Why ‘The Art Of War’ Is The Only Parenting Book I’ll Ever Need

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What is your philosophy on parenting when consistently being outnumbered?

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My philosophy is ages old, and is, in fact, written out in a masterful book by Sun Tzu. It is called The Art of War. This may seem dramatic to you — I assure you, it is not. Every day as a parent, I am fighting a war — I am fighting things like negative peer pressure, social influences, media stereotypes, and human nature’s own baser elements. I’m fighting for the souls of my children (okay, that part is dramatic). But being a single mother to 4 children who are primarily residing with me is no joke. Below, Sun Tzu and I will spell out some of the basic tenets of our principles to you.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” and “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”

The first principle of one versus 4 parenting is that if you have to engage in outright battle, you’ve basically already lost. This requires a lot of strong mental maneuvers and nimble planning and reacting, but it can be done. Obviously, this means using tricks of the trade. Bribery. Consequences. Calmness. Outright refusal to engage. With my 3-year-old, this is how those various scenarios play out:

3: I don’t want to put my shoes on.

Me *Firm, forceful, but calm voice*: You will put your shoes on. *Walks away*

3: *Puts her shoes on*

OR

3: I don’t want to put my shoes on.

Me: If you do not put your shoes on, we cannot go to the grocery store, which means we cannot get the chocolate chips to make cookies. That’s fine with me. You can put your shoes on right now, or I’m going to put my pajamas on, and we’ll make no cookies.

3: *Puts her shoes on*

Now, of course, when dealing with threenagers (or any other age), there’s always a chance that none of these work. Then, you must consider …

“Who wishes to fight must first count the cost.”

Is it worth it? Must you go to the store right now? Will everyone survive if you put it off a day and put your pajamas on (as you warned) and open some cans of soup for dinner instead? If it’s not worth it — enjoy your pajamas. If it is …

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

Whatever you do now, you do it fast, you do it with strength, and you do not hesitate. When children can anticipate your next move, you’re out of luck. I wavered the other night, and wasn’t sure what to do, then decided on taking away kindle privileges. My kids, having anticipated this, had already plugged their kindles in for the night and meekly went to their rooms … to play with glorious action figure battles they’d set up earlier, knowing that kindle time is my first go-to privilege removal. Now, I swoop in with sudden chores, complete deprivation of company (You are now in charge of the living room, you’re sweeping the dining room, and you’re picking up the room upstairs! None of you may speak to each other now!). It’s amazing how well they can get along once they have lost the privilege of playing together for awhile.

But remember…

“If there is disturbance in the camp, the general’s authority is weak. ”

It might be time to make sure you’re being firm, following through, and are being fair. Being unfair will undermine your authority because it breaks trust. Not being consistent breeds uncertainty which breeds more boundary testing than normal (because if they sense a hole, of course, they’ll see if they can pick it open wider!).

So …

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

One thing I’ve learned since really, truly becoming a single mother (I felt like I was one for years before the actual split, because of my ex’s schedule for work and ‘play’ that left me doing the parenting nearly 95 percent of the time) is that there are times it really makes sense to allow the children to help. In the hardest of times, when things are the scariest for me, I keep up a strong front for them, because I know they are also scared and uncertain. My fear instills fear in them. Being alone with 4 children is hard sometimes, especially in unfamiliar neighborhoods or with even a hint of danger nearby. At those times, I want my children to see me as strong so that they too will be strong and listen.

However, sometimes, I like to give them chances to lead and help when I know I’ve still got control over the situation and am managing it just so they have practice for times of actual need. This means that sometimes when we go on big outings alone, I will give them a “vulnerable” speech on the way in — “Guys, I love taking you all on a trip to the aquarium a couple of hours away, but it’s very hard alone. I need you all to behave, to help me keep us together, to make sure we aren’t losing anyone, and to be very helpful and well-behaved so that we can do more stuff like this. It’s scary for me to be the only adult with 4 kids, and I’m always worried something will happen to me or us, so if you guys could help, I’d feel a lot better” (Truth — but also, I wouldn’t take them somewhere that I felt truly worried about being — that’s just asking for trouble as one parent to 4 young children). All of this helps, because …

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.”

I’m going to go ahead and say “and daughters.” By treating my children like they are (beloved) and giving them the power to feel like they’re helping (they are), they become like the very best soldiers. Strong, confident, and endlessly loyal. When I need them to, they follow me without question (though they may certainly ask later — and I encourage that).

And I always keep in mind that…

“Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare, there are no constant conditions.”

Things are always changing with children. What techniques worked 5 minutes ago may have no effect ten minutes from now. Where there used to be a rushing waterfall of motivation, we may now be facing a dried creekbed of apathy. Being a parent to so many kids, alone, means that I have to remember that while some things may be true most of the time, the ‘game’ is constantly changing and evolving, and so must I. Still …

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

So much power can be gained by simply knowing my children and myself. Knowing what things really trigger me into losing my temper, helps me prepare myself against those things so that I’m more able to stay calm and act the way I want to. Knowing what motivates my children, what scares them, and how they think of things, people, the world … all of that helps. That knowledge helps me guide them through life, occasionally engaging in battles with them where I can generally craft a “victory” for both sides, and generally helps me stay on the path I generally want to be taking as a parent. Knowing how to “fight” with my 8-year-old without triggering him into a downward spiral he can’t pull out of is invaluable.

Having said that…

“You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.” and “No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique.”

One thing you learn so quickly as a parent of many is that if you engage in a fight, if you lose your cool and start yelling and reacting because you’re mad — chances are, you’ve already lost the battle you really wanted to fight. You’ve pushed your kids out of a learning and receptive mode and into a defensive mode. You’ve probably lost some reason and are now primarily throwing emotion here and there. When you punish a child, yell at a child, discipline a child from a less defensible position (ie your own anger, frustration, hurt, etc), you may not be sure that your course of action holds water in 2 hours when you’ve calmed down. I’ve had plenty of humble moments where I’ve gone back to my children, apologized for yelling or overreacting, explained that I was just feeling hurt/mad/scared/etc and then let those take control of me (something I try to help them avoid, too), and then made things right. Those are important moments for your kids, too, because then they learn that when human adults also step out of line, they hold themselves accountable, make things right, etc.

But generally, I try to make sure the fights I really have with the kids are ones where I feel 100% certain of holding the highest unassailable ground (things like I want you to act with kindness, etc).

Still, I’m only human, and sometimes, I end up yelling or being more stern or feeling so angry and frustrated. Then, I try to remember that …

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”

You cannot corner a child. You should always leave him a chance to gracefully retreat. She’ll react better if she’s not stuck between a rock and a hard place. Children are little people, though, and sometimes, even that outlet may not be able to be taken right away. That’s okay. Just keep ensuring it remains.

My 8-year-old has been dealing a lot with anger issues this past year after the separation and subsequent divorce of his father and me, especially once his father introduced him to his affair partner who he lives with now and the children see every other weekend when they are with him. That’s hard. He’s hurting. He’s angry, he’s trying to understand things, he’s shifting blame to exonerate the people he loves (his dad, me), and he’s frustrated. He’s scared. It comes out as anger, but then spills over into irrational anger/behavior towards everyday things.

The other night, he lost his temper at me while I was working with him on his science fair project. He lashed out into a temper storm of words, telling me he hated me, that I hate him, etc. I don’t allow for the disrespect (including talking to him frequently about needing to be respectful of his father’s new partner, because it’s her house they stay in, and because despite the past, I believe she’s attempting to do her best to be kind to them when they’re there), and I knew I had to handle it. Still, I made sure he had some time to cool down, that I stopped him several times and gave him some space.

And then…

“It is easy to love your friend, but sometimes the hardest lesson to learn is to love your enemy.”

Obviously, your children are not your enemies, but what I’ve really, truly learned as a parent is that when they’re the most angry, the most frustrated, the most out of control — that’s when they need my love and patience the absolute most. My 8-year-old needs me to stay calm in these situations. He needs me to help calm him down. He needs me to open my arms to his raging, angry little body and hold him close (of his own volition, of course) until the stiff anger leaves and he’s clinging to me because it’s hard to be 8. It’s hard to be 3. It’s hard to be any age. Life is hard sometimes. When your child is the enemy and you’re drawing battle lines … she needs you the most. She needs you to be calm. She needs you to offer her solutions that allow her to acquiesce without losing too much face. She needs you to teach her how to handle conflicts by example.

I could end there, but the real question started about how to handle parenting while consistently being outnumbered, and I have to tell you … it does, ultimately, also come down to this:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

You remember when you were sure your mother was omnipotent and omnipresent? When she had eyes in the back of her head?

Yeah, that. I had to develop that, to the point where when I’m not directly watching (like if they’re out in the yard while I make dinner), they’re positive I know anyways. They’ll police themselves and each other because they’re sure MOM KNOWS. And when they think they’re finally safely far enough away that they can start to bully each other, use inappropriate words, or otherwise cause mayhem … SURPRISE! I was there, silently, just outside their doorways, and they’re busted. I have a few years yet before they figure out that I’m only human, and I plan on milking those years.

All of the above holds true, but because I do, at the end of the day, have a firm belief that parenting takes a village — and moreover, an *honest* village, I have to tell you, the real, simple way I deal with this is by making my kids my allies. I make sure that they know, without wavering, without fail, that I love them and I am always, always trying to do the very best thing for them. They may forget it in the heat of the moment, when I call an end to screen time or make them come inside to wash up for dinner in the middle of a heated lightsaber battle (though often I pick my battles and let them finish), but after, they always reaffirm that they know I love them and I’m just doing what I have to do to raise them well. And they do help. I’ve taught them a lot of skills they need to be more independent (they can all get breakfast for themselves, to an extent, ranging from toast-making skills by my 8-year-old to getting herself a yogurt and banana by my 3-year-old) and also to help each other. Now, as they load up into the car, the bigger ones help the smaller ones buckle up, check that the chest buckles are at the right height (armpit level!), and eyeball everyone’s piles to make sure all 4 lunch boxes are in the van before we go. When I take them out alone, as I do, they all do their best to be well-behaved and patient, to stay close to me, to hold each other’s hands for street crossings, and just generally make it so that we’re not on 2 different sides but are one allied team. One family.

It’s not perfect. Nothing with parenting is. But the more you can convert your kids to trusting you, even when you’re handing out unpleasant edicts, and enforcing your rules, even when you’re not standing over them, the better life will be. Cheers!

Alecia is an accomplished writer who has been published by Forbes, the Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, and more. See more of her Quora posts here:

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