Parenting on a shoestring

Teenagers, with their newly developed
capacity for logical thought, have a finely-tuned sense of justice
and sharp observational skills when it comes to human behaviour.
Parents of teenagers know that the preceding sentence was simply a
polite way (hey, I'm Canadian) of saying that they can be judgmental
as... heck. Who among us hasn't had an "it takes one to know
one" response when trying to correct an adolescent son or
daughter of a fault with which we ourselves contend? But this is
useful, because it helps keep parents on track as we try to be people
of character ourselves.

Another great side effect of this
teenage sense of black and white is the ability to cut through the
bull patties right to the heart of the matter. I recognize my job as
a parent is to help them develop the habit of tempering justice with
compassion and understanding. However, I do appreciate the clear and
quick insights they express from time to time.

Here's an example. My husband Stephen
and I were preparing to moderate a case study for a parenting group.
The case study itself was primarily concerned with the reaction of a
14-year-old boy to his family's sudden financial difficulties. We
were anticipating an evening of group pussy-footing around the points
in that polite, adult Canadian way-- of playing "grandmother's
steps," the way Evelyn Waugh portrayed Lady Marchmain's broaching her son's alcoholism to his friend Charles in Brideshead
(the book, of course, not that awful movie). I passed a
copy of the case over to our own 14 year-old son to read, curious
about his take. He passed it back with his own three-word summary:
"Kid's spoiled rotten." This was a little harsh, especially
considering he most certainly would not have turned his nose up at
any of the expensive items mentioned in those pages. Yet there was
some truth in his analysis. Stephen and I decided it was important to
make sure that the ordered use of money and material goods in family
life was a theme in the discussion we led that evening.

On the subject of material goods, just
last night I saw one of the most ridiculous items for sale that I
have ever seen. It was a portable time-out mat, for moms and dads on
the go. No corner to which you can send your errant pre-schooler at
the park? Just pull the time-out mat from its handy carrying case,
and you're good. Why just take the misbehaving child home for free,
when you can spend 15 or so dollars to make her sit on a brightly
coloured piece of vinyl beside the swing set until you count to ten?
When I told my 20-year-old son about this product (okay, he's not a
teenager but he still counts as an adolescent according to some
experts) he laughed and said "Like a game. That's ridiculous."
"Ridiculous," again, was the pronouncement of my
17-year-old daughter.

A little googling shows that people do
buy these mats, and use them too. Various parenting magazines and
websites, as well as at least one perky network TV morning show,
actually recommend them. There seem to be several brands available
for purchase. One of them has a big yellow frowning face where the
little one is supposed to sit. When the time-out is over, he can flip
the mat over to see a smiley face that says "I love you."
Goodness, does that mean Mommy doesn't love you while you're sitting
on the frowning face? I thought time-outs were all about loving
discipline -- how is that principle served by making a child sit on a
big frowning face while out in public? Again, you can save your money
while effectively communicating both disapproval for poor behaviour
and affection for your child by simply saying, "Come sit beside
Daddy quietly until you are ready to play nicely."

The mat I saw for sale was round and
looked like a target, so it's probably not a good idea to use
it in an open field. I tried to picture any of the ten pre-schoolers
I've parented sitting on it. Imagine a kid drawing
her knees up to her chest and using the smooth vinyl to spin around
on her bottom until she was dizzy and giggling. Just think, if you
had about a dozen naughty 3-year-olds in the park and each was stuck
on his or her own round time-out mat, you could get a nice impromptu
game of Twister going. And that might be the best use of those mats
after all, since any parent knows that distraction can be an
effective strategy at the beginning of a temper tantrum.

Then again, distraction doesn't always
work. And it's more cost-effective to simply point and say, "Look
at that pretty bird!"

Like so many things in life, less is more when correcting children.
Consequences that are too elaborate can often backfire. The most effective discipline comes from the example of
parents, in all areas of life including our use of goods and money.
Creating the need to make a purchase to discipline our children is
thus doubly self-defeating. And yet it probably makes sense in the
context of a society that encourages purchase after purchase to
pacify our kids and pamper ourselves. We have to avoid imprudent
expenditures, or so the pundits tell us in the wake of the latest
Wall Street crash ( I wonder how many time-out mats have been bought
on credit). And if hard times really are about to come upon us, then
parents would do well to remember, as educator and author James
Stenson has written, "Character is what you have left over when
and if you go broke. It is you minus your material possessions."
How about a little more parenting-on-a-shoestring?

Michelle Martin writes from
Hamilton, Ontario.




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