Picking Your Battles as a Parent
Have you ever walked away from a situation with your child and then realized that you were being irresponsible or inconsistent? I have. I’ve let my boys watch TV or play video games way past the time limits I mandated in our family screen time contract. I’ve also let them spray whipped cream from a can directly into their mouths—even though we have a rule that no one in the family can eat or drink directly out of a container. Or worse, I’ve watched a movie with them, realized about 10 minutes into it that some of the content was inappropriate, but because we were having such a good time, I didn’t turn it off.
As much as we set down rules, it’s the rare parent who always adheres to them. We get tired. We get distracted. We decide that—just this once—it really doesn’t matter. But inconsistently enforcing rules results in our children not taking us seriously. Worse, if we don’t abide by rules ourselves, we lose credibility as authority figures and we role model that they don’t have to take those rules seriously either.
So what’s the difference—or is there one—between bending the rules and hypocrisy? What are the rules that we can never relax? For me, there are three. It’s always good to have concrete examples, so I’ve chosen a few recent ones that I hope will be good discussion starters with your kids.
1. No one is above the rules that everyone else has to abide by.
ABC News photo. Gansler, center, in white.
When Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler stopped by a house during Beach Week to talk to his son, he walked into a party filled with underage drinking.
Anyone who grows up in that area (and I did) knows that Beach Week is where you go after school ends in June to party your butt off. So either Gansler was a completely out-of-touch parent, or he walked into that situation knowing that kids would be drinking but, because it was his son and kids he knew, they would get special treatment.
The precise nature of his job means he is in charge of upholding the law. Yet there he was, surrounded by teens breaking the law. He was condoning underage drinking and signaling to every teen there that they are above the law when a person in authority gives you special treatment.
2. You can’t participate in the humiliation of another person.
After the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick this fall, one of her tormentors posted on Facebook, “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a (expletive)]."
Let’s not focus on the disturbing reality that a 14-year-old girl would be proud to say she doesn’t care that she contributed to someone’s death. Instead, I want to focus on the more than 30 kids who “liked” that post. As a parent, using the “likes” is a more realistic example of what it means to contribute to someone’s humiliation. But here’s what we need to communicate to our children. Even if you don’t directly bully someone, if you support the bullies in any way, you are contributing to the misery of another human being. As the target, it’s horrible to be bullied by one or two people, but it's when everyone else supports them that life becomes unbearable. Those “likes” make the target feel so isolated, desperate and anxious that it can seem like there’s no escape. So parents, the “likes” supporting someone’s humiliation have to stop.
3. If you work hard, you have the right to belong to a group without being degraded as a condition for acceptance or a demonstration of loyalty. The same rule applies for anyone else.
The recent revelation that Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin was hazed by fellow player Richie Incognito is a horribly good example of what can happen to new players on any kind of team. It can and does happen in the NFL, just like it can and does happen in high school and college.
Associated Press/AP Photo. Incognito (left), Martin (right).
There are people who believe that you have to pay your dues to have the right to belong to their group, and those dues often mean being abused by the people who have been in the group longer than you.
We need to have explicit conversations with our children explaining that paying dues is about hard work and working “clean.” If your child contributes to abuse in any way, no matter how good they are, you will forbid them from playing. Because teaching your child to be a decent person is way more important than any championship game.
The bottom line comes down to this: Once in a while I’m going to let my children spray whipped cream into their mouths. It’s a little gross. And it’s also probably a little more fun because they’re breaking a house rule. But they aren’t hurting anyone. Where the rules can’t be broken is when you hurt others and refuse to be held accountable for your actions. That’s always going to be my bottom line.
What are the unbreakable rules in your household? Post a comment and tell me.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well asQueen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.