Saturday, January 24, 2009

A rambling post in which I discuss lazy parenting

I think a lot about boundaries: mine and the kids'. I think about when it is appropriate for me to enforce a rule, to step in and try to persuade, and to stay quite unless I am asked for advice.

Compared to most parents, I enforce few rules and generally coerce very little behavior. It is the style of parenting that I feel comfortable with. Part of that is just replicating my childhood, as we all do. My mother didn't make me do stuff, although she supported and encouraged me when I wanted to. I had chores, of course. In fact, several of my friends were surprised that I had as many chores as I did. By the time I was in high school I cooked more than she did (although she planned the meals and had the ingredients ready which I now realize was more than half the job). I also did most of the dusting and bathroom cleaning, mostly because it bothered me more than it did anyone else. My sister never liked to cook and I remember she mowed our very large country-road lawn. I don't remember it being a big deal. I think Mom just asked us to do things. If it was an outside chore, Sis did it without complaint. If it was inside, I did it. I recall one time refusing to mow when Sis was gone, but offering to extra cleaning.

I was a pretty responsible young person. I know I must of got into trouble a lot when I was smaller, but by the time I was a teenager I don't recall Mom getting angry at me much. I got good grades, took ballet classes for a few years, got a job as soon as I was old enough, and participated in drama in high school. She never made me do any of those things, but she supported me.

Funny, I can remember going to Alateen regularly at an age when I couldn't drive. I remember driving myself to some meetings, but I know I went for a long stretch before. Other than the first meeting, I have no memory of my mother driving me to the meetings. I have no idea what she did while I was there, although it was far enough away that she couldn't have gone home. I just told her one day that my cousin told me about a group for teenagers with alcoholic parents. I found a group near us and I wanted to go. She said that that sounded like a good idea and she took me. When I stopped wanting to go for a while I just did.

I know at one point she tried to get me to lose weight. I don't remember much about the details, just that I didn't like it. I do remember years later overhearing my mother tell someone that yes, I had been putting on weight but that she wasn't going to do anything about it. "It doesn't work to push her. When she decides she wants to take some off she will. She did before."

Now, my sister's relationship with my mother was different. They fought. I don't even know about what. My mother was generally concerned about my sister's behavior, and tried to do something about it, but I don't recall that she had much success.

I want to be fair and honest here. These are memories based upon my life after about age 10 or maybe even 12. I remember "gettting into trouble" when I was younger, and I remember being punished but I simply don't remember what for. Anyway.

I parent the same way. We have rules here. We have four basic principles:
1. Everyone knows where everyone is.
2. Everyone contributes.
3. Everyone does their job.
4. Everyone is respectful of others, which includes their possessions.

Of course these principles turn into more specific rules. The boys each cook one night and clean the kitchen another night. They have a limited amount of electronic time, and we are more aggressive about enforcing that when they are struggling with their job (i.e. their grades are not good).

I had more rules and consequences when Andrew was little. He will tell you that I used to tell him, "My responsibility isn't to your happiness. My responsibility is to your character. Being happy is your job."

I never felt the need to punish kids when they clearly knew what they had done was wrong. I remember Andrew and Friend pulling off what was like a miniature man-hole cover. It covered a handle that closed off something that went to the house. Not gas, we didn't have gas... Anyway, they pulled it off and left it off. Another kid stepped in it and hurt his ankle. It wasn't a serious injury, but it was a little kid and Andrew and Friend knew they were at fault. I found them sitting in the backyard waiting for the punishment that would come. I sat down with them and said, "So, you know you shouldn't have done that right?"
"Yes!" they replied.
"You look pretty upset about it."
"We didn't want him to get hurt! We really didn't. We're sorry" said Andrew.
"I know."
"What are you going to do to us?" asked Friend.
"Well, are you going to ever do something like that again?"
"NO!" in unison.
"So...if I punish you will that make you less likely to do it again?"
They were confused, but they worked it out and said that no, it wouldn't because they already weren't going to do it.
"Okay. So I think you learned a lesson today. Don't forget it."

And I left.

[Digression: I must have said that a lot. When Andrew was about five he came running to show me something. I was lying on the sofa and had left my glasses on the floor. He almost stepped on them but I stopped him just in time. He said, "Oh Mama, you should not have left your glasses on the floor." "I know, Andrew." He looked at me sympathetically and said, "Well, at least you learned something today."]

The point of all this is that certain kinds of parenting practices seem foreign to me. I don't see the point of punishing kids (even when it is called "imposing a consequence") if they regret what they have done, and think it probably won't be effective if they don't. I'm not saying I haven't punished kids. I have. I just never had much confidence that they would learn anything from it.

I believe in natural and logical consequences. I've told a kid that if he can't count on his friends to get him home on time I will have to start showing up at the movie theatre (or wherever) an hour before curfew to bring him home, and of course he will only be able to go when I will be able to bring him home. I've been tested on that one before, and I've done it. Carl once went two weeks not being able to go anywhere unless he was in line of sight of a responsible adult since I clearly couldn't trust him to tell me where he was going to be.

I've told teens that I'm disappointed to learn that they haven't turned in work at school. They know we agreed they don't play video games until after homework is done. Since can't seem to balance homework and video games, we aren't going to let them play video games on school days for a while. When they ask for how long I tell them I don't know. Until I think they can keep them in balance. Maybe a week, maybe until they graduate from high school.

That sort of thing I have found to be generally more effective than something like grounding. It makes sense to the kids. If they can't be trusted they have to be watched. If they can't finish homework and do video games, then they can't do video games. If they can't be trusted to put the tools away, they can't borrow the tools.

I do use pressure to get kids to do things they don't want to. No hanging with friends until their Saturday chore is finished, that sort of thing.

But there are some things I really don't do. I don't make kids do stuff, like Gary and martial arts. He wants to switch classes. Fine with me. I have been telling him that I think it has been really good for him and I really want him to continue. If he wanted to quit I might tell him that I didn't think I got my money's worth out of the equipment and that I was going to deduct a certain amount from his allowance for a while. That would mostly be about making me feel better, though. The next time he said he wanted to sign up for something I might make him put down a deposit on the equipment, or just buy it himself.

If he quit suddenly I would be concerned about whether there was something else in his life that was going on that was causing him stress. I wouldn't make him continue though. I don't think I know how.

I know that is partly me.

Brian is getting a C in jazz band because he hasn't been bringing his trumpet home and so doesn't have signed practice sheets to turn in. The thing is, he is really good. Roland thinks it is important for him to continue and even though Brian said that maybe he would just quit, Roland said "no." So Brian is going to keep taking jazz band. Roland says he is going to not let Brian have electronics unless he brings home his trumpet and practices first.

I'm backing him up on this, but I part of me is just curious about how it will turn out. Will Brian develop good habits and eventually be grateful we pushed him? Will Roland really enforce the rule that he has laid down? I will enforce it, but only as long as Roland is doing it too. We agreed a long time ago that one parent was not allowed to create a rule like that and then expect the other parent to do all the work of making it happen.

Sometimes I do go crazy and decide that I am going to make the kids do things other parents make their kids do, or things some authority told me my kids should do. Like at the end of last summer when I decided that Brian should slowly reset his sleeping schedule so that he be awake when school started. It was a total disaster. I would wake him up and he would just end up falling asleep again. I got mad. I made him go for walks with me to make him wake up. He went, dragging his feet, came home and fell asleep wherever he sat. I worried about how he was going to cope in school. What if he fell asleep on the bus and missed the stop? It was a public bus, not like a school bus where everyone is made to get off. What if he fell asleep in class?

In the end I finally gave the problem to Roland. He has a hard time getting up in the morning too. He said he would take it. He and Brian agreed they would help each other get up early. Then they both slept in. When school started they managed.

That's the way things go when I try to control past a certain point. Badly.

Now the down side of this is that I don't have children who excel in sports, but we are not athletic so maybe it is genetic and we couldn't have changed it if we tried. I wonder if our children would more determination (or something) if we more often made them do or keep doing things they didn't want to do . Perhaps if we made them do more things they would have a greater sense of satisfaction of accomplishment.

Or maybe not.

I think I have an un-schooling approach to non-school things.

Maybe this is it. As a philosopher interested in ethics I tell students that ethical systems often divide actions into four categories: obligatory; laudable; permissible; and prohibited. Things that are obligatory or prohibited are areas in which I exert myself, although in as non-punitive a way as possible. Things I think of as laudable I mostly leave up to the kids. I'm willing to facilitate, encourage, and praise, but those things just are not obligatory and it is not my job to push it.

Some days I think I have been an extremely lazy and bad parent and my kids have suffered for it.

And most days I think my kids are pretty cool human beings whom I feel privileged to have in my life.

And the point of all this sharing?

Well, it seems to work really well with foster teens, at least the ones I am parenting. Of course there are some kids that I turned out not to be the right parent for, so maybe my exciting claim is just a tautology, "This method of parenting works really well with the kids it works really with!"

But here's the up side. In all this time when I am enforcing as few rules as I can, and enforcing them in a non-punitive manner, I am building up trust with the kids. We are forming a relationship. They slowly learn that they can tell me they made a mistake and I will help them figure out a solution and won't punish them. They slowly feel more and more comfortable talking to me about their problems. Sometimes they lie, but since I'm not big on solving problems for them they don't normally succeed in manipulating me.

My view with these kids is that in a couple of years they are going to have be responsible for themselves and right now they need mentoring from me while they practice. If I do too much for them, they will not learn to do it themselves -- and one of the things they need to learn to do for themselves is motivate.

Of course, I'm not dealing with kids who are all about rebelling against me. My boys come into the relationship warily, wondering what I am going to be about. I offer them mentoring rather than control, and most of them have taken me up on it. None of the kids I am successfully parenting came to me with major discipline problems. Well, not anything recent, anyway. I don't know if this sort of low-key parenting would be successful with kids who are seriously rebelling.

Carl, David and Evan have made their share of stupid decisions. They have messed up in big ways, but this did seem to be the best way to deal with things. Ann was determined to establish that she was the one in control and was bullying the boys. That was not something that my low-key, how-can-I-help parenting could handle. Brian's troubles in school did not go away until we got him treatment for an underlying condition. No amount of encouragement or logical consequences was going to help him concentrate in school.

On the other hand, I think it would be work with more kids that most people think.

And when it works, it really does seem to encourage the building of a relationship, and that is a very cool thing to have.


  1. And this is why you are a superb foster parent and your children love you!

  2. This is an encouraging post. I'm trying to take a similar approach (learning as I go) and sometimes I wonder that since I'm not authoritarian that I'm not doing it right. Thanks for sharing what has worked.

  3. I'm sure it's not lost on you that by encouraging and supporting but not forcing your kids to do "laudable" things you're modeling the distinction between "laudable" and "obligatory" and thus providing them a valuable life lesson. I just thought I'd point it out explicitly, because I think it makes me sound smart. Nyah.

    OT, whenever you might be comfortable with it, I'd really like to read more about Ann on the private blog.

  4. jenniebee,

    send an email to
    pflagfostermom @ gmail dot com

    I know I have your email address somewhere, but I'm lazy. Do you mind sending me a new one? I'll send you an invite to the private blog as soon as I get it.


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