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Don’t Get Mad At Out-Of-Control Kids. Get Mad At Their Permissive Parents


Judging by the massive number of articles about out-of-control kids, people are frustrated at the behavior of their own kids, and at that of others’ when they are out and about. If we’re being honest, it’s not the out-of-control kids who are most obnoxious, it’s the ineffective and out-of-control parents who often prove to be the most bothersome.

Sure, grown adults might not be the ones screaming on the floor the restaurant or kicking the backs of our airline seats, but they’re the ones who are allowing their kids to disturb everyone else. Lately, it seems like there are a lot of parents, especially moms, screaming at their kids in public.

The hard truth is that we’re the reason kids (and their parents) are out of control, and we’re far happier to blame and shame parents than examine what’s going wrong in so many families.

We All Know What NOT to Do

From articles (and books) geared at helping parents shut their mouths and stop swearing and screaming at their kids, to repeated studies about spanking, corporal punishment in schools, and the endless amount of information telling you that if you let your kids have more than 15 minutes of screen time per day, much less watch any violent media, they’ll turn into serial killers, there’s a ton of advice on what not to do with kids.

There’s a gaping disconnect between what mental health professionals, doctors, teachers, and other experts on parenting tell people to do and what the average stressed-out family feels equipped to attempt. The end result is that parents teeter between being overly harsh and being too permissive. Too often, they fail to realize that their own kids are so out of control because they’re just modeling the behavior shown by their parents.

Ignoring the histrionics of this statement from the American Psychological Association, there are some expert opinions worth considering when we talk about spanking. Research and professional opinions on spanking have been reasonably in accord since the 1960s, but this consensus has failed to shift how most Americans parent. “You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” says psychologist Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

Explaining the APA’s rationale against spanking further, Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, said: “Physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous.” The rest of the statement is not terribly long, but it’s information-dense, with all of it strongly against spanking and other physical methods of discipline.

What such strong statements against spanking fail to provide desperate parents is a list of tools and strategies for handling their children in real-life situations. Parents might fear Child Protective Services if they spank their kids, but they’re still doing it because they don’t know what else to do.

All the ‘Expert’ Opinions Conflict

If you’ve been following along, you’re not supposed to yell at your kids. You’re not supposed to hit them. Honestly, you’re not supposed to praise them, either. Timeouts are bad for your kids, too. Thinking of trying a reward system? Don’t, because that’s bad, too. Feeling overwhelmed and like there’s no good way to discipline that won’t screw kids up five ways to Sunday?

This is the problem. This is why kids are struggling, and parents are at a loss. The more you read and research and ask for help, the more conflicting information you hear. Is it any wonder that it’s easier for some parents (nearly all of us, at times, honestly) to just disengage, and tune out their kids’ bad behavior when and where it happens?

Parents, especially mothers, are frequently reminded that they need to parent well or they’ll screw their kids up forever. The joke about saving for therapy runs slightly hollow when it comes along with a pained smile and the suspicion that the parent doesn’t really like her kids much.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. I’m not going to tell you there’s an easy, foolproof five-step system for raising kids who are always a delight and never lick airport windows or throw tantrums in the grocery store, because that’d be a lie. There’s nothing easy or hands-off about raising kids, and I have no interest in pretending my children are Stepford-esque and never act out.

What I can tell you is that I sincerely like each of my kids, and I find them a delight and joy to be around. I love them and I don’t worry about them growing up, I look forward to it, because I know they’re going to be awesome adults that I’ll be proud of.

Think About the Big Picture First

I think one of the biggest issues when we talk about discipline and behavior is that it’s so easy to forget that we’re not raising kids. They’re not going to be preschoolers or teens forever, but are entirely too rapidly becoming adults. The interpersonal relationships in the family unit should teach our kids how to love and act in the wider world, not just scare them into keeping their food at the table.

Before wading through methods and ideologies, what families really need to do is settle out what they’re actually doing. Discipline is individual, it’s situational, and it’s certainly not one size fits all. Don’t miss the big picture. You’re raising someone’s future spouse, future parent, future coworker and friend. At the same time, you’re trying to work out a plan for dealing with tantrums and disobedience. We’re not serving kids or parents by setting up families as enemies, and we’re certainly not helping anyone when we huff and eyeroll at parents who just don’t know what to do.

If you’re hopelessly lost at this point, and tempted to either throw your hands in the air or stick with just letting your kids act however they want, take a deep breath. People have been raising kids for generations, without the huge amount of resources that we have available to us currently as parents. While the amount of information is problematic to sift through, there are some important things to not lose track of.

Now For Some Concrete Ideas

Raise your kids in faith. Sure, waking up early for religious services can be hard. There are so few opportunities in our busy lives to sleep in, but that’s part of the discipline of cracking the kids (and yourself, let’s be real) out of bed to go worship God. Teach your kids that faith isn’t negotiable, and it doesn’t fall to the side when things in life get hard. That’s when we need it the most.

Be a proactive parent. When your kids are misbehaving, intervene, but positively. With little kids, that may mean picking them up and moving them out of a bad or dangerous situation, or distracting them, or even putting them in their room or crib if they’re throwing a tantrum.

Apply fair consequences that mirror those they’ll face for their actions as adults.

For bigger kids, it means grown-up versions: Requiring good behavior and applying consequences if children choose not to comport with your standards. Bigger kids should make restitution when they misbehave. If they cause a scene in front of friends, they get to apologize and learn that sometimes people don’t want to be around unpleasant people.

If they steal, they get to return whatever they took, and accept the consequences from the person or establishment they ripped off. If they lie, then they’ll have to learn that life in unpleasant when people have to verify every word and action because they don’t trust you. Apply fair consequences that mirror those they’ll face for their actions as adults, and help them learn that it’s easier and more productive to be a good citizen.

Teach your kids to be kind. The world is a cold and mean place. You want your kids to be the light and hope for people, not contribute to the darkness. When someone needs help, tell them to not ignore it. When they see someone in danger, encourage them to intervene. Talk to them about how you can’t expect someone else to do the right thing—they are that someone. Don’t be a bystander to evil.

Teach them the practical matters of life. Seriously, there’s more they’ll need to know than how to wipe their own butts (but please, do teach them that!) and the importance of brushing their teeth. Talk to them about money, budgets, and charity. Teach them how to fix a leaky sink and reattach a button, and how to cook more than boxed mac and cheese. If you don’t know how, it’s time to stop being ashamed and head over to the library or YouTube or a kind older member at the church you’re going to, and learn along with your kid. Modeling that learning is lifelong is, in itself, a valuable lesson.

Most importantly, don’t get frustrated and give up. Parenting is tough. But every kid needs involved parents, and there’s no excuse for not trying.