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How I’m Breaking Away From My Parents’ Style of Discipline

Recently, I realized the rules I was enforcing on my kids weren't my rules — they were my parents'. And I didn't even agree with them. So, I made my own.

My mother stormed out of the apartment and we didn’t speak for a week. Her guard was already up, visiting my new post-separation residence, and life, for the first time, she took issue with the anger directed at my 7-year-old.

The rage-in-question was birthed from the fact that I asked him numerous times to sit down and finish his homework. His 20-minute assignments take hours and involve trips to the bathroom, kitchen, and the other dimension he reaches while staring off into space.

My mother didn’t understand why I raised my voice so often and I laughed and commented on the irony of the statement considering she spent a good chunk of her thirties screaming at, around, and about me.

She took exception to the way I disciplined my son and my tone of voice towards her. Perhaps telling her to, um, “butt the hell out” wasn’t the best reply but the criticism sent me off the deep end.

Discipline is the process of teaching your child what type of behavior is “acceptable” and what type is not acceptable. Discipline teaches a child to follow rules, however, things get fuzzy when it comes to defining “acceptable” and “rules.” So much is up for debate.

I’ll often catch myself enforcing rules that weren’t mine to begin with, guidelines I didn’t particularly believe in or ever understood.

During my seven years as a parent, my interpretation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and the rules enforced on my children has changed. This happened when I realized that many of guidelines and decrees weren’t really mine at all. The rules of the house were my parents’ rules.

While researching my most recent book, I pored over pages and pages of different discipline styles. The styles of parenting include authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting. The authoritative and authoritarian methods involve concrete expectations and consequences except the first type is affectionate toward a kid while the second is colder than liquid nitrogen in a Yeti cooler.  Permissive parenting is all cuddles while junior does whatever the hell he wants.

The writing prompted a reflection on not only my own parenting style but the way my parents disciplined me. Both mom and dad fell in the authoritative category though dad wasn’t quite as affectionate as mom. He’s opened up over the years. I fall in the same category but where I differ from my parents is the number of things they were authoritative about. They had rules for every occasion. The commandments which stand out in particular include:

Though shall not make a mess of the house.
Though shall not make of mess of thyself.
Though shall not play in the rain, nor the mud, nor any weather other than partially cloudy or sunny.
Though shall not have friends over after school.
Though shall not go to friends’ houses after school.
Though shall not tape pictures or posters to the wall.

There were many, many more but I’ve run out of stone tablets. Breaking any of these commandments resulted in being grounded for any random period of time.

My parents lived for compliments from strangers in regard to my behavior in public. All of my mom’s favorite stories involve me being the perfect angel, especially in situations where people figured I’d act otherwise.

During my seven years as a parent, my interpretation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and the rules enforced on my children has changed. This happened when I realized that many of guidelines and decrees weren’t really mine at all. The rules of the house were my parent’s rules.

Here’s an example. My parents and I were invited to dinner at the home of this older couple. The husband was my uncle’s best friend, old enough to be my grandfather at the time. I was too young to remember but my mother has told the tale so many times over the years I feel like a member of the studio audience and not the protagonist. The woman kept the house museum-level immaculate. In preparation for a young child eating in her mausoleum-turned-dining room, she went Patrick Bateman and put plastic down under the entire table.

“And he didn’t spill one single drop,” and she always slows her cadence after the word spill.

I don’t know the proper punishment befitting the crime of a toddler spilling food on a Berber carpet but I enjoy piggybacking onto that story with the tale involving my foot kicking a softball-sized hole in the dining room wall because I wasn’t allowed to attend a school dance due to lackluster grades.

Now, I’ll often catch myself enforcing rules that weren’t mine to begin with, guidelines I didn’t particularly believe in or ever understood. I’ll ask myself, out loud, “wait, why is that a rule?” I’ll then command the kids to do the opposite. I’ll even play accomplice.

I schedule playdates for after school and will invite their friends over even if they didn’t ask to have a friend over. I’ll force them outside in anything short of a monsoon. Their bedroom walls are the perfect place to tape and pin random art projects, pictures from magazines and even those ads for toys included inside other toys. Are these rules all right? No, but they’re mine. And I’ll learn.

“Though shall not make a mess” is the lone rule from the old regime that’s still strongly enforced in my house just because I’m incredibly neat and don’t feel like cleaning up after the monsters.

I’m sure I have rules that seem normal in my eyes but will piss my kids off to no end. They’ll rebel against those rules when they have kids of their own. They’ll decide what’s appropriate and inappropriate and pick and choose a few of my commandments to keep their own kids in line.

Just in case they go full-on permissive, I’ve already invested in a healthy supply of plastic floor covering.