Kids, this is your mother speaking about raising you -- and it's no joke

February 04, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

I AM ENGAGED in an exhaustive, and exhausting, debate on the best way to raise children, but unfortunately it is not with fTC Penelope Leach, my husband or even my mother.

It is with my children.

I am not sure exactly when this happened, and indeed it might have been just a slow loosening of my grip on the reins of power, but my children have come to believe that they should be equal partners in the business of bringing them up.

And for a while I have indulged them. For the sake of those precious lines of communication we keep hearing about, for the sake of their self-esteem, I have listened to their complaints and criticism and their cries of unfairness.

During each argument, I have carefully restated their concerns in a nonjudgmental way to let them know that I have heard them and that I accept them for who they are.

(As an aside, I should say that this approach, called "active listening" in Parent Effectiveness Training, did not work well. After about three minutes of my repeating everything he said, my son exploded in frustration. "Is there an echo in here, or are you just deaf?")

As part of this child-rearing debate with my children, I have been unfavorably compared to every other mother on the planet -- and to their father, who brings candy home from his office and presents home from business trips -- but I have been patient.

No more.

I have had it.

When my son said, "Even Bill Clinton says children should be able to divorce their parents," something like a grenade went off inside my head, and I have been barking at my children like an angry dog since.

When my 11-year-old son demanded, yet again, to be allowed to rent violent video games and R-rated movies like absolutely everyone else he knows, I dispensed with my usual speech -- the one about his being a beautiful flower and my need to protect him from an early frost.

Instead, I said: "Forget it. This is not a discussion. There is no debate. I don't want to hear your side of this, because I don't care what you think.

"These are the facts: I'm the one with the driver's license and the video card. And until you have your own apartment with your own television, you're trapped inside my value system.

"End of discussion."

When both children whined -- yet again -- that they did not want to go to Sunday school, that it is boring and their lives are already too busy and why couldn't they watch cartoons on Sunday morning, I dispensed with my usual speech about how an hour of their time is not too much for God to ask considering all that he has done for them, especially in the worldly possessions category.

Instead, I said: "Forget it. You skip school, they only keep you back a year. You skip Sunday school, you go to Hell. Now get your books and get in the car."

When the bickering between them reached a crescendo and I heard a sharp slap followed by the wailing of my 9-year-old daughter, I dispensed with my usual speeches. The one to my daughter about how when her father and I are gone, she and her brother will have only each other and she needs to find a way to be friends with him. And the one to my son about how if he continues to bully his sister, she will grow up to expect such abuse from a man and marry badly.

Instead, I told my daughter to stop being the "Wimp of the Western World" and to bite her brother if she could think of no other way to drive him away.

My son howled at the unfairness of my suggestion, said it was child abuse and threatened to call 911. (Have you noticed? Children are always threatening to call 911.)

"Go ahead," I said smugly. "What do you think will happen? Do you think they will take me away in cuffs? That's not the way it works, pal. They remove the child from the dangerous domestic environment.

"That means you'll be hauled off to a foster home, where you will sleep in a room with nine other boys, eight of whom wet the bed.

"And me? I'll be at the movies."

As you can see, the waters have crested in my house. I am done listening to the demands of children on how they would like to be raised. This child-rearing by committee is not working, especially when two members of the committee are children.

I keep my own counsel now, and my children are baffled by the new me. You can imagine their surprise when, after they suggested that they would live in their own rooms after college so they could save money to buy cars and go to the mall, I did not respond with a group hug.

"Oh, didn't I tell you? Your father and I are selling the house as soon as you two leave for college. We are going to buy a one-bedroom condo, and we won't even have a sleep sofa."

"You're just kidding, right, Mom?" Joe asked anxiously. "This is all just a joke, right?"

I answered with a smile, and it was inscrutable.

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