The other night a family with young kids came for dinner. We know them, but not well. We talked about design and food and politics. The conversation flowed. Until we got to the topic of parenting.
I don’t recall exactly how the topic arose, but with six kids between us, it’s not shocking.
What did shock me, however, was the stunned look on our guests’ faces when they learned that we don’t punish our boys.
“What? You don’t punish your kids? There’s never a time when you ask them to do something 10 times, and they don’t, so you get angry and send them to their room?”
“No,” I answered, a bit stunned myself by their disbelief.
“Well then what do you do when they don’t listen?” they asked, mouths slightly agape.
The interaction was eye-opening, not because I live on an island thinking everyone’s like me, but because of these parents’ innocent acceptance that there is just no other way.
I won’t lie. There are times when I do ask my son to clear the table five times, my temperature rising with each request, until I explode and say something blameful that accomplishes nothing more than igniting a fire of anger between us.
It happens. But mostly not.
My boys were at the dinner table with us the night these guests were over, so I turned to one to make sure I was being honest.
“Have I ever punished you? Sent you to your room or taken something you cherish away?”
He thought for a moment and said, “No.” And then he just sat there quietly taking the conversation in.
So what do I do when my boy doesn’t listen?
The answer is that I simply - or sometimes not so simply - keep my eye on the target. But my target is not, for example, a clean table. My target is connection. Why? Because I see over and over again that when my boys feel seen by me, when they feel loved, when they sense that I get them and am considering their interests as well, the table gets cleared. By the way.
It’s phenomenal what a calm tone of voice, a loving limit, and good attention can do for a kid who’s just not listening.
It’s weird, I know. Counterintuitive, perhaps. But it’s true.
The day after our dinner guests, my son and I were driving together, and I asked him what he thought about the conversation from the night before, and if he realized that most parents punish their children.
He didn’t respond right away, but his whole demeanor changed, the muscles in his body tightening, and he kept his glance on the road in front of us.
And then, without turning his head, he said, “Parents who do that should be punished.”
He said it softly, but with unmistakable indignation.
Oy! I felt for him. Empathized a million percent with his feelings. But disagreed with his conclusion, as I felt for the parents as well.
“I get it,” I said. “You kids deserve to be treated well. But know that we parents are doing the best we can. Parenting is incredibly difficult, and we’re all just trying to figure it out one day a time.”
The rest of the ride was quiet. I’m not sure what was going on inside his head, but I was once again re-inspired to continue to support both parents and children because, well, it’s just seems like the right thing to do.
Tosha Schore, MA, is mom to three young boys, founder of Parenting Boys Peacefully: A FREE 10-day Reconnect, and co-author of Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. Her next live Reconnect begins May 1. Join a global community of parents committed to shifting their boys’ behaviors through connection.