Emily Parnell — Parental instruction is more effective when whispered than shouted

06/05/2014 3:09 PM

06/05/2014 3:09 PM

You won’t catch me disciplining my children for being disrespectful.

Well, you might, but only because I’m not perfect and I might slip up. You see, I had an epiphany the other day.

I’d made a mistake, which seems to be a common precursor to meaningful epiphanies. We were at a family get-together, sitting around enjoying dessert. A pile of crumbs had missed my son’s plate and were sprinkled on the sofa. He tried to clean them up, but from my vantage point, it appeared he was just knocking them all to the floor.

“What are you doing?” I asked loudly. “Clean them up!”

He was embarrassed. I’m sure he felt bad he’d made a mess, was irritated that I’d corrected him in front of the family and was angry that I’d misinterpreted what he was doing. He responded with an exaggerated eye roll and a less-than-respectful protest.

Suddenly, we were in a World Wrestling Federation ring. The ropes went up, the spotlights turned on us, an echoing announcer dramatized the beef between the scrappy little tween, struggling to rise to power, and reigning champion, Mommy.

“Mommy, in the purple sundress, has thrown the first punch — an erroneous correction. Ouch! Cooper’s ready to rumble, though, and is strutting around with his tail feathers fanned.”

The spectators held their breaths, taking sides. Would Mom block? Would she take the opponent down swiftly? Or would Cooper take little jabs, wearing her down, unleashing Armageddon. The judges poised to keep score.

We were both aware of the audience, and neither of us wanted to go down in infamy as the one who lost the battle.

And you notice, I said this was a WWF ring. The World Wrestling Federation — known for staged antics and audience-rousing drama. Anything we did would need to be exaggerated for effect.

Suddenly — my epiphany struck. I didn’t need to win. Parenting isn’t for the spectators. It’s for the kids. For forming future adults.

As my kids move to the next stage — teenagers with attitudes trying to strike their independence — what do I need to model to them? How to humiliate others? How to use public shaming to strong arm compliance? It’s a rather common parenting technique — and effective, I’m sure. One that makes the news with photos of derelict teenagers wearing sandwich boards announcing their indiscretions. But that’s not how I want to win my battles, nor is it how I want my kids to defeat their future opponents.

A friend of mine, who counsels children, put this all into further perspective for me when she told me that humiliation is considered trauma. Of course it is. Who likes being humiliated?

I’m sure I let down the audience when I pulled him aside and whispered in his ear. (I’ve found nearly all parental instructions can be quietly whispered in an ear, just as easily as they can be hollered across a room.) It was a simple statement of being respectful and not embarrassing each other. I told him if he wanted to talk about it, we could step outside. He glared at me for a moment, and our clash was over. Nearly drama-free.

Public parenting scenarios are hard. We know someone’s watching — and judging. The kids put on a show, and the parents try to save face.

All the world’s a stage, we’ve been told. I guess I’m not a very entertaining actor.

Freelancer Emily Parnell writes for Diversions each week.

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