Imagine your least favorite teacher, the English teacher who thought everything you wrote was lame, the foreign language teacher who never let you say one word in English during class, or the chemistry teacher who wished the students weren’t there to get in the way of the science. Chances are, they ruled their classroom like a ship at sea. They were the captains and, if you wanted to get home alive, you did as they said.
They all had a look: the look that could freeze you to your chair, choke a whisper back down your throat, and make you want to duck and cover. It was a powerful piece of magic, that look.
As a teacher, I had a look of sorts, but because I preferred comradery to tyranny, it wasn’t quite as piercing. My look said, “I see you and I know what you’re doing. Things are going along swimmingly right now, so let’s not mess that up, yes?”
It usually worked. Without a word, they’d get back to the task at hand and the waters remained undisturbed. After a decade of this, I’d gotten my version of “the look” honed to perfection: respectful but assertive, friendly but uncompromising.
Then I had kids, and the second they became self-aware, “the look” got shot to bits. They didn’t care to keep the ship sailing. They’d rather torpedo our little outing to the park, our healthy dinner, or our calm bedtime routine. They were anarchists at heart. “The look,” I discovered, was too nuanced. Kids aren’t into subtlety.
However, I wasn’t ready to slap some corporal punishment on them or “lay down the law” – what would effectively be taking 10 paces back and turning for a duel. I wanted to discipline, but I also wanted to work on the respect thing together. Fear-mongering would get us nowhere.
I think modern parents fight this battle all the time, between what our parents and those before them considered necessary discipline and our own desires to be friends with our kids. Too many hard lines make you the enemy, and no lines make your authority as parent disappear.
There is a place in the middle, though, a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.
Make the family rules together
By discussing as a family what’s valued, allowed, and respected and what’s not, you’re giving your kids ownership over themselves and how they want life at home to look. Let them make suggestions. Let them see you write it down. Put it on the fridge like the House Doctrine it is. If they can feel invested in it, they are much more likely to abide by it.
One thing the older generations rarely did was the do-over. There were no second chances. That’s a hard line to walk. Perfectionism is impossible and humanity is all about what you do after you fail. What does the rebound look like? Giving your kids do-overs teaches them that there is a right and a wrong way to behave, but nothing is irreparable. Life is about practice. The do-over lets them practice better behavior and gives you a chance to offer cheers at the end instead of punishment.
Be a creeper
Yes, I mean that. Parents are clairvoyant in many ways. We sense approaching trouble. When you get that feeling, that the crayons are about to go from paper to wall or the sharing of the favorite costume or toy or food is nearing an end, creep on over and hover in their vicinity. Let them see you in their line of sight. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Like seeing the traffic cop half a mile ahead, it hits the brakes on potential rebellion. And you don’t even have to say a word.
Don’t take it personally
It’s so easy to get our feelings hurt when our kids disrespect us or ignore the Family Rules, as sacred as we made them out to be. In the end, they’re just kids. Chances are it’s not malicious. We have to keep moving forward, giving the do-over, and finding ways to buoy up our self-worth separate from our kids. We can’t build our identity and our days around how they feel about us. In the end, our job is to raise responsible, honest, big-hearted people who will keep the world running as best they can.
Parenting like this isn’t about extremes. It’s not stirring up fear or sitting back like a pal. It’s about creating a safe environment with mutually agreed-upon rules that encourages self-awareness. The aim is to give everybody the chance to get better at being themselves.