That we are a social species is not news. Indeed, the bunch of us who were plodding along together at Mile 11 the other day were beyond pleased to see a cadre of running buddies who had come out to cheer for us and 20,000 of our closest friends. It’s easy to have a connection with a fellow enthusiast. “When is your next event?” “How is your training coming along?” “How do you like those shoes?” Indeed, it’s tough not to have a conversation with another runner. There’s just so much to talk about.
Indeed, the only criteria for participation in our running group–in addition to a predilection for sweat and joint replacement–is a willingness to schmooze. Similarly, there are lots of reasons to join the Kiwanis. Doing good in the community and getting business referrals aren’t the only ones. Shared purpose and communication are higher on the list. For every Fruit Loop isolated in a remote cabin plotting revenge, there are quilting guilds, hiking clubs, Elks, choirs, Amnesty International, polka aficionados, artist communes, travel groups, chambers of commerce, lacrosse leagues, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and National Council of Teachers of English conferences peopled by folks who have an anthropological memory: the lonely guy didn’t have any children because there was no way he could kill a mastodon by himself.
The Yearbook club has a high cost of entry: meetings after school, learning software, deadlines, missed photo day, group projects, conversations with the faculty sponsor, late nights, disagreements with the administration. The pot smoking club has a much lower barrier to admission: just show up. But whatever the assemblage, parents had better be the first–preferred–category. Your kids have to think of mom and dad in the first circle. Because if your kid doesn’t think of you as a member of his defining group, there are other organizations that will step up to fill the void before you can say there is an opening available in the smoking pot before school club.
I’m not talking about being friends with your kid or giving your kid everything she wants. I’m suggesting that figuring out what your kid needs and being attentive to those needs is the elemental gig of parenting. And don’t even start with, “she has a fridge full of food, we live in a big house, and I pay for her private school.” Surf and turf can be infinitely lonely whereas a PBJ can fulfill the stomach and the soul. Music may be the food of love, but shared meals are about connection not calories.
So let’s begin our unit of analysis with a crying newborn, a tantrumming toddler, a recalcitrant second grader, a petulant adolescent. It’s all the same across ages and stages. Your kid is out of control, needs help getting to equilibrium. You are being asked a question: as the leader of the most fundamental group in my world, can you help me get back to the place where I feel okay?
Remember those great teachers who never had any issue with kids misbehaving? Classroom management wasn’t a problem, because the students respected them. They never had to say, “sit down, shut up, learn this because I said so.” Those teachers exuded intellectual curiosity, shared purpose, and decency. They didn’t have discipline problems because the unit of analysis wasn’t us versus them. That’s the kind of parent I want to be. I don’t want to “manage” my child’s behavior. I want to connect with my child, help her solve her problem, show her the path to self control.
HALT–hungry, angry, lonely, tired–isn’t just a useful acronym for substance users focused on recovery. Why is the kid screaming? Figure it out. You are the adult in the dyad for goodness sake. If the kid is having a come-apart in the market because he is fixated on some worthless piece of garbage that he doesn’t truly care about and that you can’t afford, find a solution. Slapping the child’s hand and screaming, How many times do I have to tell you? That overpriced toy is made from single use plastic which is bad for our planet probably won’t do it. Whereas a hug and a sympathetic remark might. “I can tell you want that.” Don’t manage the behavior; manage the relationship.
Shared purpose is what makes every group function properly. Make your relationship with your child the priority. Fulfill her needs at home and she won’t have to go looking elsewhere for connection.
Because the pot smoking before school club has an open admissions policy. New members are always welcome; your kids won’t even have to sign their names to be admitted. And their door is always open. As parents, we have to bring our best game every day to compete. The next time you want to take the easy way out, the next time a parenting decision seems difficult, keep the competition in mind.