Parenting 101: The Golden Rule
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only (grand)parent who has ended (or tried to end) a debate with a three-year-old by declaring my supreme right to rule. “This is not a democracy,” I sometimes joke when Lulu and I have a disagreement about how many episodes of Puffin Rock she can watch before dinner, or what footwear is appropriate for February (hint: not sandals). Yet if a parent-child unit is not a democracy, neither is it a dictatorship (at least hopefully not). It’s a relationship, and like all relationships it can only be healthy if it is built on mutual respect. I have always been as pleased as I am exacerbated when my children and grandchildren challenge my “dictates,” and I give them credit for having minds and desires of their own. With this mindset, I can support Lulu’s fascination with Puffin Rock without letting her watch Netflix until her eyes glaze over: we watch one episode, and then I listen while she tells me what happened (over and over again) and help her draw pictures of the story. Similarly, she can’t wear her new sandals outside in the snow, but it’s easy enough to respect her growing sense of style by popping them into her backpack and letting her change into them when she gets to daycare. Finding appropriate ways to let Lulu get what she wants prevents conflict and meltdowns; much more importantly, it empowers her and teaches her that her needs and desires are relevant and should be respected, even if they can’t always be accommodated just as she’d like.
But what if “needs” and “desires” are acted out inappropriately, before you’ve had a chance to redirect them productively? No matter how much your child wants to kick a classmate, for example, it’s never okay for him or her to do so. So how should you respond when your child commits a “punishable” offence? First and foremost, keep your cool. Too often, and because we’re only human, parents mete out “punishment” while we’re angry or embarrassed by our kids’ behaviour. To train children for the bigger battles that lie ahead in adult life, establish reasonable guidelines for behaviour and consistent, logical, and fair consequences for breaching those guidelines. Whenever possible – and it usually is possible with some calm forethought – allow your children to make amends instead of “punishing” them. After all, your objective is to teach them how to be good people, not teach them how to accept punishment. I’m no parenting expert, but my three adult children have turned out pretty great, and I can point to one simple parenting guideline that really works: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Without realizing it at the time, I made the “Golden Rule” my foundation for parenting when I wrote in my fifth-grade diary that when I had kids, I’d treat them the way I wished my mother – who was not very patient and not very gentle – would treat me. Kids want exactly what we all want: to be loved and respected; to make a contribution to the family and to society; to learn and to have second chances.
Ideally, then, we should respond to our children’s “misdemeanours” in a fashion that meets the above criteria. Suitable “punishment” should let a child know that s/he is still loved and respected; it should allow him or her to make a contribution to the family or to society; and it should be a learning opportunity that gives the child a chance to redeem him or herself. A simple example: When Lulu, old enough to know better, scribbled all over the furniture with a marker, the little graffiti artist was promptly acquainted with a Magic Eraser and trained in graffiti removal. While I suspect that she had as much fun making amends as she did committing the crime, she hasn’t scribbled on the furniture since. Instead, she pointed out that she couldn’t reach the drawing paper on her own (the “vandalism” happened while I was in the shower), leading to the relocation of paper to a bottom shelf, and she also successfully campaigned for bath crayons, with which she can indulge her passion for graffiti (who doesn’t love writing on walls?). An empowered child is not a spoiled child, but a child prepared to negotiate and manage the many challenges of adulthood. Childhood is – or should be – a safe and loving place to practice living in a world that is not always so safe and loving, but that I’m convinced would be safer and more loving if we all practiced the Golden Rule, starting at home with our kids.