What’s With the ‘Tude?

Why clear discipline can be a good thing.

I was in the supermarket earlier this week when I had the opportunity to watch a totalitarian regime in action, and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. From a mobile throne (aka a shopping cart), the little dictator somewhere around age five, was barking orders at the serf, who in a different form of government would be called “mom,” and her screams filled the store.

Mom, it seems, was arguing for virtually everything that was bought with the child, and at one point, the darling flung something from the cart that she didn’t approve. Meanwhile, Mom was trying to be conciliatory.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but I’ve seen versions of this scene acted out recently in restaurants, airports and even at the Atlantis resort. Parents actually negotiate with children in all kinds of situations where negotiation isn’t appropriate or required.

It’s not the kids’ fault. The parents have given them the power and abdicated their own. One of the most egregious examples of this kind of attitude that kids have adopted is in this Van de Kamp’s commercial. Every time I see it, my blood runs cold not just because the little girl is such an ungrateful monster but if this is showing up in a commercial, it reflects a commonality of experience that is horrifying.

And it’s worldwide, the poor bee gets abused by kids with no remorse in this European commercial.

Recently, I’ve interviewed parents who say that they feel their children’s wants and needs run the home. They put up with making different meals for each child, rudeness and demands, and they consistently ask, “What choice do I have?” More than they think.

I turned to an expert on this, who happens to be my dad. He was a teacher and school administrator for more than 40 years in private and boarding schools. At any given time he was responsible for the behavior and education of a couple of hundred kids. And he knew a thing or two about discipline. I asked him what would happen if I had addressed my mother as a b*tch, as one mom recently told me her son did. His answer was a very typical, “I would have knocked you into the middle of next week.” He was speaking figuratively, but the point is that there were certain behaviors that were completely out of bounds, and engaging in them had definite, negative consequences, usually having to do with the loss of privileges.

“Parameters, ground rules, or whatever you want to call them are good for kids,” he says. “They know what the boundaries are, and of course they’re going to challenge them; that’s what kids do. But most of the time, kids will do what is expected of them if it is clearly explained and they understand that not complying will have consequences.”

And, he adds, you have to be consistent and communicative. If you bend rules, that has to be acknowledged. And never, he says, put up with behavior that you feel is inappropriate.

It’s not just for the short term, either. “We weren’t just teaching kids to mind specific rules. We were teaching respect, listening, attention to standards, self-sufficiency, responsibility and living within a community. These are life skills.”

These skills are as important to success in later life as knowledge and education. Kids learn them not just from school but also in the home, and the community. As my dad says, being friends with your kids (and the kids in the school) is not as important as creating a structure and boundaries. It may seem oppressive, and every parent has been “the worst father or mother ever.” My mom, who was also a teacher, would respond to that with a mordant, “It must be quite awful to have the worst parents that ever lived.”

When I showed him the Van de Kamps ad, his response was concern was that the little girl is portrayed as feeling it’s all right to berate her mother in such an aggressive manner. Obviously, he knew it was fiction, but like me, he felt that there have to be better ways to sell frozen fish.

That’s why my dad is not just my friend—but considered a friend by the kids (now adults) who learned from him for four decades.

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