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Parenting: Being Mean to Kids

by The Next Family January 07, 2011

By: Julie Gamberg

I spent years teaching in very tough inner-city schools, and I prided myself on my great teaching, especially my strong classroom management skills. I could take a group of kids who perhaps hadn’t had breakfast, or even dinner the night before, who had somewhat or very unstable home lives, who may have had drug-addicted or prostituted parents — kids who did not come to school ready to sit down, listen and learn — and create a sense of structure, and order. I could make the day feel “safe”and contained. How did I do this? Through the use of a tough, disciplinarian, take-no-prisoners style…one which was very common in the schools I taught in and which involved creating “rewards” with charts on the board and/or a clipboard, and acknowledging and lavishly praising wanted behavior while immediately punishing – with things such as time-outs and loss of privileges – unwanted behavior. There were also promises of future reward and punishments, such as ten minutes’ free playtime, or a withheld part of recess, based on behavior. These “consequences” were applied consistently, compassionately and extremely firmly, with no “wiggle room” which might have allowed for the child’s “manipulation” of me or the situation.

Parents of my students would sometimes ask me to teach them these techniques, so they could “try to get control” of their kids at home. I was thought of as something of a parenting “expert”, although in truth the techniques I was teaching and using were in no way creative, fresh, original, or hard to come by. Parents, if you really want to apply these techniques, you do not need to look very far, and you don’t need to work very hard. They are easy to use and they are ubiquitous. They are, for starters, in every playbook of every mediocre classroom teacher I know of. They are the worst of what a “great” teacher does, and the only thing keeping a bad teacher from a classroom of complete insanity. But they are nothing to be proud of. Although I know on our hardest days it doesn’t always feel like it, controlling kids is ultimately pretty easy. After all, until they become old enough, we can simply manhandle them if we want to. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and we know a lot more about how the world works. We feed, clothe, and shelter them. They love and worship us. They are completely at our mercy. Being mean to kids in the name of creating order is not a hard feat. Being a little bit mean is also pretty darn easy. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are not being mean, just “firm,” yet even this is relatively easy.

The hard stuff begins when we decide that parenting with control, manipulation, rewards, and punishments, will no longer be in our own parenting playbooks. Letting go of those “tried and true” workaday “solutions” to the behavior of our littles that most troubles us, and seeking to raise our children through connection, listening, empathy, reasonable limits, and yes, some reading, some talking, and some hard work on our end…that is where our highest calling as parents begins.

As I began to come into my own in the classroom, I felt proud of my teaching accomplishments – I could keep a group of kids quiet, in their seat, and for the most part engaged, and happy to be there. I had good relationships with my students. However, something nagged at me. The part of my day that involved classroom management in a very authoritative style (a lot of the day) – one I slowly came to see as downright draconian – always felt…not right. These children were not seals-in-training. They were complex human beings with an array of emotional needs and wants which were going totally unmet. The only acceptable behavior in the classroom was my way. I began to think about alternatives, but really couldn’t envision managing so many children with such diverse and divergent needs, any other way. I think my crisis of thought at that moment – the fact that I simply could not see or envision another way – reminds me of the crisis of thought I hear from parents now. They feel, in their bones, that they want to parent another way, but on a practical, day-to-day level, they just don’t see how it can be managed.

During my last year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be at a small, inner-city public school, which was supplementally funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. The school attracted extraordinary teachers, and for the first time in my life, I began to see (some) teachers who were managing their classrooms without a reward chart, and without explicit punishments and consequences. These teachers leveraged their relationships with the students and the class, to figure out together how to solve any problems they encountered. They worked on building their students’ problem-solving capacity, and gently helped children communicate with one another, and discuss and solve their issues together. I realized, with no small amount of shame, that while I was giving my students “good days” at school –and, through external force, giving them an example of what managing their behavior might feel like –as well as warmth, support, and education, these teachers were going a million miles beyond that. Their students were developing communication, negotiation, conflict-resolution and self-regulation skills that would last them a lifetime. They were gaining confidence and mastery while finding intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. They were seeing a model of problem-solving based on caring, empathy, listening and working together, rather than discipline, fear, and control.

Although I was leaving K-12 teaching, it became clear that this was altogether a better method. Whereas I was working toward being a “great” teacher by the old playbook, these teachers were in a different league altogether. A friend who went to a prestigious law school once told me how brilliant and important he felt in high school and college, and then how dumb and inconsequential he felt when he got to law school. It is a humbling moment to realize that as much as you think you are doing, there is someone doing so much more and, more importantly, to realize that is who you would prefer to be.

I took these lessons into parenting. I vowed that if these teachers, and others, could do these amazing things with a huge group of students who came to school facing enormous obstacles to learning and socializing, then I could surely do that much and more with my one, or two, or three children who would have had (if they were hungry) dinner the night before, and breakfast in the morning, and who would be free from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and who would have a stable and consistent environment. I vowed to read, and join online lists, and talk to other parents, and watch and ask about good parenting when I saw it, and do the work that these amazing teachers did, so that I could give that experience to my child.

I am glad to have had so much teaching experience going into parenting. I know it has helped in many ways. Of course it would have helped so much more had I learned about these progressive and effective teaching philosophies while I was still able to practice implementing them. But ultimately parenting is very different than teaching. It is so much easier in that I have control over all of the variables, so I can stack the deck enormously in my favor. And it is so much harder because it’s 24-7. So far, I’ve found challenges that far surpass those of teaching. Such as having a colicky baby –requiring me to push at the boundaries of human exhaustion to care for her, or dealing with a full-blown tantrum over not being able to play with my cell phone. But I am grateful that in all of the hard and complicated moments, there is no part of me that has longed to return to the draconian days of “if you don’t x, I’m going to y”, “good job -you get a star!”, “time out!”, or any other methods of top-down authoritarian control that were such an important part of my arsenal as an urban educator. Mostly, I’m so glad that I’m able to deal with problems that come up without being mean. To all of the kids to whom I’ve been mean in the past: I wish I had known better. And to all of the kids who I will know in the future: I hope I’m always able to offer guidance and maintain limits without being mean. Because I have no excuse. I know better now.

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