Am I the only mother out there wishing kids came along with instruction booklets? It is absolutely confounding that to qualify for any other profession in the world, intensive schooling is a prerequisite. And yet, to become a parent, to mold a human being, an entire world – nothing?!
My 11-year-old son, Jamie, is a star student. He has always breezed through school without any issues – until yesterday. We were all preparing for our work day: the kids for school, my husband for his medical practice, and me, for teaching. My husband’s car was at the mechanic’s shop, so I planned to drop him off at the office before heading to school. Minutes before we were ready to leave, Jamie suddenly went AWOL.
“Where’d he go?” Husband wondered, bellowing, “JAMIE!”
The five of us scattered through the house, searching every room.
“I’ll be late for work!” Husband roared, and goosebumps popped out on my arms.
“Me, too,” I reminded him, feeling my heart rate soar. Who needs a gym to get a cardiovascular workout, anyway?
Fifteen minutes later, we finally discovered Jamie huddled under a tree in our backyard.
“WHAT IN THE WORLD ARE YOU DOING?” Husband grasped Jamie by the arm and pulled him out. “WHY DIDN’T YOU ANSWER US? DON’T YOU KNOW WE’RE GOING TO BE LATE?”
Jamie shrugged, gave each of us a baleful look, and shuffled towards the car.
“YOU KNOW THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES FOR THIS!” Husband growled, settling into the car. “YOU’RE GOING TO BE GROUNDED FOR A WHOLE WEEK!”
I winced, feeling like that sounded overly harsh. But I held my tongue, deciding to give my husband some space to get over his frustration.
What is your opinion, Rachel? Do you think Jamie deserves consequences for making the whole family late?
A Perplexed Mom
Dear Perplexed Mom,
I would definitely rate your morning at least an eight on the stress-o-meter. Coming late to work and dealing with irate bosses, office staff and patients is very difficult. Knowing your children will be sent to the office for tardy slips is not comforting either.
However, I think your quandary can be simplified by seeking your long-term objective in parenting. Do you view your job as being reactive when situations occur, and trust me, they will – when you’re least expecting them? He did this, and therefore, I will give him a consequence to fit the “crime.” And then he will learn to never repeat that behavior again.
Consequences may or may not be effective, depending on many variables: the child’s nature, how consequences are administered, and whether they are equivalent to the behavior. However, if a child receives an overdose of negativity, we all know the possible repercussions: rebellion and an erosion of the parent-child relationship.
So, what’s a parent to do? Let the kid get away with whatever he wants?
In this particular scenario, Jamie’s deflection sounds like a cry for help. An otherwise well-adjusted child who excels in school doesn’t typically disappear when it’s time to walk out the door. Something must have been bothering him.
I would recommend having a private, earnest conversation with Jamie later, when everyone’s temperatures are cooler. Try to find out if there’s a problem you can help with. And explain to him that he can always come to you when something is wrong. Hopefully Jamie will confide what’s going on, and then you will be able to help him. At some point in the conversation, there is certainly nothing wrong with explaining that, even if something is upsetting him, he can’t disappear when it’s time for everyone to leave. And you can forewarn him that if this should be repeated, there will be a consequence.
Do you see the difference that this model can provide? With reactive parenting, the immediate behavior may be stopped in its tracks, but you’ve closed a door. And you are left with an angry child who is feeling misunderstood and unsupported.
With proactive parenting, your child feels loved and cared about. He now understands that he should approach you with concerns and has also been forewarned about consequences for appropriate and inappropriate behavior. A loving encounter, a “teachable moment,” has been created, fostering intimacy.
Parenting is challenging yet exhilarating. It can leave you breathless yet awed at the vast potential inherent in the gift of raising a child.
Wishing you much success and joy,