We’ve all seen it before. A hopeful mother trods into a grocery store, Starbucks, convenience store with a little person in tow. While she attempts to “make groceries,” order and drink her latte, purchase her magazine, she soon finds herself bombarded by demands for candy, a hot chocolate, or a toy. Upon refusing, she is accosted by a full-scale attack, accompanied by a melt-down of biblical proportions. Her once firm resolve quickly fizzles in the face of screams, tantrums, and in some cases threats or physical abuse (i.e. hitting or biting).
As a witness, you cringe because you just know that Mommy is going to grab Taylor, Sydney, Greer or some other fashionable gender-neutral moniker, firmly by the arm, pull him/her close and whisper a well-articulated request (read: threat) through clenched teeth framed by pinched, funnel-shaped matronly lips. Instinctively you caress your own arm in memory of your own childhood experiences with your own mother, aunts, grandmother. You project your long-ago experience onto the child, convinced that (s)he will miraculously come to his/her senses and behave like the well-mannered creature (s)he was created to be.
To your utter dismay, however, Mommy, caves in, begging the toddler to cooperate as an alternative to “a really stern talking-to” or my personal favorite (NOT) time-out. When this method proves ineffective, the now embarrassed woman, who so desperately needed her purchase upon arrival, scans the room for a sympathetic glance, only to find everyone in the venue suddenly engrossed in a book or text message. She concedes defeat and ushers/drags her screaming toddler out the door and into the confines of her Town & Country, abruptly diminishing his/her scream (at least from where you stand) with the padded thump of the car door. Errand over. Kid – 1. Mommy – Epic Fail.
I recently attended a child’s birthday party where a gorgeous 6-year-old, whose parents I had traveled to visit, refused to return my greeting of “Happy Birthday”. Before her father and her grandmother I said very clearly “Happy Birthday, Megan (not her real name).” This child, who had just been jumping up and down, running screaming and yelling across the room to siblings and other guests, turned to me, looked me directly in the eye, and refused to say a word. Confused, I looked to the two generations of relatives standing with her for correction. What I got were excuses. “Oh, I guess she doesn’t feel like talking today. You know how it is,” said the grandmother. “Megan, please say Thank You, to Sheeri.” “Miss Sheeri,” I corrected, still smiling and nodding, while I waited for what had to have been minutes for this child to exercise common courtesy. I felt like taking my gift back home. Heck, I’ve got four kids. One of them could have found some use for it. After an uncomfortably long silence, during which her father attempted to cajole, tease, and finally insist that Megan thank me, do you know that the only thing that little heifer parted her lips to say at that time, was “No?” I could tell this was a common occurrence that yielded no consequences for little Megan. As her father and grandmother sighed with smiles and shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “What can you do?” I found myself wondering when did the balance of power in the parent-child relationship shift, and how?
It’s true that every situation is unique as well as every child (or parent for that matter) and that what comes easily for some is really difficult for others. I get that. But there is no excuse for holding children accountable for basic manners. If you enter a room, speak. If someone greets you first, return the greeting. If somebody says “Happy Birthday,” respond with “Thank You.” And while we’re at it, make requests instead of issuing demands. “Mommy, may I have some juice please?” – not “I want juice!”
I’ve heard it said once before that my generation – Generation X – grew up afraid of our parents and as parents we are now afraid of our children. Many of our parents were heavy-handed, even abusive. In response to their parenting, we have declared, “When I’m a parent, I will never…” Well, as the old folks say, “Keep livin’.” The result of our “opposite-parenting” technique is that we have become a generation of permissive parents who strive to be our children’s friends, not parents. We pander to their every whim, and satisfy their desires for every creature comfort in the name of love. In our attempt to build their self-esteem, we have neglected to teach them self-respect. Manners aren’t some antiquated notion from the Victorian era, they are an essential part of functioning as a mature, contributing member of society. Manners show that you care about how your behavior affects others. They are the very embodiment of the 2nd Great Commandment. Few things sadden me more than meeting a great kid with abysmal manners, except meeting a grown man or woman in possession of them.
My husband used to work as a job coach, helping mentally challenged adults learn people and job skills. He was great at his job. When asked why problem clients who refused to recognize the authority of other coaches, showed him so much respect, he explained that his expectations of his clients were high, and that he was consistent with rewards for good behavior and consequences for undesirable behavior. Mykel fully expected his clients to cooperate, but was prepared when they didn’t. On his own he implemented a sticker system. Clients could earn certain privileges (like sitting in the front seat of the car) or get preferred items (gum, trinkets) with a certain number of stickers. Mykel simply gave stickers for desired behavior, like making polite requests, or following directions, and took them away for bad behavior, like yelling, screaming, throwing a tantrum, or refusing to obey (sound familiar?). There was also something else I personally observed Mykel do. He never let his clients use their disabilities as an excuse for poor behavior.
I once overheard him tell a client that he was acting like a jerk. When I asked him about it later, he defended his actions. He explained to me that the mentally disabled are like anybody else – fallen. Some are nice and kind, and some are jerks. He went on to say f a guy is a jerk, he’s a jerk. If he is mentally disabled, then he’s just a mentally disabled jerk. It doesn’t help him to make excuses for his behavior, not if you want him to succeed. “I want my guys to win, Sheeri,” he said. Consequently, his clients were some of the most successful employees at their respective jobs. Soon his company sent all of their difficult (read:undiscplined) clients to him.
I’ve never forgotten that experience. My job is to help my children to make right choices without me. They’ll have enough obstacles, but being rude little monsters won’t be one of them. Like Mykel, I want my guys to win. To that end I comb the scriptures, talk to successful parents, and read as much as I can to understand God’s parenting standards. I have come to the understanding a little later than some. But it is this. Is is not enough to do the opposite of what my parents did. As with everything else, I must align my parenting with my Plumbline, Jesus Christ.