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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s new series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
Maybe we all feel a little powerless when we are children. I certainly did. I wasn’t always sure I would get what I “needed.” My survival instincts kicked in often. Anytime I discovered that there were potato chips in the house, I would liberate many of them for my own purposes. I emptied unsuspecting Jello packets into my digestive system. I knew that Mom wouldn’t approve. But I figured I might not get any if I didn’t take the chips/Jello into my own hands.
I also teased my sibs. It didn’t occur to me that I was hurting them. I just knew that I wanted to assure freedom of action for myself.
Mom would get frustrated with me. When she caught me teasing my sister, she would consign me to a lonely chair in the corner of the kitchen. It was very effective. I learned not to tease my sister when mom was around.
Sometimes I was a smart aleck. It didn’t occur to me that I was being disrespectful. Or maybe I didn’t grasp the ugliness of disrespect. When mom had had enough, she marched me to the fridge where she kept a large canister of cayenne pepper. She would insert my finger into my mouth, dip it into the cayenne, and reinsert it into my mouth. This was very effective with me. I learned to love Mexican food.
The natural child is an enemy to the world!
There is an interesting assumption behind most discipline: Making children feel bad will make them act better. There is abundant evidence, however, that this idea is mistaken.
We may have noble aspirations for our children but common discipline won’t get us there. Punishment creates resentful children.
There is an alternative. We can help our children turn to the light within. That light includes goodness and compassion. A child motivated from within will function better than one who is managed from the outside.
Recently we were tending some friends’ children. A fight broke out between three brothers, 15, 12, and 7 years old when the middle boy had mocked the youngest child. The older boy then mocked the middle boy, who became indignant and started swinging at his older brother before stomping to his room.
When I was a younger parent, I probably would have interrogated the offending parties and then pronounced sentences according to their offenses. Indeed, “the natural parent is an enemy to children.”
I think I am a little wiser now. I waited a few minutes until tempers were settled. Then I went to each of the boys alone. My interaction with both boys followed the same principles:
- Make sure the child feels loved and valued. Listen patiently. Seek to understand the child’s dilemma. We cannot help someone for whom we feel no compassion.
- Show understanding. “You did what you thought was right or necessary.” We don’t have to endorse their behavior but we can understand it.
- When the child feels understood, draw his attention to the challenges faced by his victim. “You might not realize that your younger brother feels pretty powerless. He sees you as bigger and stronger. The things you say can really hurt him.”
- Invite him to listen to “the better angels of [his] nature.” “I wonder if you are willing to be a helpful big brother. He needs you. I think you can do it.”
Notice that there is no shortcut to effective parenting. We must show compassion in order to cultivate compassion. We teach “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41). There is no other way.
Rather than leave children to their natural impulses, we can teach them to listen to their better angels. We can teach them to be more aware of and compassionate toward all the people around them if we are compassionate, patient, and wise in the way we teach them.
For more ideas about effective parenting, see my LDS book Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth or Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child.