February 16, 2011

Beloved, Let Us Berate One Another

"What can we do to promote world peace?"

"Go home and love your family." -Mother Teresa

We are a society of truly pathetic communicators. I don't know why, exactly, but I think it starts at home. I've come across several articles and blog posts recently on the topic and I'm appalled at some of the things people need to be told.

If you are a parent you have a responsibility to your children to teach them how to respect and communicate with their fellow human beings. This is not taught through words but through actions, by respecting them and respecting your significant other.

How does a parent show respect to their children? John Holt, a prominent 20th century educator, said: "Be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued." I don't interpret this to imply a lack of discipline, more like a lack of belittling and demeaning.

Here's an example from my house a few days ago: My two-year-old daughter started making some loud retching noises while she was eating her dinner. My husband and I had been sitting at the table and talking about his day. She's been going through a phase of vying for our attention when we talk so I asked her to please stop and then turned back to the conversation. She was otherwise behaving normally and was obviously not choking. A moment later she spit out her cottage cheese and juice. I put her in time out and proceeded to clean up the mess. While she was in time out she spit again twice. I confiscated two toys, which is a normal punishment in our home, and told her I hoped next time she'd make a better decision and not spit out her food. When she finished her time out I asked her to apologize for making a mess which she did.

Here's what I wanted to say to my daughter: "WHAT in the HELL is the matter with you?! That's disgusting! Now I have to clean up your nasty mess right in the middle of my dinner. Go to your room! I don't want to hear a peep out of you."

But I didn't say those things. I didn't raise my voice. I was obviously irritated but I made a conscious choice to respect the fact that my daughter is a person who is learning all the rules of polite society for the first time, and the only way she's going to learn is to push boundaries. Sometimes it's incredibly annoying but that's what I signed up for when I became a parent.

Here's the punchline: About 20 minutes later she went to play in her room for a little bit. She came back out and said "Mommy, I spit my food out again." Her shirt was covered in cottage cheese when she hadn't even had access to cottage cheese for half an hour. I bent down to sniff it and it turned out to be vomit.

I have never felt so terribly guilty in my life. I felt like the worst parent ever. I cleaned her up and retrieved her two toys back from toy jail. I sat down and looked her in the eyes and tried to apologize as best I could. I said something along the lines of "Honey, mommy is very sorry for putting you in time out. I didn't know your tummy was hurting. Here are your toys back, I shouldn't have taken them away from you. I'm so sorry you are sick."

She could probably see the tears in my eyes. I think she got the message because she took my hand and rubbed it against the side of her head and said "Oh, that's okay mommy!"

Can you even begin to imagine how much worse I would have felt if I had berated her? Completely disregarding the fact that berating her would not have been effective discipline, it would have been a horrible thing for me to have done and I could not have taken it back. That's the number one rule of respect, in my opinion: don't say anything you won't be able to recant later.

The point of this story is not to illustrate what an outstanding parent I am. I do stupid stuff all the time. I get tired and pissy and frustrated almost daily, I'm a stay-at-home mom and I've got a temper. It happens.

The point is to remind myself, and describe to you, why I think it is so important to strive toward a goal of respecting our children. It's the right thing to do, but more importantly we are not infallible. Sometimes even the all-knowing parent is wrong. When that happens nobody wants to lose sleep over the horrible things that cannot be unsaid.     -Kim

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