Can you shame a child into gratitude? Can you disrespect him into showing respect?
The frenzy surrounding Jaime Primak Sullivan’s Facebook post about ice cream cones would suggest that you can.
She opens with the pronouncement that she is “the meanest mom ever…like…ever.” These words can only mean one of two things in today’s culture of parenting and social media: (1) she is about to make fun of her child(ren) for melting down over something she perceives to be inconsequential like being offered graham crackers instead of goldfish (as a toddler mom, I see a LOT of these in my newsfeed) or (2) that, as soon as she makes it to the top of her pedestal, she is going to tell us what a first rate mom she is because of her tough love parenting.
This was the latter.
If you haven’t read the post, she talks about taking her three children (ages eight, seven, and five) to Dairy Queen and throwing away their ice cream when they didn’t thank her or the employee who served them.
High fives from the whole internet! That’ll teach ’em to say, “Thank you!”
But will it teach them to be thankful?
You can bully, coerce, or threaten a child into parroting manners, but not into gratitude. This is the same mindset that would have us spank a child for hitting. Sure, it might stop him from hitting in the future, but not because he understands that hitting is wrong. He won’t hit because he’s afraid of being hit.
I don’t want to raise children whose decisions are motivated by fear. I want to raise children whose treatment of others is rooted in love, respect, and compassion. And I think that’s what Ms. Primak wants as well. She talks to her children, in the story she recalls, about really seeing others. She wants them to care. She wants them to say, “Thank you,” and say it sincerely. She wants the same loving, respectful, compassionate kids that I do, but she has been sold a lie that you can cultivate those qualities in your children without, first, embodying them in your parenting.
I, however, do not buy it.
The way I see it, if I want my children to treat others with respect, it’s my job to show them how. They need to see me treat the people we encounter with kindness and dignity and they need me to treat them that way too.
A friend and mentor recently told me that I shouldn’t say, “Thank you,” to my children for anything I expect them to do. This is someone whose advice and insight I value deeply, and generally accept without question. But the more I thought about how much I was messing up by thanking my kids for things like cleaning up their play area, the more I realized that I don’t want to stop saying those thank yous. So what if I expect them to do it? I expect the barista at Starbucks to make the drink I ordered, but I still say, “Thank you.” When I’m washing dishes and Caleb brings me the pans from the stove, he’s just doing his part, but I still say, “Thank you,” for the same reason I like hearing it from him after I’ve made dinner: it feels good to have your contribution acknowledged.
I treat my children the way I would like to be treated because it’s not my job to shame my children into being gracious. It’s my job to be gracious.
When I was growing up, I occasionally went to work with my dad. He was a big shot attorney and worked in a high rise downtown. While I drank Tab and made crafts from paperclips, whiteout, and highlighters that I “borrowed” from the supply room, I saw him stop what he was doing to thank the janitor by name for emptying the trash and take the time to ask the mailroom employee about her kids when she made her rounds. I’m pretty sure my Dad knew the name of everyone in the building. My parents didn’t have to punish, coerce, or shame me into using manners because, when I saw how the energy of the whole floor changed when my Dad walked down the hall, I knew I wanted to treat people the way he did.
It’s hard, trusting yourself. Trusting your children. Modeling the behavior you want your kids to exhibit and crossing your fingers it will eventually stick. Wondering if being kind yourself is enough to teach your children to be kind. But I have to believe it is.
And, yes, I am occasionally the “mean mom” when it means telling my two year old that I won’t let him go to church wearing only his diaper, that I need him to put the cookies back on the shelf in the supermarket, or that I won’t let him play unsupervised with gardening shears. But, when it comes to teaching my children how to treat others, I will always be the nice mom because, in my experience, the apple rarely falls far from the tree.