There are a lot of things I don’t want my kids to become. Bullies, jerks, people who say “All Lives Matter”, Republicans, Jets fans… a lot of things.
Not all of them are within our control, but a few might be. Preventing him from being spoiled, teaching him to be kind and grateful are others. Those are things parents can influence. Right? Maybe? Please?
Help. I think I’m having a control freak-out.
Parenting young kids forces you to contort yourself in all manner of ways. You enter the experience with grand plans of raising the next Gandhi or Mother Theresa, but you quickly realize it’s not so easy to control things, and are soon forced to bribe, cajole, and threaten your children to get the behavior you need. You often need to take shortcuts and implement workarounds to get in-the-moment results. It’s just part of the deal. You can only hope that those shortcuts don’t turn into detours that send the kid down a dead-end.
Lately, Detective Munch has gotten into playing video games on the iPad. I don’t know if we should receive condolences for this inevitability or be congratulated that we held him off this long. At any rate, he’s constantly asking for us to download him new games. When we say no, he gets upset, but often, somewhere down the line – maybe not that day, maybe not the next day, but eventually – he’ll do something nice, receive praise for it, and immediately expect something in return.
It’s our fault, obviously. We are guilty of rewarding our five-year-old for good behavior, and his awareness of this quid-pro-quo makes us worry that he’s using it as a means to an end. He probably is! But how do you teach your kid that being kind and respectful and a good person is a reward in and of itself? Especially in the face of actual, tangible rewards, like dessert, or a new toy? Especially in the face of a world that constantly seems to prove otherwise. We haven’t figured it out yet. And we worry that incentivizing his good behavior just makes him give us what we want, artificially, superficially, with nothing behind it, essentially, except his own desire for gratification.
I know some “experts” feel a reward system is supposed to work better than a punitive one – we’re supposed to affirm their actions, not repudiate and punish for them, and this is what we try to focus on – but both work in the now. Bribes and threats work, at least for a little while. Unfortunately it’s not the “little while” we need to worry about, it’s long-term. It’s not the now, it’s the later. Raising a good person is not a microwaveable process, it’s a slow cook, and it requires constant vigilance. If you can think straight enough.
The daily, hourly, minute-by-minute stress of parenting often doesn’t allow for the kind of forethought and preparation that helps you make long-term decisions. And when you do have a minute to consider the effect your next decision will have, it’s hard enough merely to avoid being overwhelmed by the potential ramifications. We’re so consumed with how well we’re raising our kids, and what is going to become of them down the line, it’s a wonder we’re able to function at all.
We all understand by now how imperfect the parenting process is. But it’s one thing to understand that every single kid is different, and that they all react and respond to different tactics in their own unique and unpredictable ways, and that there are 5000 different approaches to every incident. It’s another to recognize that there are 5000 different results too. It’s impossible to have any idea if something that works in the short-term is effective in the long-term, or vice-versa.
Once again, it’s clear that the challenge inherent in parenting is not only that there is no guidebook, it’s that we can’t see the future. And that despite our best efforts, we certainly can’t control it. Which doesn’t stop us from trying.
Are we teaching him to manipulate us? Does this system teach him to behave solely as a means to an end? Will he always link good behavior with being rewarded? Are we creating a monster? Are we tricking him into becoming a good person? Does the habit of faking good behavior eventually transmute into actual good behavior? Does anyone have any idea what they’re doing? Is this too many rhetorical questions?
I don’t have an answer to any of those questions, except the second to last one: No! Not only do I have no idea what I’m doing, I don’t have any idea what effect any of my parenting efforts is having on my kids, or any idea if I have any control over their futures at all. I don’t have any idea about anything! This whole gig is just a nightmare of stress and uncertainty!
Great, now I’m depressed. Download whatever game you want, kiddo. It’s not like it matters.