By Erin Liles
Web Exclusive May 16, 2008
My family and I had just returned from a long road trip from Texas to Arizona when my father-in-law dropped the s bomb on us: "You know, you really should be spanking Maya." Granted, she threw a couple tantrums and yelled her infamous No! when asked to do something she did not want to do, but overall, I thought she had done reasonably well. In my eyes, good was acceptable, after all, kids aren't perfect. We had always made it clear to our family members that physical punishment was not something we would ever use on our kids.
Even though I was angry, I realized that most of our parents came from a generation that defined parental success as having children who obeyed. How could I blame them? In their eyes, my daughter must at times look pretty ill-behaved with her tantrums and strong opinions, a far cry from the rigid obedience many parents expect even today from their children. As I thought about this, I looked back on our parenting record and in those years, I found my answer. When my oldest child was a baby, I believed that if I nursed her on demand, let her sleep with me, carried her in a sling, gave her lots and lots of attention—all the tenets of attachment parenting—then she would have no behavior problems at all. But then she turned two, and since she was already temperamentally sensitive, my husband and I soon found ourselves in a whirlwind of "No!" and often unintelligible screams. We tried ignoring her at first, but the tantrums continued. In fact, they continued on and off for the next two years. When she was three-and-a-half, her baby brother was born, and we were catapulted into full-time tantrums. This time we were granted the added bonus of the "ugly voice," better known as back talk.
So my husband and I, feeling exasperated, began trying to enforce more rules, giving counts to three and timeouts. Although we were getting stricter, her behavior was getting more volatile. The problem continued until that fateful day when we heard the s word. Shocked by what I heard, I was jolted back to the attachment parenting reality I had always known so well when my daughter was a baby. I knew then that we were headed down the wrong path.
I was taking a shower one morning, my kids playing happily nearby, when I had a thought: I want my kids to be natural. I don't want them artificially controlled by adults who can't handle children's emotions, unruly as they are at times. Control is something you do with an object. Control of people is a fallacy; you may think you have it, but deep down it breeds rebellion. It was then I decided it was time to let go a little. It was time to head back to nature.
I think kids should be like homegrown tomatoes. What do tomatoes and kids have to do with one another? Like plants, anything that grows fares better when we help it along. Depending on the kind of help we give, kids can either grow the way nature intended or artificially.
Which is better? It depends on how you look at it. There are grocery store tomatoes that look good on the outside, but they have been artificially grown with hormones and pesticides, and have even been altered with foreign genes, all to produce a result that is aesthetically pleasing to the buyer. They look good, but on the inside are pretty tasteless. Then there are homegrown organic tomatoes: no hormones, no pesticides, fresh off the vine. They might look a little wild, but they are naturally delicious.
I see kids who are raised with strict rules and harsh punishments, and what I see isn't natural. It seems to me that if they are always obedient on the outside, deep down that obedience is based on fear of the punishment that will ensue if the child angers his parents. Often they become quite rebellious outside the parents' watchful gaze. Their behavior is based on external control, and when the control is not present there is nothing internal to guide the child. I think kids are inherently good and want to please their parents, but when too much control and force is used, those natural tendencies are damaged. Kids who are brought up with a gentle hand keep their natural desire to do good, and their mistakes become opportunities to learn because they trust the adults in their lives.
You see, I have come to understand that children should misbehave. Think about how you learned a new skill growing up or even as an adult. How did you learn? By being shown and corrected when you made a mistake. Children come into this world wired to learn, and learning happens, in part, through mistakes. If we hammer them down with punishments every time they make a mistake, what have we done but squash their will to learn? If we are intolerant of all their childish behavior, what have we done but squash their will to express themselves?
In organic gardening you spend most of your time building the soil, amending it when it is lacking and consistently adding essential nutrients to keep it healthy. A healthy soil will yield a healthy plant, which is better able to fight disease and pests. And so it is with children. Parents build security by providing limits and rules that are amended as the child grows.
Of course, there will always be bugs in our gardens, but some are beneficial. Some behaviors help children learn and develop and some hinder growth. When we see behaviors are that are a bit annoying or unruly, we often feel the need to stop them immediately, just as some of us want to kill any bug we see in our yard. But when we kill all the bugs, the bad ones will multiply faster than you can imagine; when we punish all behaviors, what grows is not better behaviors, but those we don't want. We need to pick our battles, to decide when behaviors are truly destructive and when they are innocuous.
The attachment parenting principles I used when my daughter was an infant were an important first step, but that was the easy part. It's the lifelong process of letting go of the control that's hard.
So my husband and I decided to do just that, let go a little. We stopped getting so angry and helped our daughter through her tantrums instead of fighting them and demanding that she stop. We decided to accept them and let them happen. And guess what? Even though she still has them occasionally, they are much fewer and much shorter-lived.
It's really about changing our perceptions. Like going from mass production to the organic model, it takes time to adjust. It's easy to be reactive, to get angry and yell, but when we resist that urge I think we get better results in the end. It takes strength and commitment to use a gentle hand with our kiddos. For all of us there will be occasions when we lose our tempers, but I think if we can keep the gentle, non-reactive model as the basis of our parenting, we will all be happier and more fulfilled in our family life. If we can get used to the idea that good tomatoes don't look perfect, we will probably be pleasantly surprised at what we get in the end.
Just like our gardens, children need our loving attention. They need our time and careful consideration to discipline. They need us to let them have the emotions that are uncomfortable for us but necessary for them. They need to be allowed to explore and attempt new tasks even when it means more work for us as parents. They need us to be calm, rational, but ultimately the ones in charge. They need to be allowed to make decisions and they need to be allowed to make mistakes—lots of them.
When I look at my kids, I see children who don't always behave perfectly, but are generally empathetic, loving, sweet kids. They may have strong opinions, but as inconvenient as it is to me at times, I know that is a symptom of a strong will, a strong self-esteem. Sometimes they behave in ways that just aren't acceptable, but usually if we take a gentle approach and calmly talk to them, they will stop. After all, perfect is an ideal for those grocery store tomatoes, not children. I no longer feel angry when people suggest parenting methods with which I disagree. I know for some people it may appear strange and ineffective to raise children without spanking or punishments, just like organic produce may be unfamiliar to many families. But in my bones, I feel the natural way is the best solution, and I choose it just like I choose homegrown tomatoes over store-bought any day.
Erin Liles is a wife and mother of two children. She lives in Kyle, Texas and has worked as a Children's Program coordinator for 8 years.