In Defense of Manners

I read Alyson Schafer’s chapter on “Social Skills – the Democratic Approach to Socializing Your Little Barbarian” from Ain’t Misbehavin’ with interest (although I chafed at the title – if we’re trying to be respectful and democratic parent, it’s probably helpful not to conceive of our partners as ‘barbarians’).  While chunks of the chapter pertain to troubles I haven’t had yet, largely because my children are still quite young (almost 5 and almost 3), it was still an illuminating read.

I like some of Shafer’s basic premises, which include being a good model to your children.  I also liked that she is respectful of a child’s natural boundaries.  For example, when your child doesn’t want to say hello to a stranger, Shafer identifies that that’s an extroverted act, and maybe you’re child’s not feeling extroverted.  I can relate to introversion:  once when I was pregnant and miserable, I pretended I didn’t see my sister-in-law on the streetcar because I didn’t want to talk to anyone.  These skills can be difficult to master as adults; I think kids need to be given some room to learn them.

I also totally agree with Shafer in her “Won’t Kiss Grandparents” section that a child shouldn’t be forced to engage in acts of intimacy (hugs, kisses) with someone unless they want to.  I’m guilty of nudging in the direction of a hug when the hopeful recipient is grandma or grandpa, but I need to cut it out.  I don’t think Shafer’s offered zingy one-line responses will help assuage the hurt feelings all that much, but that’s the way the cookie needs to crumble on this critical issue of our children having control and autonomy over their bodies.  

In general though, I think I take a harder line on requiring social skills than Shafer does.  I like people – kids included – who exhibit good manners.  I heard an interview on the CBC about the decline of civility (can’t find the details, sorry) and the interviewee noted that when teaching our children not to chew with their mouths open at the table, we are actually doing much more than prohibited that action:  we are teaching them that their behaviour impacts the people around them and they should care about that. 

I deeply value this basic consideration to others.  I was dismayed to go trick-or-treating with friends whose children were permitted to collect candy without saying ‘thank you’.  One child even demanded that he get more candy and tried to direct which kind.  At a drop-in centre, a girl (maybe 5 or 6 years old) who I had not met before tried to command me with a rude “I want juice!”.  Call me hard core, but I don’t mind telling you that when she did not modify her request, she did not get any juice. 

I believe that I’m cognizant (or at least clambering up that steep upward slope of learning) of children’s developmental needs, but I’m not that flexible on manners.  Basically I think there ought to be firm rules of social engagement.  I don’t require slavish adherence to the terms ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ at home, so if someone asks nicely, “Can I have that?”, I don’t require anything more.  But if I hear, “I want that!”, I will prompt my younger son for a ‘please’ or reply to my older son with “That’s nice”, after which they’ll remember their manners.  I won’t assist until I’m addressed courteously.   

Harder to address is when your child “Gives Attitude and Tone”, and I heartily agree with Shafer’s first solution on this section which is to “watch your tone” and also to find out if anything’s bothering your child.  But I resist the others solutions offered, which include “ignore the child’s tone” and “address the content of the child’s speech rather than the delivery.  If she announces she finds the meatload disgusting, you can reply chirpily, ‘Sorry you don’t like what’s for supper tonight.  That’s a bummer.  I hope there is enough other stuff to fill you up’. 

By contrast, I’m quite prepared to address rude tone, followed by consequences, and they don’t have to be all that natural.   If my child says “yuck” to dinner, I’m very likely to stop what I’m doing, look him squarely in the eye, and let him know that I’ve worked hard to make dinner, that he’s lucky to have food and a mommy who will make him dinner, that what he’s saying is hurting my feelings, and that if he can’t show his manners and eat with us, he can miss his dinner.”  And while I won’t be yelling, I won’t be chirpy either.

I haven’t read much about Shafer’s philosophy,  and I wonder if this might be where I fall off the wagon of democratic parenting .  I respect and deeply love my children and view them as equal participants in our family, but I don’t view them as equal to me.  I do view myself in a hierarchical relationship to them, where my responsibilities include active guidance to the best of my ability, and through which I sometimes will secure compliance before full understanding.  For example, I imposed upon my children a restriction against hitting long before they understood its utility.  Similarly, I am trying to infuse them with certain requirements of courtesy before they would feel a natural impulse to those habits.  I also believe that children generally live up to what’s expected of them, so I’m careful to keep my expectations high.

My guess is that underlying Shafer’s approach is a healthy endorsement of the individual and autonomy.  I espouse these values, but I also really believe in the importance of the collective.  Probably this is the result of being raised in the West, but within an Asian family, where the good of the whole is an unspoken and accepted tenet.  For me, the good of the whole requires certain modes of conduct, and while my children’s upbringing is radically different (and infinitely more permissive) than my own, there are some baselines of respect and courtesy that I’m not prepared to give up on. 

At least, not without a fight.


If you would like the chance to win a copy of the book, please leave us a comment any day this week letting us know.  The competition ends at midnight on Friday, April 22.  We will draw for and announce the winner on Saturday, April 23, and Mom Central will mail out a copy of the book to the winner after April 30th.

Disclosure – We are participating in the Ain’t Misbehavin’ program by Mom Central on behalf of Wiley Publishing.  We received a copy of the book to review and gift card as a thank you for our participation.  The opinions on this blog are our own.


How Not to Be Late for School

On the boys’ last report card, we were reminded of our family’s dismal record at getting to school on time.

It’s embarrassing.

After a humiliating recent meeting with the school principal, who wanted to discuss strategies for combating lateness, we decided that come hell or high water, we’d start getting them there before the first bell.  Except for one morning when we were truly late for reasons beyond our control (can you say TTC breakdown?) we’ve been pretty good at being on time. But mornings in our house are, in a word, stressful. Too much yelling! Cajoling! Threats!

And that’s just what the kids say to each other.

We’re looking for a better way. There’s no worse start to the day than one where everyone feels pushed around (children AND adults!) and grumpy because of it.  In our defence, we have a morning plan and a system which has the potential to work well. We’re rarely held up by something so simple as a missed trip permission form or a lack of recess snacks. We have that all figured out.  We’re late usually for one of two reasons:

(a) someone’s slow to move, easily distracted from the task of getting ready, and just plain uncooperative; or

(b) something big pops up and needs to be tended to, like the need to use the washroom. Or test anxiety. Or an existential crisis.

Usually, it’s the former that trips us up, though you’d be surprised how often it’s column (b).

Enter Alyson Shafer’s book, Ain’t Misbehavin. She suggests that morning dawdling is just a form of passive power struggle. The more parents dig in our heels, the more kids resist, so we all need to stop digging. She provides a three step plan and some quick hints on how to put that plan into practice. Unlike some of the other strategies, this one’s meant to be implemented over the course of a week or so, which would have been fine, except the primary dawdler of the family was home sick all week, which meant our morning routine this week was totally different than usual.  So using Shafer’s plan, I’ve been looking at how we can make our current routine less stressful:

  • step one: make a morning plan WITH the kids.

Shafer suggests holding a family meeting to discuss that mornings are not working well, and to ask for input as to how mornings can be better. We’ve done that. And re-done it. I don’t think this is our problem. The boys understand that it’s their responsibility to get themselves ready in the morning. Ask them, and they will tell you the order that things are to be accomplished in the morning, based on a list they themselves made. It’s just that somewhere between step two (get dressed) and step four (brush teeth) is a gaping chasm of distractabilty into which both of them fall on a regular basis.

  • step two: Take Time for Training (TTFT).

Allowing children to do those things they can do for themselves leads to autonomy and mastery. Though she doesn’t specifically say it, consistent with Adler philosophy, I’m assuming that taking a hands-off approach respects the child’s authority to control their own actions. . Here, we could probably make some progress. The eldest is quite capable of getting himself dressed, making his breakfast, brushing his teeth and, assuming he doesn’t pick a fight with the youngest somewhere along the way, is pretty quick about it. The youngest? Not so much. He knows what to do, but I’m convinced he just. Chooses. Not. To. (Hmm. Power struggle, anyone?) So we nag and plead, until out of frustration we end up doing everything from putting toothpaste on his toothbrush to pouring his milk. I think we can change that.

  • step three: Plan to be late.

Oh oh. Since it takes a while to get a plan underway, she suggest building in a buffer to allow for the inevitable bumps along the road to a new way of doing things. Except, I think we’ve exhausted all our good will. There’s no leeway on time, so I guess this means we’re getting up even earlier to make this come to pass.

With this plan in mind, Shafer reminds us that to be successful, we need to resist “urging, insisting and micromanaging”. Instead, she suggests that we go about our own business, stepping in to offer help when and where it is needed, holding the child accountable for getting their own stuff done. If they’re flailing around on the floor, assume they don’t need your help and get on with your own routine. This works apparently for things like brushing teeth and getting dressed. Doing less, and doing it without anger or manipulation, is meant to encourage confidence and self-autonomy in your child.

So that’s the plan. And other than the fact that I think we do an awful lot of nagging, and we truly are lousy when it comes to doing things for the youngest, I’m not sure that we haven’t implemented this plan on our own in the past. So I’m thinking of specific situations where we can apply her principles:

  1. breakfast. I’m a stickler for breakfast, and happen to have two children who (like their mother) lose all ability to reason (read also: become more stubborn and less likely to be cooperative) when they’re hungry. Success in the morning hinges on getting breakfast in to bellies, stat. But it takes forever for them from upstairs to the kitchen. Shafer suggests that we set out breakfast, call “breakfast time!” and go about eating our own. A parent’s job is to put food on the table; it’s a child’s job to eat it. If need be, set a timer, and clear away breakfast when time’s up. Hunger will ultimately win out over whatever else is motivating them to dawdle. As Shafer says “You have to prove you’re not invested in what choices or decisions they make for themselves regarding breakfast”. While I like this idea in theory, I’m dreading it in practice. One missed breakfast won’t hurt either of them, but did I ever tell you about the time in kindergarten that Daniel ended up in the principal’s office sobbing because he was just so hungry? And this was AFTER he ate breakfast…
  2. the getting on of coats. I’m convinced there’s a black hole in our front hall which sucks up all available extra time in the morning. Shafer’s advice is simple: once YOUR coat is on, announce that you’re ready to go. Then go. Get in the car. Wait outside. Keep moving without fighting. It may take them some time, but ultimately they’ll come along. By leaving the scene, you’re no longer providing them with an audience for whatever display of stubbornness they’re intent on demonstrating.

Right. I tried this once, inadvertently. I went out to shovel snow after asking them to get their coats on and meet me outside. Ten minutes later I found them having a light-sabre duel on the living room couch.

Needless to say, we were late that day.

So will it work? I think the key is recognizing that children have as much responsibility as do adults  in getting themselves ready. If I’m taking anything from this, it’s the idea that by NOT micromanaging, we might have better success than we’re having now. And if we can do that without anger or validating the power struggle, we’ll be better off. I’ll try it, and we’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ve got to get to bed. I need to be up early.

If you would like the chance to win a copy of the book, please leave us a comment any day this week letting us know. The competition ends at midnight on Friday, April 22. We will draw for and announce the winner on Saturday, April 23, and Mom Central will mail out a copy of the book to the winner after April 30th.

Disclosure – We are participating in the Ain’t Misbehavin’ program by Mom Central on behalf of Wiley Publishing. We received a copy of the book to review and gift card as a thank you for our participation. The opinions on this blog are our own.

Solutions for Sibling Squabbles

Sibling Rivalry, a Speck Brothers wine, is a wine we drink often around here.  It helps to be able to laugh about these things….

Keeping my nose out of the kids’ arguments is my biggest challenge as a parent.  I hate conflict.  I do not cope well with conflict myself, and I do not cope well with hearing it or seeing it among the kids.  My goal is always to shut it down as quickly as possible.  My brain knows that this is short-sighted; my psyche has difficulty coping with much else.

I totally buy into the myth that good mothers manage sibling conflict and the belief that I am not doing my job if the kids fight.  This, Alyson Schafer tells me, is one of the most pernicious myths of parenting.  One of her most memorable pieces of advice in the face of sibling conflict is to “fire yourself.”  It is not your job to make them get along.

Understanding the problem of sibling fighting begins with understanding that in all cases of conflict, both parties are responsible for creating peace or conflict.  In her sibling fighting cheat sheet, Schafer outlines these main ideas:

  • Conflict between any two people is inevitable, but how we respond to our children’s fights determines if they will learn to resolve conflicts or become life-long rivals.
  • Children are the caretakers of their own relationships.  They must learn how best to deal with each other independently.
  • Children can choose to either fight or get along.  Either child can guide the course of the interaction towards peace.  If neither chooses to, the fight ensues with both parties’ agreement.
  • It takes two to agree to fight: it’s a form of cooperation, just on the negative side of life.
  • Children need to be taught basic problem-solving strategies for learning to get along.  However, most fighting is not due to a skills deficit but is purposeful, goal-directed behaviour.
  • Fighting has benefits…:  It gains parental attention and involvement … [and] it reinforces each child’s role in the family; that is, to make one look good and the other look bad.

By far the most eye-opening of these ideas for me was the idea that it takes two to agree to fight.  Once I’d wrapped my head around that concept, I had an easier time approaching the kids’ arguments and guiding the kids to working together to find a solution rather than jumping in and solving it for them.

My attempts to fire myself have largely failed, but I have managed to make a shift to arbitrator rather than serving as judge and jury.  To that end, the most useful strategy Schafer proposed was empathetic listening.  When one came running because another had taken his toy/stuffed animal/special twig (not a joke), I took the following approach:

offer emotional support and redirect.  Be empathetic without rescuing or solving the child’s problem. … Name the child’s feelings and put words to the problem [but follow with] “I am sure you can work it out with him.”  You’re loving but not rescuing.

It took a lot of biting my tongue not to spoon-feed solutions to them.  I never did leave it at “I’m sure you can work it out,” but I did elicit suggestions from the kids themselves, and it surprised me how quickly they got the hang of negotiating for themselves.  I can’t see myself ever getting to a place where I can fire myself, but I have made a definitive shift in roles.  This shift feels more comfortable than firing myself, because it’s true to my personality.  I will never be a hands-off parent, no matter how appealing the theory makes it look.

Schafer mentions often that the goal of a fight is to get parental attention, and to an extent I agree.  One of the boys is often trying to get another into trouble, but I really don’t think that the kids see me as an audience for their squabbles.   Fights are most often over things, possessions, not for parental attention. 

For these kinds of fights, I used the “put them in the same boat” solution: take away the toy until the kids can work out an agreement together.  This works really well, but again, I haven’t quite fired myself if I am the one to mete out the logical consequence of losing a toy when you fight over it. 

I have read and reviewed Schafer’s Breaking the Good Mom Myth, so I feel that I have a solid foundation in the parenting approach she espouses.  I am not sure how well the chapter would have served me if I didn’t have that background knowledge.  Sibling rivalry is, Schafer admits, one of the most complex and challenging problems we face.  This book is intended to give quick access to the reasons for problematic behaviour and a quick toolkit for addressing them.  Because it’s one of my biggest and most emotional challenges as a parent, I also want it to be a topic that I am thoughtful about, that I read widely about.  It was hard work to put her strategies to work, it was dispiriting to feel that I was not performing my role correctly, and it was especially draining to be so self-conscious of my parenting. 

It might have been easier to do the chapter on putting on pajamas before bed!


If you would like the chance to win a copy of the book, please leave us a comment any day this week letting us know.  The competition ends at midnight on Friday, April 22.  We will draw for and announce the winner on Saturday, April 23, and Mom Central will mail out a copy of the book to the winner after April 30th.

Disclosure – We are participating in the Ain’t Misbehavin’ program by Mom Central on behalf of Wiley Publishing.  We received a copy of the book to review and gift card as a thank you for our participation.  The opinions on this blog are our own.