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\
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
3 a : based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something
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.