Is your grandchild one of a new generation of seemingly discipline-proof kids? You know the kind I'm talking about: You tell them to go to the "naughty mat" and they yell, "No!" You try to carry them to the mat and they kick, scream, and even smack you in the face. You threaten to take away a privilege or confiscate their beloved Webkinz, and they say, "Go ahead," as if they couldn't care less.
What exactly are we supposed to with these kids once we've already tried screaming, threatening, and bribing, not to mention imposing time-outs and taking away privileges? Have we lost all control? Have modern kids built up a resistance to our old discipline tactics?
Brats or Revolutionaries?
Most of us never would have treated our parents the way some kids today treat theirs. It's shocking! But to me, it's an exciting sign of an important change in the times. As a therapist, I work with families every day and I love the seemingly rebellious demon child that appears to be wreaking havoc. You see, I think we are in the midst of a very important social revolution, and the battlefield is our nation's playgrounds and living rooms. Yes, Ma, it's an uprising!
Today's children will not take their place on the naughty mat. They are revolting against parental control and the methods of discipline that have for so long been part of our family tradition.
Just as Susan B. Anthony led the movement for women's suffrage, your grandkids are taking up the charge for the children's movement. They aren't bad kids; really, they're not. Just try to think of them as your defiant little civil-rights leaders. Because, believe me, they are fighting for positive social change.
Out With the Old
Let me explain: Our heritage is to parent in a way that creates obedient children. It is autocratic in style — parents hold all the power, and children are expected to obey the rules imposed on them from above. Rewards and punishment are used to manipulate behavior and keep kids in line, just as husbands once kept control of their wives. These fear-based discipline tactics are demeaning and oppressive, creating a tyrant-and-subject relationship in a setting that is supposed to be a place of love and acceptance for children.
History has taught us that human beings will not tolerate being oppressed for long. Eventually there will be an attempt to overthrow the ruling party. And today's children have won! In many families, they are now the tyrants:
"I'm not eating that! Make me macaroni-and-cheese!"
"I'm not doing it unless you pay me"
"You can't make me!"
How can parents respond to these demands from the newly-empowered children's class?
A New Way to Work With Discipline-Proof Kids
The old-school, autocratic-style response would be: "That's rude!" "Don't back talk!" "You just got your birthday cancelled, mister!" If your grandkids' parents embrace this tradition, they'll probably employ a "whack-a-mole" approach and use brute (though nonphysical) strength to reestablish domination.
The new-school, permissive-style response so often mocked by grandparents, might be: "Okay, that's fine — but, you know, that's really not a very nice way to talk." Parents who embrace this style worry (too much) about appearing too harsh. They avoid conflict, or are just unsure of how to discipline. They treat their children respectfully, even when their kids treat them disrespectfully. These parents allow children to dominate them, which benefits no one in the end.
So it goes, back and forth, parent and child fighting over who is the puppet and who is the puppet master.
But there is another way! There is a third option called democratic or authoritative parenting. In this model, everything changes because moms and dads, grandmas, and grandpas discipline with a different goal: Instead of trying to raise obedient children by any means necessary, modern-day reality demands that parents raise cooperative children, kids who acts civilly, not because they are afraid of being punished, and not because they are motivated by the thought of earning a sticker, but because they have been raised to recognize the inherent value of helping out.
Raising a co-operative child using non-punitive measures is often confused with permissive parenting. But it is not the same. Democratic parents are pioneers, breaking free of their heritage of belittling kids in the guise of establishing discipline — and they're deserving of your support. They are learning, on the job, new ways to enforce the limits and boundaries all children need, but without demeaning kids or abusing their parental authority.
The methods exist. They're not easy to establish, but if your grandkids' parents are on this path, it may look like weakness, it may look like an impossible task, but it isn't. With your help, they can guide their children rather than controlling them. And once kids and parents are working together, anything is possible.
Alyson Schafer, M.A. Counseling, is a psychotherapist and one of Canada's leading parenting experts. She is also the author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work (Wiley), from which this article is adapted.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.