Afraid to Parent

Maybe parenting came easier to me, or maybe I raised my children at a time when the trend wasn’t playing lawyer or trying so hard to be friends with your kids — but ever since I first stepped foot in a classroom, I have seen parents who were afraid to parent their children.

The first time a parent sat in a desk across from me at parent-teacher conferences and verbalized the despair at disciplining her child, I had just finished chastising her son for his tone with his mother. He never talked to me that way and I couldn’t allow him to be so disrespectful in my presence. “Excuse me,” I growled, “you do not get to speak that way to your mother in my presence. I’m sorry, but that is just not tolerable.”

After I said it, I realized just how far I stepped over my own boundaries as his teacher. In the next instant I realized that if she was offended by that but not by the way he was speaking to her then maybe we had a whole other problem on our hands. She didn’t say anything and her face told me that she was grateful that someone saw his behavior and checked him for it.

As a mom, I’ve never allowed whining or screaming from my children and, probably for that reason, my children have never had a tantrum. Well, only Mason attempted them as a toddler and I snatched him up off the floor of the church where we were having a potluck and took him right home. I don’t give empty threats as a parent and when his sister realized that it punished her, too, she exacted sibling revenge and told him never to ruin things our family does. Without realizing it, I allowed a sort of peer pressure to show him that his actions have consequences that we all have to suffer. Still, these are my values, not every parent’s, and I tread carefully when speaking to my friends about how we parent differently.

That student, Justin, sat in on the rest of the conference as we discussed his lack of work ethic and his failure to do his homework and listened quietly as his mother and I came up with solutions to fix this problem. As a mere 26-year-old teacher, it astounded me that this woman who was at least 10 years my senior was listening to me and letting me give her advice on how to parent him at home. For instance, I told her to take away his gaming privileges and to turn off the television so that he could do his homework in a quiet place with no distractions. How is it, I wondered, that this wasn’t already something she tried?

There are, unfortunately, too many parents afraid to parent their children. I see students who have an enormous amount of freedoms and freedom from punishment. These are the most common:

1. Kids who are abusing their texting and cell phone privileges and don’t get the cell phone taken away.

2. Kids who are belligerent and rude to their parents and parents who sit idly by and say nothing.

3. Kids who refuse to let their parents into their bedrooms or who slam their doors and nothing happens.

Over the next several years I found myself counseling parents on how to discipline and dole out consequences at home. All the while, I had the same expectations in my classroom that they had at home. I expected my students to show up, work hard, and listen to directions, and if they broke the rules, I handed out appropriate consequences. You talked all hour and didn’t finish your assignment, taking up my precious time? Then I’ll take yours and you’ll stay in at lunch or after school. You threw a book out of my classroom window into the snow when I had a substitute teacher? Then you’ll give up your free time to dry out the pages and rearrange my bookshelves from which other students borrowed books. Each time there was a unique situation and I wasn’t sure how to discipline I let my teacher instincts kick in and asked the question, “What do you think is an appropriate punishment for this?” Each time, they surprised me and came up with a consequence far more severe than I had in mind.

If I could offer unsolicited advice to you (and let’s face it, I have done it with the parents of my students for years now) it is this: it’s okay to be the bad guy. It’s okay for them to be upset with discipline and punishment that fits the crime. It’s not the end of the world if they sit in silence during dinner. They don’t get to roll their eyes at you without you saying something to them. Kids won’t be undone if they miss out on a sports game or a birthday party because you’ve put them on punishment. That’s how they learn to stop those behaviors. Without parenting, those bad behaviors continue. Don’t be the friend or try too hard to be the Cool Parent if it means your children don’t make good choices and learn in the process.

I ran into Justin recently at a restaurant and he caught me up on his life. He’s in law school now and he told me that I was his mom’s favorite teacher. I laughed. “Your mom’s? Not yours?” He assured me that I was his favorite, too, but his mom remembered that day and changed the way she parented him and stopped being afraid of upsetting him. Maybe all she needed was a little support and a teensy push to get back to parenting. I give myself an A for helping her take that back.

Photo credit to Matthew Paulson


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