“The best defense is a good offense.” Though often attributed to Michael Jordan, this adage was first said by George Washington in 1799. It is also known as the “Strategic Offensive Principle of War.”
Parenting can be likened to war in its power struggle, its battle of wits, the vying for strategic position, and the fusion of physical and emotional exhaustion. Diapers, sibling feuds, noise, mess, cleaning, vomit, sleep deprivation, incessant arguments, chutzpah, embarrassing moments in public, buckling into car seats in the pouring rain or the beating sun, spilling apple juice on purpose, teenagers. Guerilla warfare at its finest.
How do we respond to sporadic attacks from children on our mental health? How do we respond to the unrelenting pressure of minute-by-minute decisions that parenting faces us with?
Slowly, deliberately, and with composure.
When we are in danger, we experience a “fight or flight response.” First coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in the 1920s, the fight or flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event. Our knee-jerk response is either one of fight (shout, intimidate, insist, threaten) or of flight (withdrawal). Neither of these responses are effective.
Let us take a moment to unpack the fight response and its lack of efficacy. Fight is the most common parental response. It is the inevitable battle position we embrace when faced with a disconcerting parenting circumstance. Many parents unconsciously believe that fight is parenting, and kids need to get their act together. I would argue that fight is not parenting; it is naïve, it is emotional, it lacks accountability, and it is counter-productive.
In his fascinating work Spare the Child, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakovson quoted the following excerpt from a symposium held with troubled youths:
“Threats don’t mean anything. Almost no one carries them out. Every kid knows that. Grown-ups threaten when they can’t get us to listen and don’t know what to do…A grown-up who threatens is just making a fool out of himself. It’s like he’s saying, ‘I know that I can’t get you to listen to me, but watch out because I can beat you up.’ He’s just showing how pathetic he is.”
When we allow ourselves to become emotionally engaged in a situation, our interventions are no longer in the child’s best interests. Even if we emerge victorious, we have sent the wrong message. A child sees uncontrolled emotion in adults and says, “Oh yeah, I can relate to that. I annoyed them so they’re getting me back. I caused pain and inconvenienced their lives, so they’re doing the same to me. It’s no different than the rules of the playground. If you bother a bigger kid, they will get you back. Grown-ups are bigger and more powerful. Note-to-self: Avoid bothering grown-ups out of self-interest.” Our intended message is lost. The only lesson learned: Grown-ups have temper tantrums too.
Instead of beating our chests, intimidating, threatening, and berating, we must exude strength through composure.
In the first years of my teaching career, I learned the hard way the fallout of becoming emotionally engaged in an argument. Classroom management was out of the question by day two, and I found myself wasting the majority of class time barking instructions and threatening unreasonable punishments, and was emotionally drained at the end of every day.
In contrast, as the years progressed, classroom management became the status-quo, and any deviation from my expectation was a mere blip to be dealt with.
One day a new student decided to test the boundaries. He ran into the classroom early and barricaded the door. He threw markers about the room, taped my chair to my desk, removed magnets from the whiteboard, and spilled a stack of textbooks onto the floor.
When he opened the door, I announced to the class that recess was in 20 minutes. “Everyone please find your seats and complete your work in a timely fashion so you don’t need to use recess time to complete work.” I reminded them not to allow any distractions to get in the way of their goal of finishing the work before recess, made no comment about the state of the classroom, did not acknowledge the boy’s misbehavior, and proceeded to my desk. I handed out worksheets to everyone in the class besides the perpetrator, and started the music, which was their cue to begin. When the boy asked for his worksheet, I informed him he would get it when the classroom was back to the way he found it.
He returned to his desk in protest. When 20 minutes had passed, the boys handed in their worksheets and I dismissed them to recess.
The boy cleaned up the classroom, and then asked for his worksheet. After he finished his work, he joined the rest of the class at recess.
Children don’t respect us when we act like children. They respect us when we act like adults. Shouting louder, scarier, and with more resolve is not adult behavior. It is a more developed version of “I’m the King of the Castle.”
To defend ourselves from the collateral damage caused by raising children, we must familiarize ourselves with the most powerful offensive tactic there is in parenting: composure. The maturity, calm, and collectedness of composure automatically positions us at the top of the family hierarchy. Composure is foreign to children. They walk around the world unsure of its rules, unsettled as to their place in the grand scheme of things, and insecure about their safety. Not only will children respect us for acting with composure, they will benefit from nesting under the wing of grown-ups they can truly count on - grown-ups who are confident in themselves, and won’t be derailed by the actions of a child.