Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arbitrary Parenting

If asked, most of us would say that we parent with integrity, or at least that we try to parent with integrity. We would also say that we treat our children respectfully. Looking at the relationships of the parents and teens I know, it becomes clear that parents who do parent with integrity and who are respectful of their children continue to have a positive, loving, mutually respectful relationship through the teen years and into adulthood.

To parent with integrity we must avoid being arbitrary. When I decided to blog about arbitrary parenting I decided I should look up the word to make sure it accurately expressed what I was thinking.

Main Entry: ar·bi·trary
Pronunciation: \ˈär-bə-ˌtrer-ē, -ˌtre-rē\
Function: adjective
Date: 15th century

1 : depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
2 a : not restrained or limited in the exercise of power : ruling by absolute authority b : marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power
3 a : based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something b : existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of will   (Merriam-Webster)

It turns out that "arbitrary" is painfully accurate when it comes to many parenting practices. Parents rely on their own discretion. Some parents do practice the "unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power." However, all parents have times when their parenting is "based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something."

We all do this. We make a decision based on what we prefer or what is convenient for us, the parent, rather than out of necessity. When our children see through this our parenting can seem "random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of will." When we parent this way we lose integrity and we are not being respectful of our children.

Arbitrary parenting happens when we fail to be honest with our children about why we are making a decision. We say that something bad will happen when there are many possible outcomes.
"If you eat candy it will rot your teeth."
"If you play in the street you will be hit by a car."
"If you don't drink your milk you won't grow up big and strong."
We do this to manipulate our child to do or not do something because we want to protect them or simply because it makes our life easier. The truth is that some people eat candy and their teeth are fine. There are some streets that you can play in safely and there are many kids who play in the street every day and don't get hit by a car. Many children in the world don't drink milk and they grow up just fine. Your children will eventually notice the kids who do the things you don't let them do who are still alive and doing just fine. That doesn't mean you should let your child do whatever they want with no regard for their health and safety. It does mean you need to do your research and be honest. It's important to explain to our children what our concerns are and then discuss ways to meet their needs while supporting their safety and health. Every time your child finds a lack of truth in the information you have provided you lose credibility in their eyes. When your child feels you have been manipulative it also leaves them feeling frustrated, betrayed or angry.

From the age of 3 my eldest has drawn on her own arms. When she attended middle school she found that most of her friends were not allowed to draw on their arms. Some of them had been told that they would get ink poisoning from drawing on their skin. Was this true? My daughter and I went on-line and found that you would have to drink at least three ballpoint pens worth of ink to get ink poisoning. She returned to school and told her friends the truth. Were the friend's parents relieved to know that their kids could happily draw on themselves without the fear of ink poisoning? I'm guessing some of the kids didn't bother to tell their parents the truth because their parents wouldn't have responded well to being "contradicted." The other parents probably didn't appreciate our fact finding because they were using the fear of poisoning as a way to control their kids. The parents didn't want their kids drawing on their skin because the parents didn't like the way it looked, or because of what others might think about their parenting or their child. Instead of being honest and talking this through with their kid, they provided false information.

Parents set arbitrary limits all the time. In an effort to parent with integrity and to be respectful of my children I've learned to question my motives. Why am I saying "no"? What would happen if I said "yes"? Am I saying this to make my life easier? Am I saying this out of a place of fear or to control my child?

We don't have punishment in our house, however, in many households this is another area fraught with arbitrary punishment. "Because you broke that dish you are grounded from friends for two days." "If you don't go to bed right now you can't have a friend over tomorrow." Even so called "natural consequence" are often arbitrary and manipulated by parents. "If you don't do your homework you can't play video games." In truth, if you don't do your homework your homework doesn't get done. The natural consequences of that may be a lower grade but there are no natural consequences that can take place at home relating to homework, which comes from school.

In our house we also don't have rewards, these are often even more arbitrary than punishments. "If you don't wet the bed you get a gold star. Once you have 10 gold stars we'll buy ice cream." Seriously? If a child is wetting the bed they are doing it in their sleep and have no control over that. Gold stars and ice cream have nothing to do with physical development or dry beds.

Every time you feel that you must set a limit ask yourself if you are parenting with integrity and respect. There are limits in life, but those that are "set" by parents are often arbitrary in nature. When you think you need to set a limit instead start a discussion, and make sure it involves the truth and input from your child. Parenting with integrity and respect does not involve rewards and punishment. Rewards and punishment are used to control and manipulate our kids. Parenting by control and manipulation is counter intuitive to parenting with integrity and respect.

Parenting with integrity and respect requires us to involve our children in the conversation. We must be honest and we must not be arbitrary. If we say "no" then we need a real, fact based reason why. If we can get to the teen years with our parental integrity intact, with our children knowing that we are willing to help them explore the options and answers, that we are not trying to control or manipulate their behavior to make our life easier, and we are truly supportive of the person they are, our relationship with them will reflect this.


  1. How about this one? You didn't turn in 2 assignments, so I'm taking away your makeup. :/

  2. I disagree on some of this. There are consequences to your actions. We as parents need to teach children that. If that means taking away the make-up because 2 assignments were not turned in it will teach that young lady that there was a consequence to her behavior. I also feel it should be said UP FRONT what the consequence will be.

  3. This is great! As for the taking away the make-up, I'm sure that there were consequences in the form of a lower grade for the young lady.(assuming this is a public school scenario) Instead of piling on punishment by taking away her make-up why not find out why the 2 assignments were missed? Was she overwhelmed with other things? Did she write the wrong due dates down? Did she simply forget because there were other assignments that were her focus? Then she and her parents coudl work as a team to help her be sucessful next time. Adults forget things in life all the time, they deal with the consequences..ie. problems it creates at work, loss of a job, missing something because they didn't get somewhere on time. They don't then go home and hear "Since you didn't get your powerpoint done and in on time, I'm going to take away the tv."

  4. I agree with JoAnn. If the consequences of a person's choices are not bad enough to be considered sufficient punishment in and of themselves, then why is punishment necessary at all?

  5. I won't repeat what JoAnn or Ronnie already said, although I agree whole-heartedly. Taking away makeup because 2 assignments were missed does not "teach" the consequences for your actions many parents think it does. It does teach a child that if they happen to do something the parent dislikes they will be punished. It does teach children that they will only be loved if they behave a certain way. I work with families in crises and every single family that brings in a child for counseling takes a punishment stance when it comes to parenting. I've yet to work with a family that who parents in the way Jenna, JoAnn, or Ronnie suggest. As for setting up consequences before hand? That seems really mistrustful to me. "I don't trust you enough to do your school work on your own so I want you to know if you ever miss an assignment I will tale away your make up." Punishment teaches children that they cannot trust their parents to be understanding which leads to children becoming more sophisticated liars.

  6. Jess, I find that not only do they become sophisticated liars, but they also become sneaky, and not as open with ones parents. Just my thought on it.

  7. An addendum: I understand that the punishment is intended to prevent recurrence, and I completely understand the desire to prevent recurrence. Adults tend to take a long view, i.e., "if she misses assignments, she'll fail the class and it could impact her graduation/ability to get into college/entire future." It's very scary thinking, and it's natural to want to **do something** to prevent such scary outcomes.

    The thing is, that type of thinking leads to excessive reactions, and excessive reactions lead to angry kids who may in turn react instead of acting rationally. And yeah, they certainly won't come to someone for help if that someone is known for overreacting.

  8. Damn....I was late to work today....hope nobody takes away my make-up!

    Oh, wait...I'm safe--I work for myself. The *natural consequence* I have to worry about is that I'll have less free time to myself tonight, as I'll have to stay late and work. OR, I could make less money for the week. But nothing arbitrary, about my make-up or my television or my chocolate treats, is affected by my being late today.

    Good post, Jenna.

  9. What would happen if kids in these households reacted in similar fashion to the punishments and limits arbitrarily set?

    Say, for example, a child reacts to Dad promising to take him/her to the park and then not because of *insert whatever here* said child says "Because you didn't keep your word to me today I'm not going to hug you goodnight because you need to learn to be a responsible parent." ...

    It would be totally reasonable and fair and yet I somehow think w/ that kind of parenting mindset it wouldn't go over too well!

  10. Deb, I actually know a child like that--he punishes his friends and his parents by withholding attention, love, etc....will not speak if they do something he doesn't like. Wonder where he got it....ugh.

  11. Crazy Lady: your proposed "consequence" is actually a *punishment". A punishment is: doing something to someone that makes them hurt or uncomfortable in order to stop them from doing something. That'll really prepare them for real life, huh? Are you planning on following them around for their whole lives giving them rewards and punishments for their actions? Why not get a dog instead of a human?

  12. The thing that bugs me is when people create a punishment to protect their child from a consequence. Your child doesn't want to share so she gets a time out because if she never shares none of her friends wil be her friend anymore. Or at least in the eyes of the parent. I'm not sure that example works but sometimes I see a situation and I think that child will figure it out on their own you don't have to punish them to teach them.

  13. Wow! Thank you for this! A hearty applause indeed. Well said and you've given me things to think about.

    Funny you should bring up the drawing on the skin issue. I have two budding little body-artists at home (and who knows, perhaps my little son will also join the ranks, eh?) and I've often been questioned about my "decision" to "let" them do this. But the bottom line for me has always been that the only people it should matter to are my children. If THEY don't mind having ink markings all over them, what difference does it make? Sure, sometimes they look like wild little urchins but...so? They are children! They are supposed to explore and, um, look like wild little urchins. To me they look like children that know how to have fun! And really, their skin or the walls? I pick their skin!

  14. LOL Snow71!
    Also, what about the incredible GUILT a child will feel when they accidentally wet the bed and don't get their ice cream...that seems so sad and arbitrary to me...like "What's the point of life? I have absolutely no control!"