” Life is full of lessons. Be tough, my child. Wiping your bottom is a non-negotiable life skill.
I constantly have to check myself– what am I teaching? What am I modeling? Am I being fair? Respectful? What need is being expressed by my child’s behavior? Does his love bucket need filling? I tell my kids over and again about how when you react by hurting someone, they will often try to hurt you back. We call it giving in to the Dark Side. Punishing them out of anger has the same effect. Anger breeds anger. We talk about how violence escalates, and how to stop that. They still hit each other, and escalate until someone gets hurt. We talk about about using No or Stop or Time Out, and I still have to yell, “I heard someone say TIME OUT! You’d better listen!” — At least they are actually starting to do that better. This is no easy slog. I have to realize it is a practice, and practice requires a lot of repetition.
Back to the Flight of the Lego, here is why I didn’t put the kid in time out in isolation. Time out for us means stopping the game, a removal from the fun. It means interrupting an escalation. It generally does not mean isolation (ie- “Go to your room!”) unless I am so mad I need the break. It means stopping play in order to keep everyone safe, and to bring attention to a bad choice. It means to sit until you are in control of your body and your impulses. It’s less of a punishment, more of a tool. Regardless of the style of time out, I’m banking that kindness, boundaries and keeping a kid’s love bucket full will be more effective at curbing rape culture. I can’t answer whether my lecture was enough to stop the angry impulse to chuck a Lego, but I can note the incident as a little red flag telling me to pay more attention to my son.
A voice calls from another room, “Mom, my brother called me a stoopid buttface!” I’m so happy to report that my kids are old enough to manage this answer, “Talk to him about that, not me.”