In Babble’s new column, Pop Parenting, we unearth the funny, poignant, and occasionally frighteningly realistic parenting lessons hidden in our favorite TV shows and movies.
No, you can’t fire your kids the way The Donald fires his contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice (NBC, Sundays, 9/8 Central) and, much to your kids’ chagrin, they can’t fire you. In the face of particularly precocious outbursts from my kids, I have, however, tendered my resignation, but it’s never been accepted. Still, there are good parenting lessons to be had from Trump TV.
The first is using natural consequences to get specific behavioral results from my kids – a favorite trick of a pal who’s a child psychologist (actually, she has a way-fancier title than that). Suffice it to say she’s my go-to gal when I need reinforcement in my parenting strategy (however ad-hoc it may be) or for the idea that “experts are people too.” To wit: She often refers to her life as a parent with advanced degrees in child psychology as the equivalent of being a dermatologist with a face full of pimples. I’ve watched her hold her two-year-old in time-out in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant while he continues to act out. I’ve also seen her let her daughter leave dinner unfinished when she knew she was still hungry (but the desire to play had outweighed the hunger), knowing she’d eaten enough that she wouldn’t actually starve but not enough that she wouldn’t feel the pangs later. (Her daughter is now able to gauge for herself when she’s really full.) I wish I had the nerve to try this with my kids, but I can’t do it. Still, I’m a fan of the idea that the punishment for certain behavior may come in the form of its natural consequence, and so I’m consistently gratified by the cause and effect emphasis in The Celebrity Apprentice.
On its face, the show makes it clear that if you screw up or don’t pull your own weight, you are fired. And haven’t we all, at one time or another, implemented a star chart or points system to get our kids to comply? But, in this game, as in life, contestants are frequently thrown under the bus for strategic or other reasons pertaining to “office politics.” This holds true in family politics, too. I’m often in the position to remind my older son that (with apologies to Dr. Phil!) he’s teaching his brother how to treat him. If, as the older brother, he can restrain the urge to yank the toy back from his brother’s paws and simply ask nicely for its return, the little guy will e-ven-tu-a-lly catch on. And this actually reinforces quite nicely a second lesson: We can’t control the behavior of other people, but we can control how we respond to their actions. Do it with dignity, and you’re beyond reproach. (Maybe The Donald could try this sometime.)
Surprisingly, both lessons are kind of hard to model. I’m often breaking my own rule to count to five before I react, in order not to bellow a threat. And the natural consequences concept has a success rate that’s directly correlated to my kids’ developmental stages. My two-year-old got five stitches in his forehead after a run-in with the dining room table that was inconveniently located in the part of the house that he had designated as the “course” for his personal version of “Olympic Downhill.” You’d think that experience would, once and for all, bring him into compliance with the “no running in the house” policy in a way that time-outs have not. But he’s two, and he likes to run. My six-year-old, however, is inclined to “get it.” He reminds his brother that running made the stitches necessary, and we’d all prefer not to have a repeat.
But the big guy is also at the age where he gets it for himself: Leaving his coat at school before a long holiday break means he spends winter having to wear a snowsuit for every outing – even to the grocery store. The coat has come home every day since.
So, as the season gets rolling, I say this to parents: watch and learn. Take a beat and you’ll not only allow natural consequences to happen (within reason. I’m padding the edges of that dining table, thankyouverymuch), but you’ll stop yourself from making a booming threat instead of an actual point.
A fifteen year veteran of the magazine industry, Bari Nan Cohen was most recently the Entertainment Editor at Good Housekeeping. She has also filled that post at YM Magazine and Self Magazine. She writes on topics of parenting, entertainment, health and psychology for a longish list of women’s and parenting magazines. A resident of Park City, UT since 2001, Bari Nan and her family (one husband, two sons, two dogs) spend winters skiing and summers in their RV. She is not embarrassed to admit the RV has two flat-screen TVs.