Friday, April 27, 2007

Parenting with Sarcasm

Photo: Melting snowman in Jackie's yard

Warning: Thinks-she-knows-it-all parenting advice is forthcoming. You are not required to agree. Try some on, keep what fits. Share insights of your own. Truth is, by the time we get around to having a live conversation about this topic, my thoughts on the matter (and probably yours!) will have evolved further and I'll be in yet another 'new place.' (Oh, I do so enjoy the ride!)


Recently, I was trying to put a finger on just what it is about my friends that I like so much. (Because, you see, my friends rock.) Obviously, there are the usual reasons - we have a lot in common, we feel comfortable talking about the heavy stuff, we can show our whole and true selves, we share similar hopes and dreams and ideals. But what really stands out for me, what I find most inspiring, satisfying, and beautiful is that they like their kids. I mean, really like them - as in they show the same respect and enjoyment of who they are as interesting people as they show their friends.

It's a sad thing that this seems surprising, unusual. It's how it should be. And I won't argue that the vast majority of parents don't love their children, it's how that love is expressed, how the parent-child relationship is played out where things get a little murky. I realized long ago that I'm no authoritarian, and my style is probably best defined as diplomacy. (Loving diplomacy, lest it sound high-handed in itself.) But even though I lean in this direction out of pure intuition and comfort, I have been witness to countless interactions between my friends and their children that astound me in their pureness and beauty and cause me to take stock over and over in how I treat my own children, not to mention how I treat my husband, and others in general. The age-old argument that if you give kids an inch they'll take a mile has been summarily disproven again and again, over years and years, by this handful of people whose lives are a constant testament to how things can be done differently - and I've been lucky enough to learn from them. They give their kids miles (and miles and miles) and what they get in return are kids with very strong legs.

I often wonder how to put it into words.... what is different about their relationships? For starters, there is a deep, authentic joy that is present. While we all tend to puff up a little at our kids' accomplishments - which means we are taking a bit of ownership in what they're doing - the joy my friends express seems to be unattached, in that their joy is shown with and for their kids and what they're up to, not because of what they've accomplished. They don't own who their kids are any more than they own who I am. Hmmm, I'm not being clear.

The key, I think, is authenticity. They don't work to try to be authentic - they are authentic. They don't ponder each moment wondering what is the best way to handle it - their every move is grounded in strong principle and is natural and free-flowing. I've rarely seen it in action, much less as an automatic, a given, and it's really a thing of beauty.

Sadly, most examples are far less illustrious. One particularly upsetting trend, one which seems to be growing, oddly enough, is parenting with sarcasm. I surmise the premise is to shame the child into different behavior. We know we don't like to be shamed, the argument goes - so if we shame our children, they will be humiliated into making a different and presumably better choice next time (though by whose standards, I'd ask). But I also wager this isn't done consciously so much as it is borne of the parent's own insecurity. Because they feel their child's every move reflects on them, they worry - dread, even - that someone might not think well of their children, or be bothered by their behavior, or, fear of all fears, look down upon them as parents.

I see it all the time, and it's ugly. I've been guilty of it myself, and it feels bad. I think it's one of the most insulting, degrading, and offensive methods of behavioral control. And for some reason, it has taken the place of stern discipline, where the parent directs and the child is meant to obey. (Who knew I'd come to miss authoritarian parenting! I don't, though I'll take the clear lesser of two evils in this case.)

As I said, I've been guilty of it myself. Who hasn't been mortified at her child's behavior in public on occasion? But it's how we handle it that separates the evolving from the it's-not-working-yet-I-do-it-anyway folks. It helps to consider your own reactions to others' children. When I see a mother struggling with her child in the supermarket, unless she is whacking him or being extremely awful, I feel empathy or a "been there" chuckle. Sometimes I offer help, or I smile so they know I'm not there lording it over them. So why do we flake out when it's our child and others are watching? If nothing else it's an opportunity to set an example in grace under pressure. And really, if your child is doing something so incredibly awful that you can't handle it gracefully, your problem didn't start just that minute but has been building for a while, and a larger examination of your relationship is probably called for. (I know, because I've been there. Sometimes I'm still there. I might be there tomorrow.)

A few years ago, there was a week where Brady was being especially harsh toward Jonathan. Normally he's a very patient big brother, and he has been known to treat Jonathan very respectfully. But that week something was building. I wasn't as on top of things in those days, so after a week of building anger and a particularly scathing insult toward Jonathan, I went to Brady's room to have a one-on-one. Attempts at scolding him hadn't worked thus far - I knew I needed to hear him. When he finally broke, what he told me was this - "He embarrasses me." I could clearly see it pained him to admit that - he was very ashamed of saying it out loud.

Brady is my Libra child, concerned with outward appearances, conservative in his public face (though fiercely liberal when comfortable); a diplomat, who errs on the side of caution under most circumstances. Jonathan, however, is spontaneous, loud, and doesn't have it in him to consider ahead of time what others will think of him and a particular behavior - he simply doesn't have that kind of radar. He lives in the moment. So you can see how these two personalities can make for a bit of a mess at times.

What I was able to tell Brady is that Jonathan's behavior doesn't reflect on him. If Jonathan does something that others frown upon, they don't blame Brady or look to him to fix it. (They might blame me, and that's ok.) And that's how it is with our kids in the grocery store. If we have a relationship of trust and really listening and really celebrating the joys, big or small, of our children, they'll have less reason to act out. And if they act out, something's wrong, and shaming and sarcasm probably aren't the answer.

Call it permissive parenting, roll your eyes that I give my kids too much leeway, I don't really care. I value their opinions about things, I give them say in their lives, they can tell me 'no' or disagree with me and we can have great discussions about why we feel the ways we feel - and for us, it works. Compared to some kids, my kids seem the perfect angels. Compared to others, they seem insubordinate and too opinionated. I don't measure it in those ways. I see each interaction, each day, each experience as an opportunity to make the best and most respectful choices possible. Sometimes the road to that place is a little muddy, but we understand each other better in the end.

Some of the unschooling gurus I glean advice from recommended a book called Parent-Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship Approach by Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster. It is an amazing book, and Rob and I keep it at the ready (read: in the bathroom - LOL) for easy reference. I highly recommend it for any parents, not just parents of teens (when it's sometimes too late to completely reverse years of relationship damage, though that shouldn't stop anyone from dropping everything and trying with everything they've got).

And on that note, what books have changed your life? I'd love to hear all about it because I just love a life-altering paradigm shift! So please share - if not here, at

So, hug those kids of yours (or spouse, or friend, or parent, or whomever) and take a deep breath and remind yourself that it's the relationship that counts and how you get there IS important. And since you've humored my know-it-all exposition, I thank you, and I welcome your thoughts on this or any other matter!

Be well. Be happy.



Ren said...

Great post!
I love my friend Rue's book "Parenting a Free Child" full of the love and respect of which you speak.

Laura said...

Thanks! I heard of Rue's book at the only Live and Learn conference I've attended, but haven't read it yet. It's gotten such rave reviews that I know it's one I need to read!