Getting in touch with your inner parent.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
May 30 2003 10:33 AM

Oh, Behave!

Getting in touch with your inner parent.

Ann Hulbert has just published a history of child-rearing expertise, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. Curious to find out whether she has learned anything practical from her explorations, some of Slate's staff turned to Sandbox with their questions about down-to-earth dilemmas facing up-to-date parents.

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Dear Sandbox,
What's the bottom line on childproofing? When my now 1-year-old started crawling, I bought all those kitchen cabinet and toilet locks and that ugly gray rubber stuff that you're supposed to line every sharp edge with. But then I took the locks off because I could never figure out how to open them, and he pulled the gray stuff off, thinking that it existed to be waved around. Now he moves through an unprotected world, and with my careful attention, he seems to be getting a basic sense of what he can fiddle with safely and what he needs to avoid—though, of course, I have to run after him all the time to make sure he doesn't slip up. My husband thinks it's great that we're defying the childproofing Nazis. I wonder: Is exposing my child to the dangers of life a way to instill in him a more acute awareness of the real world, or am I just rationalizing my failure as a mother and making more work for myself?

—Panting in Pelham

Dear Panting in Pelham,
Eighty years ago, the behaviorist John B. Watson emerged as America's childproofing pioneer and proposed erecting an electric fence around untouchable household objects. The current padded-cell approach, Sandbox agrees, marks a dubious advance—all that rubber stuff incites babies to wanton destruction, and those locks drive parents nuts. But what would we do without unwieldy expert cures that help us see that our child-rearing ills are perhaps not so dire after all?

You might as well face it: Whether or not you adorn your house with the latest protective paraphernalia, your toddler is going to discover the world's dangers (and allures) and run you ragged in the process. He'll head for the electrical outlets, and you'll charge after him—even if the little socket covers are on, and even if he isn't waving a fork (which Sandbox trusts you keep out of reach). Of course he isn't going to get fried, but you've still got to convey the don't-mess-with-that message.

Dr. Spock has the bottom line on the best way to do that. "Don't say 'No' in a challenging voice from across the room," the doctor advises. "This gives him a choice. He says to himself, 'Shall I be a mouse and do as she says, or shall I be a man and grab the lamp cord?' " Instead, whisk him away from mischief with some matter-of-fact "No"s.

In short, don't be a mouse or unduly fierce; be in touch with your inner boss—and be aware that when your son gets bruised or worse (or rips up your books), you'll find some way to blame yourself (and your husband), no matter how much childproofing you did or didn't do.

—Sandbox

Dear Sandbox,
I've been trying to get my 2-and-a-half-year-old son to brush his own teeth before going to bed. My wife prefers to do the brushing for him, and she tends to put the question to him in a way that encourages him to have
her do it rather than do it himself. My argument is that he doesn't like people poking around in his space and that it's better for kids to learn to do things for themselves when possible. My wife's argument is that he's too young to brush competently and needs help. What's your view?

—Dental Debater

Dear Dental Debater,
Sandbox's view is that you should leave this kind of arguing to the child-rearing experts, who love to turn daily routines into large-scale debates about autonomy and dependency—and who for a century have set inordinate store by parental consistency (while showing little of it themselves). Let your wife do it her way. She's clearly a pro at the latest communication techniques, offering choices (should mommy brush, or does he want to try?) rather than issuing commands. Count yourself lucky your son isn't howling at the sink but welcomes her help. And keep doing it your way when it's your turn for tooth-brushing duty: Together you and he can enjoy feeling you're not mama's boys. He'll just be poking around in his mouth, not properly cleaning, but given fluoride (and his mothers' efforts), Sandbox thinks an honest dentist would join her in telling you (and your wife) not to worry.

—Sandbox

Dear Sandbox,
How do you raise a confident kid without producing a monster? The tryouts for
American Idol—where the young adult contestants argued with the judges, boasted about having their name in lights after they were just awful (sang off-key, forgot words, etc.)—left me wondering how all these kids get such a strong sense of self and whether it's too much: They seem almost oblivious to reality. Is it a result of hyper-parenting—endless assurances to kids that they're the be-all and end-all? Is it an advantage?

—Idol Wonderer

Dear Idol Wonderer,
The syndrome you discuss invites a label: Attention Surplus Hyperactivity Disorder. And while we're at it, why not diagnose it as the peculiar malady of a media-saturated, celebrity-besotted (and pharmaceutically extroverted) era. Ubiquitous video cameras, closets full of athletic "trophies," bleachers packed with cheering parents, "star of the week" charts, and "proud to be me" exercises at school: Kids these days spend no end of time in the spotlight. We may stress that they're learning the confidence and poise required in our interactive world (as they no doubt are). But we also shouldn't be surprised when children—the most imitative animals on earth—perform just like the hyper-self-conscious and exhibitionistic pros they've watched during hours of screen time ever since they could sit up.

And we shouldn't expect some easy remedy. Long before media overload, in a 1903 article called "Showing Off and Bashfulness as Phases of Self-Consciousness," America's great-grandfather expert, the psychologist and promoter of "child study" G. Stanley Hall, expressed concern about showoffs in particular. The "poser and attitudinizer [whose] individuality remains undeveloped" might become all too common in the sophisticated, complicated modern world, he feared. But he had no ready cures—except to urge parents to become more self-conscious about children's developing self-consciousness, which of course meant paying them ever more attention.

We see where that's gotten us. Even the head of the National Association for Self-Esteem in Normal, Ill., worried recently that if "your self-worth is built on a false reality … it's not healthy." Dr. Hall was right, "ensuring the development of a normal, sure self-respect free from too great self-depreciation on the one hand and any excess of self-assertion on the other is one of the most difficult" challenges. Sandbox endorses what looks like the new trend: an old-fashioned emphasis on encouraging a kid's hard work, rather than her every move and inner "me."

—Sandbox

Dear Sandbox,
My shy 2-and-a-half-year-old much prefers playing at home with my wife and me, her nanny, and her grandparents to going to nursery school and being with other kids (especially boisterous ones). All the books I have been reading suggest this kind of reserve is hard-wired and that she is likely to grow up into a shy child and adult. My question is: Should we make her go to nursery school, even though we know it makes her uncomfortable, on the grounds that she must eventually learn how to engage with the world? Or should we allow her to happily play alone or with the few adults she trusts?

—Wary in Washington

Dear Wary in Washington,
Give her a dose of Inderal, and pack her off to nursery school. Just kidding: Relax, and let her keep puttering in a corner of the classroom, away from the rowdy kids. Presumably she's more or less acclimated. (If she were traumatized, Sandbox trusts you'd have removed her long since.) And why not allow her, of all children, a very gradual warm-up to kindergarten?

The current fuss about school readiness dates back to the interwar expert Dr. Arnold Gesell, who coined the term "preschooler" ("run-about" was the phrase in the rural old days) and bequeathed us a mixed message. He helped popularize the importance of the "guidance nursery" tailored to children's stage-by-stage growth, beginning as early as possible; he also worried that many kids were sent on to "real" school too soon and introduced the Gesell School Readiness Test for prospective kindergarteners. On balance, the solicitous developmental ethos has served kids well—even, or especially, those who used to be called the "clinging-vine variety." Plenty of parents, though, seem to have been turned into nervous wrecks in the process.

During her few hours a week of school, your shy flower is probably under the protective eye of teachers primed by Gesell (and many others since) to appreciate the "considerable variation not only from child to child but also within a single child from day to day." The problem is that the same Gesellian emphasis on formative early milestones in maturation leads parents (and testers) to forget just that flux and flexibility. You see in the seed of your flower her ultimate fate. But vines grow unpredictably up and around what's in their path. Though your daughter probably won't end up on American Idol, she'll surprise you—who knows, maybe she'll be a readier mingler by the fall, and then you'll kick yourself for giving up her spot.

—Sandbox

Dear Sandbox,
I have a sibling rivalry question. My two kids, especially my younger daughter, are constantly saying, "That's not fair." I've tried explaining that "it is too" fair. I've tried saying that the little unfairnesses of life even out and that she'll soon get something her big brother doesn't get. I've tried a parody version: "That's not fair—you put soap in your brother's eye but not in mine." That one at least gets a laugh. I've tried saying (a la Jimmy Carter), "Life is unfair." That just makes me look like a jerk (just as it made Carter look like a jerk).

I know I can't eliminate the primal emotions of sibling rivalry. But I'd like to hear about it less. How can I turn my complaining daughter into King Lear's sweet Cordelia?

—Weary Lear

Dear Weary Lear,
To judge by your litany of responses, you've somehow managed to miss the bible on sibling bickering, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's Siblings Without Rivalry, which came out in 1987 (a successor to their How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk). Their trademark empathetic response? "I know, it's hard when your brother gets something and you don't, isn't it?" The core of their strategy is to acknowledge, rather than deny, your kids' jealous feelings—and then work at showing that you give "uniquely, in terms of each child's legitimate needs," rather than "equally with measured amounts."

I know, the "I feel your pain" gambit sounds gimmicky and/or fine in theory but sure to fall flat in practice. (It also has a Clintonian ring, Sandbox realizes.) But try some version of it. Your empathy won't sound phony (you're probably still nursing sibling resentments of your own, right?), and some parental attention to their feelings is what kids are after in the first place—and what you feel guilty for seeming to fail to provide; they'll appreciate it, and so will you. How you proceed from there gets trickier, of course, and depends on what's "not fair" at the moment—but please, King Lear is no role model at all! On the contrary, he's the cautionary example: the dad who set sisters at odds with each other—and with him—precisely by demanding that love be measured and duly rewarded.

—Sandbox 

Dear Sandbox,
My 5-year-old daughter is headstrong. I say, "OK, sweetie, time for bed." She says, "No." I say, "I'll lie down with you for a while, and we can talk." She says, "No." Half an hour later, after all the pleading and commanding, she's still saying "No" or creeping out of her room. I drag her kicking and screaming to her room and close the door; she fights to come out. I recently put a lock on the door for "timeouts," but I'm reluctant to use it at bedtime: That seems Dickensian. And anyway, if she has bedtime issues, I want to work on them with her. I'm not going to lock her in a dark room. Then again, at 10:30 p.m., when my wife and I haven't had a moment to ourselves all day ... without force, I just don't know what we're supposed to do with a determinedly defiant child. I say, "No ice cream tomorrow," but that's tomorrow.

—Mad in Manhattan

Dear Mad in Manhattan,
You've raised the two parenting topics—"bedtime issues" and discipline—that frenetic working mothers and fathers consider hottest these days (perhaps unaware that experts and parents have worried throughout the century about whether or not to rock the baby and whether or not to spare the rod).

Sandbox will start by echoing with Dr. Spock's familiar refrain: "When in doubt, consult your own doctor" or a professional who might be able to tell you whether your daughter is suffering from nighttime fears that go beyond a standard discipline problem. But Sandbox won't stop with that rather waffly response. She'll go ahead and do what she proposes you might try: Dip into the tough-talking "parent-centered" expertise that for decades has provided a complement to the "child-centered" perspective that you (and Sandbox) naturally gravitate to.

Ask yourself the counterintuitive questions that the brusque Bruno Bettelheim posed to parents he judged permissive. Does your naysaying daughter perhaps need a firmer sense of her own autonomy? And might more clear-cut authority from you, rather than simply more empathy, help her achieve it?

Then, to help you wield authority, try turning to one of the "disciples of discipline," as the current conservative brand of popular parenting gurus have been called. The in-your-face tone of John Rosemond's attack on parental wussiness may well grate—Because I Said So! is the title of one of his very successful books. But you don't need to become a by-the-book convert to learn something from the spirit of a Rosemondian remedy. (As Dr. Spock said, "Don't be overawed by the experts.") 

For a crisis like yours, he'd recommend something along these lines: Sit your daughter down and stun her with a new bedtime rule: Tell her that if she isn't lying in bed quietly, alone, by 8:30 p.m., she'll have no television, no computer time, and no ice cream for two weeks, and you'll add on a day for every night she disobeys. (The fine print is, of course, yours to determine—what hour, which privileges, how long, etc.—but the point is to be decisive and draconian.) Say you'll give her a night to show you that such an unfun arrangement won't be necessary. (Rosemond would probably skip this nicety and perhaps endorse a tactic you've ruled out: an I-mean-business, attention-getting swat.) When she says "No" and is still making scenes at 8:35 p.m., be as good as your word—which Sandbox guarantees you'll discover is very hard. But whenever you're tempted to give in, tell her—and yourself—"Sorry, I can't break the rule." Yes, you'll be an ogre, but also a good role model.

When you're at your wits' end, Sandbox thinks it may help—or at any rate, can't hurt—to think outside of your usual box.

—Sandbox