When my twins were two months old, so tiny they lay side by side together in the seat of a stroller, a man at the PX looked in at them peacefully sleeping and said with a sneer, “Just wait until they’re teenagers.”
God bless that man. He opened my eyes to most parents’ worst nightmare when I was barely a mom. After that, whenever my kids misbehaved, I thought, “Is this the teenager I want to have?” If the answer was no, then I realized I needed to work on discipline now.
And thus began the years where I realized that if I wanted someone to do something, I had to get up off the couch and make them do it. If I wanted them to speak respectfully, I had to speak respectfully. If I wanted them to be hard workers, then I needed to work hard when they could see me working hard. If I didn’t want them to be sassy, backtalking, sarcastic and rude, I could not be that way around them. Then followed the years of serious self-improvement.
On speaking kindly: My friend Jody is one of those joyful people who can always laugh and say a gentle word to a child. Visiting her home for the first time, her family sold me on homeschooling because if that’s what it took to have a family like hers, I wanted to do it. The children worked together quickly and without complaint. She spoke to them in calm tones, “Becca, would you make the sandwiches and see what else we have? Sissy, will you hold the baby so Mrs. May can take the other kids to the bathroom?” In minutes their messy school supplies were whisked away, a fresh tablecloth was laid, and we sat down to a lovely lunch together.
I used to listen very carefully to how Jody spoke to her children. She sounded happy, she asked instead of bossing, she said ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’, she spoke in a voice free from irritation even if she was irritated. Then, when I spoke to my kids, I pretended to be her. It was awkward at first because I don’t do role-playing, but I worked to keep her voice in my head and let her tone come out of my mouth. By doing that, I was teaching by example.
Of course, that took years to perfect and in the meantime my kids would sometimes be sassy with me or each other. Then I would need to correct them and this is how I did it. I would look them in the eye and say (this time in a tone that conveyed the full horror of what they were doing), “Excuse me?! You may not speak to me (your sibling) that way. [Calm tone again] Say it like this.” Then I would rephrase their words and change the tone to how it should sound. They would repeat it. Just like hand-over-hand teaching for physical skills, this restating and repeating habit taught them the correct method and force them to practice it.
One other vital piece of speaking kindly came through my husband. He does not struggle with sounding exasperated or being sarcastic, and he has some occasional strong feelings about how things should be done. If he ever hears a child be sassy to me, he instantly uses his ‘man-voice’ and says, “Don’t you speak to your mother that way. Apologize.” Not only did it become clear to the kids that we were united on this topic, but also it was evident to them that he was going to defend me. This particular piece, his clear respect of me, saved me when he was deployed or gone on a trip because the kids were in a habit of respecting me too. If they started to lose the habit, part of his precious phone call or Skype time was him reminding them sternly that they were expected to treat me with respect. The man-voice holds a power we don’t.
On eye-rolling: I grew up in a family of champion eye-rollers. It was amazing our eyes didn’t roll out of our heads and across the floor. I have a child who has a stealth version of eye-rolling which is more of a fluttering of the eyelids, but I know what he’s doing. He’s being contemptuous.
When I first read that eye-rolling was the number one predictor of divorce within 5 years, I stopped cold turkey. Bill isn’t an eye roller (he’s much nicer than I am). And so we don’t let the kids roll their eyes either because contempt is not an appropriate response to a parent correcting bad behavior or asking a child to do their chores. It’s also considered immature, in case you are rolling your eyes at me right now.
On sarcasm: Did you know that sarcasm literally means “to strip off the flesh”? It’s a use of irony also to express contempt. It can be humorous, oh, yes it can. Unless you are the person who is the target of the sarcasm. My family also thought sarcasm was hysterically funny, and I found it so wounding that I deliberately chose to remove it from my form of self-expression before I really understood what it was. If you teach your children to speak kindly, it’s pretty easy to avoid sarcasm. You’ll hear the tone instantly.
On doing their work: It has been infuriating to me that my children have to be taught every. little. thing. Aha, but this gave me the opportunity to teach them every. little. thing. I just have to remember that instead of being irritated that they don’t instinctively know how to pair socks, I need to speak kindly and teach them how to pair socks. If you have taught someone how to do the work, you can expect them to do their work.
Apparently the kids don’t instantly learn the first time I teach something. Maybe this is because they don’t want to. Maybe it’s because they are invincibly ignorant. Maybe it’s because I’m a bad teacher. In reality, I have to plan to teach everything and I have to plan to teach it many times. And then, I have to plan to check their work and give feedback so that they know that I am paying attention and this is important to me.
After that, I have to be reasonably flexible in my expectations. While I know how to do my best work, I don’t actually do my best work every day. Sometimes the problem is internal and I need to overcome a vice and correct myself. Sometimes the problem is external. Schedules and sickness affect our ability to do our best work. When I am checking on my kids’ work, I remind myself to consider whether this is a spiritual issue or not and correct appropriately.
Teaching, speaking kindly, checking up, and reasonable expectations have all led to young people who are a delight to be around. Bill and I enjoy our 4 teenagers immensely, and we are often told that others enjoy them too. Just keep in mind that the later we started teaching in this manner, the more bad habits we had to retrain (in ourselves too) before we could cultivate the good habits.
I once heard Dr. Ray Guarendi say that no farmer ever groused, “Darn, now I have a teenager” when they saw the almost adult-sized person they had grown. I’ve kept that in mind!