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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How to raise a brat

Boy, I have been thinking on this one for awhile. All the noise about the Pearls and the Ezzos has really got me thinking, and I wanted to read Gary Ezzo's book for myself before making any comments on it. Unfortunately my library card is pretty much maxed out on fines, so that will have to wait for another post.

A few months ago, some old guy evangelist came to our church to speak. Among the many tangents he got off on were child-rearing, and I watched with raised eyebrows. My husband wasn't there that day, otherwise I would have been clenching his hand to the point of drawing blood, I bet.

Mr. Evangelist proclaimed, almost proudly, how when his son was 11 months old or so, he got dad's attention by throwing his bottle out of the crib. Dad picked it up, and Baby Evangelist promptly threw it back. Dad handed it to him again, and he again threw it. So Mr. Evangelist responded by giving his son a swat because of his behavior.

I need to remember that sometimes my facial expressions give my true thoughts and feelings away, and I tried to remain deadpan. I'm not sure how successful I was, because inside, I was pretty irate. My first thought was, "Well, ding dong, there's a simple solution to that - don't hand him the bottle." Children - even babies - like to play games, and what parent hasn't been the unwitting victim of the ol' "I'm going to throw my bottle/toy/spoon on the floor 500 times to watch you pick it up 500 times!" game? Come on already.

I wondered about a person who would almost take what I felt was pride over a subject such as this. Surely those of us who do spank as a method of discipline don't consider it one of our finer moments when it has to happen. We don't relish it, or look forward to it. I also wonder about Mr. Evangelist types who go on tirades about child-raising today: no one is arguing with the fact that some parents are truly lax, but some of these old dudes are so far removed from the parenting scene that you have to wonder. How much were they really around to do the majority, or even a portion, of the parenting? No doubt mom was the one deep in the trenches every day, and she might have a very different perspective on what went down.

As he went on, and even though some of what he said (on unrelated topics to the baby spanking) was okay, I couldn't help wonder what was going through the heads of our congregation. (It's important to realize that even among the most conservative Christians, not everyone agrees, and not everyone should. More on that later, though.)

Not long after our pastor did a sermon on "how to raise a brat." For the most part, I agreed with him: in some kids, it's obvious that there is no discipline going on, and they are pretty much allowed to rule the roost. We see this in mothers who say, "I have no idea how to control him!" and yet take a totally hands-off approach to parenting. Or, conversely, spank all the time with little room for any other form of correction. While we do spank from time to time, it has to be in the right context and for the right reasons, not just as a matter of course.

Later I realized he was using a pamphlet for the major points of his sermon, and I also noticed he had left some key things out. Namely the part about infants, where you're supposedly in danger of raising a brat if you 'pick him up every time he cries.' Interesting that my pastor would leave that part out - because I don't think he agrees with it. The pamphlet's author said (and I paraphrase), "Run to his aid every time he cries, and he'll expect to be pampered all his life" or some such crapola. Seriously?!

I asked a fellow church member and father of three about this and wanted he and his wife's opinion. They both agreed that you can't spoil a baby. Whew, I thought. This must mean there are sane people among the Christian community and not everyone believes this wacko.

I don't know what the author of this pamphlet specifically meant by "infant." Are we talking six months old? Six weeks? I thought back to my own parenting experiences and how each of my children was different: crying it out for ten minutes worked for my oldest, but I made sure to pay attention to the pattern and intensity of his cries. If he wouldn't stop after several minutes (which was very rare), or started up again after a brief period of quiet, I would go back in to check on him. Sure enough, he needed a diaper change. Once we took care of that, he'd cry for like two minutes and be asleep before his head hit the mattress.

Children two and three were much, much different. Crying it out worked in no way, shape or form, and the only time I've ever used it with Child 3 was when I was at my wit's end, ready to drop from exhaustion. On that occasion, I'll admit I had to just turn up the fan and close the door, or else I was going to do worse damage if I tried to soothe him back to sleep. At some point, if you are reaching your breaking point, crying it out is better than doing physical harm to a child, and you should just put the baby down and walk away until you can get it together.

With Child number three, I've discovered what he usually wants when he's tired: more mommy time! Tater Tot just turned two, and has been nursed the longest of all three kids. Sometimes all he wants is five more minutes on the boob or to sit with me and rock. Putting it into perspective helps, for me: I'm tired, yes, but I can't get this time back once it's over. And some day when they're packing for college, I'm going to miss it.

I look at some of these hyper-evangelical Christians who think up their own parenting "techniques" and wonder about them. Some of them might be speaking from experience - I like psychologist James Dobson, for instance, who does have a degree and medical training to give him some credibility in the field. Does that mean I've followed everything he's ever done to the letter? Nope. Not even close. But he sounds like a reasonable guy, and he does not advocate spanking as the be-all-end-all solution to every discipline problem. Another Christian psychologist I like is father-of-five Dr. Kevin Lehman, who is equally level-headed and yet humorous at the same time. I get the feeling he ran his house with equal parts love and discipline (which does not automatically translate into spanking), not the heavy-handed "iron fist" that it seems Ezzo and his counterparts did.

I also raise eyebrows at people who don't have a family big enough to draw much experience from, or at least have one boy in the mix. Until you've had boys, you often (although not always) have not "lived" in terms of parenting and its tempests. I say this mostly tongue-in-cheek, of course, but most of us can agree that girls and boys are VERY different, and each bring their own sets of triumphs and challenges to the table.

Just this weekend I was chatting with a mom of six (five hers, one a stepchild) about discipline and how the stepdaughter is getting in "trouble" a lot at school. Stepmom is worried that something isn't right with her, and questions whether it could be dietary, vaccinations (she's the only one of the kids who is) or something else.

While all of Stepmom's concerns are probably legitimate, I made a mental list of what could be going on in this girl's life.

• her mother died when she was a preschooler, and no doubt she is still processing grief - or will, at some point - in her own way.
• Dad recently re-married, uprooting the family, giving her an automatic four siblings
• Dad rules the house with the typical "Ezzo-style iron fist" and uses a plastic spoon, on the kids, in the middle of church (which, I might add, many - MANY - of our congregation find deplorable)
• Stepmom just had a new baby, which not only adds another sibling, but a cute baby one who demands - and gets - a lot of individual attention
• And the biggest one of all: she's her own person, an individual who is not like the others because she isn't them. 

I asked Stepmom, "How much of this is just who she is? What part of this is just personality traits?" In other words, a nice way of saying, "Have you seen her dad lately? Because he's the same.freakin'. way." So much so, to the point where there are congregation members who are glad this family has moved away and no longer regularly attend our church.

She gets "demerits" in school for things like talking out of turn, running in the halls, etc. etc. Of course, she goes to a "strict" Christian school, and I sort of cringed inside. I picture overzealous discipline to the point of doing it just because it's the thing to do, not because there's any individual attention paid to her or her problem, whatever it might be. I am also curious how this child, probably the most structured of the lot, could suddenly be called out when it's clear that the other children, who were all homeschooled prior to this, have their own set of troubling issues. (Let's just say not everyone is entirely capable of home schooling their kids.)

Stepmom, and other Christians, often use the phrase "breaking the child's will," which is a phrase I have grown to hate. I usually retort, "I know a lot of adults who need to have their will broken, too." I told Stepmom as much, how I thought that could easily segue into heavy-handed disciplinarian measures that produced little more than a robot - or worse, a kid who rebelled and didn't want anything to do with God. (Hello, can anyone say "Baby Boomer generation?")

I remember when Dad got out the plastic spoon to swat his stepson for whatever inane reason, like he couldn't sit through the sermon without squirming. Kid would cry, and somehow manage to keep a stiff upper lip that prevented him from bursting into all-out sobs in the middle of service. I felt so sorry for those kids, and wanted to individually lead them out of church somewhere else, all by myself. Ironically, I think back to what Stepmom told me yesterday - that at some point, she was so overwhelmed with other duties, other children and an impending divorce from her first husband - that her discipline with her not-even four-year-old son was lax. And now, guess who gets the brunt of it - all because mom dropped her end of the ball. The spatula (or whatever particular utensil is on hand that Sunday) is the instrument of choice in taking out on the child what is essentially the parent's fault.

At one point, I swore if I saw him use that spoon again, I'd rip it out of his hands and smack him on the back of the head with it. My husband practically had to hold me back from doing something rash, right there in the middle of church.

I nearly choked when at one point Stepmom told me, "Look at the Pearls' children. They're all successful, they've never rebelled." "Yeah," I said, "and they're all Type A personalities." Measures of success and rebellion are subjective - the outside appearance of success and good behavior are one thing, but what's going on inside a person - or behind closed doors - is another matter entirely.

Sure, Gary Ezzo's daughters (all two of them) claim they were well-adjusted people who never had any problems with their dad's methods of discipline. While I haven't been following the cases of abuse coming out of the Pearls' discipline methods, I'm sure the children who died as a result of their parents' philosophy would disagree.

But this is where I have another problem: the people who follow this advice, to the letter, are just as bad. Anyone that would advocate you hurt your own child, even if it goes against your innermost feelings, is putting all their faith and trust in one person - a man. I don't know if non-Christians follow this stuff, but for those who are Christians that do, they are essentially worshipping the man, Gary Ezzo or whoever, instead of putting that trust and faith in God himself. Who has more power? God or Gary Ezzo? In that case, I'd have to question their faith in the first place.

When a nurse blatantly tells you you must stop the strict feeding schedule that these people suggest, or else your baby could suffer malnutrition and become very sick or even die, and you refuse, "because that's not what the book says!" you, as Christian, are putting all your faith and trust in the wrong book. Pick up your Bible, because the second half of "Children, obey your parents" and "Honor thy father and mother" is "And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath."


Dana @ WhatWereWeThinking? said...

This is such a well-written post. Thank you for doing this. I really, seriously have problems with following any of these "baby trainers." You don't train your children; you raise them. I spend enough time training my dogs, thank you very much.

I was spanked and I don't consider myself abused in any way. My mom is not proud that she spanked us - she cried worse than we did. It broke her heart when she felt she had no other choice but to hit her children. I hope that through my experiences as a nanny & now a mom, I have gained a few more tools in my bag when it comes to discipline.

I do know, above anything else, I will not do something to my child that goes against my instincts. What happened to instinctual parenting? Why do we have to have a book or manual written by self-acclaimed "experts" telling us how to raise our children? I have parenting books to use as a resource when I am stumped, not as a guideline for how to raise my child properly.

Diana J. said...

Very good article, great points. We use spanking as an occasional (and very effective) method, but it is not the be-all-end-all, nor should it be used for everything, nor is Gary Ezzo the god that his followers make him out to be. Additionally, Gary Ezzo has been officially excommunicated from two separate churches (according to what I read) for serious character issues.... that pretty much disqualifies him, in my eyes, from giving much advice to Christian parents! And the whole infant-training thing is completely out of control.

Love your points.

Momma on a Mission said...

Love. It. Thank you so much for a balanced approach to this issue.

Kendra said...

Thank you for this post I hope many who need this message read it internalize and have a prayerful change of heart.

Anonymous said...

There is a Catholic parenting expert by the name of Dr Ray Guarendi who you might like. A psychologist father of 10. He's a common sense kind of guy.

I can't wrap my mind around many of these parenting "techniques" especially of babies. I've seen advertising for 'baby whips'. The fact that anyone thinks it is OK or necessary to strike an infant just makes me ill. I've managed to raise a whole bunch of kids through babyhood. I picked all of them up when they cried, I nursed them all, I didn't blanket train them etc.... I've got three teens who are all really good kids, leaders in the community and far from rebellious. I've got a 12,10 and 7 year olds who are also really good kids, the kind of kids strangers compliment you on. I didn't need to neglect nor hit them as infants and toddlers to form them this way.

Anonymous said...

It's hard when people around you have different parenting views! Once, when my dd was around 2, she was running away and protesting when it was time to put her coat on to leave. My pastor raised his eyebrows and said, "You're going to have to get control of her quick, or she's gonna....(can't remember how the phrase ended)." I just kinda smiled and tried to change the subject and he insisted, "You better get her under control..." I wanted to answer, "WHAT! You want me to just haul off and beat the child? That'll do the trick, eh?!!" Another time when my oldest was 2, my dh was complaining to the pastor that our ds was being very picky and refusing to eat meals. Pastor asked us, "Well, do you spank?" So what did dh and I stupidly do when we got home and it was time to feed the kid dinner? When he refused a bite, we smacked his hand, each and every time!!!! I cringe and am deeply ashamed that I went along with that! :( We do not parent that way anymore. We were ignorant to 2 year-olds' normal behaviour at that point. Stupid and should have known better!
I enjoy Tim Kimmel's grace-based parenting. He doesn't outlaw physical punishment entirely, but in creating an atmosphere of grace in the home and the hearts of the parents, rather than perfection and obedience, the need for such measures is greatly reduced or eliminated.

The Deranged Housewife said...

Let me just say that the Dad I talked about in this post is a pastor's son. :?