One of the biggest worries I had when I started raising my four children alone was being able to keep them in control. For all the praise and adoration I laud upon my late wife, the fact remains that when it came to controlling our children she was miserably inadequate. I wish I could say otherwise, but the fact that we literally owned every single Thomas the Tank Engine train – including the decommissioned, rare and British import versions – should explain to you that every…single…tantrum led to my son getting what he wanted. She epitomized the classic sitcom “Wait ‘Til Your Father Gets Home”. I took dozens of phone calls at work and constantly was having to reiterate, “I cannot parent from miles away…you’re going to have to take them on yourself!”
But she did get better at it. The biggest thing, and this is the most difficult and annoying for nearly every parent I know, is follow-through. A good, thorough and creative punishment is almost harder on the parents than it is on the kids. The thing my wife hated more than anything in the world was the shrill shriek that came out of our kids’ mouths. The older they got, the easier it was for her to resist, but the screaming, embarrassing tantrums at the store drove her to the cliffs of insanity and she inevitably caved in.
So let’s just open the garage doors and let the giant white elephant out of the room. I spanked my kids. It wasn’t a constant, abusive, massive thing. I don’t want to get into a debate whether or not I should or should not. I did. You can’t take those back and none of them harmed my children. Noah, one of the boys, responded to so little punishment that even creativity didn’t work. Sometimes he was so far out of control that it was the only thing that brought him back in control. I never – ever – spanked any of the four when I was angry. I never – ever – used anything like a belt or strap or switch or what have you. I never – ever – did more than tap them so that the sound was more than the spank. Much like a movie slap. Doing any of the above, in my mind, was not changing behavior it was acting in anger and I don’t do that with my kids.
What I did then and showed my wife how to do, was get creative in my punishments. I learned from the best. My mother raised three boys and no girls. At six feet tall, I am the runt of the family. My mom, however, is a petite woman at 5’3″ and all three of us were scared out of our wits to cross her. The key punishment I remember my mom giving (and had to have been beyond difficult) was used on my younger brother. He loved to go shopping with her, going to the stores, walking around, all of it. One day, the pillows at the local chain store must have looked like a neat little fort because he hid in them, behind the pillows, in the shelves, and disappeared. They had to lock down the store, all of us in a panic searching the aisles and back rooms for him. 30 minutes later he came out, saying, “Ha, ha, I was hiding!”
For months after that, one of us went with my mom and brother on every errand. She parked in the space furthest from the front door, handed us the money, with just enough change to get a candy bar, and told us to go in, buy what was necessary, and eat the candy on the way back to the car; all of it in full view of my brother, who had his face pressed against the glass.
So in the years after I became a parent, up until the last year where I’ve been the sole parent, I’ve had to get creative. When we were moving from Omaha to Texas, my daughter wouldn’t put away her dolls. She was told if she didn’t clean up, the dolls would get given to charity. The last straw was, on moving day, my daughter Abbi, refused to put the dolls where they belonged. I walked up to her, frustrated, and asked which Barbie was her favorite. She picked it up and I picked her up and drove her a couple miles down the road to the Salvation Army Hospital, where kids with little means and even less hope, were being treated. I made Abbi walk up to the receptionist and tell her, “I can’t take care of my dollies, so if you could give this one to a little girl who doesn’t have a doll, I know she’ll appreciate it better.” I almost broke down and gave in a couple times during the trip, but when your child has to give something to a child that has nothing…they can’t really be upset that they are doing good while being punished.
One day my kids wouldn’t clean up their rooms. I said that when I got home they needed to have cleaned up, everything taken off the floor. When I arrived, they were all at the store, and the floor of their bedrooms were covered with junk. My threat was that it would all disappear, get tossed. So I got a plastic tub, went into the rooms and threw all the stuff that wasn’t garbage into it. It weighed a ton, filled with books, stuffed animals, dolls, all their stuff. I unceremoniously stuffed it into the attic and when they got home, it was gone. There was hemming, hawing, and screaming, but none of them could ignore the fact that they had been warned.
When my middle daughter, Hannah, caused a meeting with her teachers after forgetting to turn in homework, I told her she couldn’t watch TV, play computer, do anything but read a book until the end of the semester, a good two months. During her fall break she was home all day and unable to do any of this. It was harder on me, listening to her complain, argue with her siblings, explain to babysitters why she couldn’t do it even. But her grades are now in the A and B range.
Hell – once, when Abbi was a pre-teen and screamed she “needed privacy!” and slammed her door shut – causing her sister’s bookshelf and all her soccer trophies to fall and break. I took the door off the hinges, leaning it across from her bed so that every night she saw how this was not her room and that she got only the privacy she needed. She hadn’t earned it.
My sons, after breaking a power supply from my computer are no longer allowed to use any computers except for homework.
My last example for you, and this is something I truly believe, is limiting the influence the “tween” shows have on my kids. Nickelodean, Disney (sorry Rene!), all those cable channels have a formula that breeds parental contempt. It’s really pretty simple: it starts with a house full of precocious kids. They come up with some random, crazy trouble to get into and then put the plan into place. The parents are comically unintelligent and the kids are shown as smarter and more clever than their parents. The shows are broadcast nearly every few hours and made my kids believe that the world had shifted on its axis. The first time my daughter started acting like the TV shows I blocked them all until she was old enough to notice that her father wasn’t fighting her, he was protecting her.
The result of all this is that now, when I’m the sole stable factor in their lives, they don’t really argue with me about the guidance. Sure, they fight. Yes, they get into trouble, but the frustration, screaming, all of it have lessened. It’s not because their mom isn’t here, it’s because they know I’ll follow through – and hopefully trust that I have their best interests at heart. They don’t have to like it, but they do have to do it.
What are your thoughts? Maybe my methods aren’t the most innovative. Maybe you think they’re a bit neanderthal-ish. Maybe taking the door off the hinges and taking hours to re-balance the damn thing wasn’t worth the time, but would you do it? Kids are looking to us to be the ones who understand what they need. To immediately just say “no” or beat on them teaches nothing. But creativity breeds creativity. Even if sometimes they’re creative in their behavior, at least I can try to up the ante when they need to be punished.
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Dave Manoucheri is a writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.