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.
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