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That’s funny.

There was this one occasion, I was around 9 or 10 I think, when my father told me to stop arguing with him, and I replied in total sincerity, “I’m not arguing, you are.”  I’ll share more about this sad tale another day, but I was a recklessly argumentative child (I know you are all stunned). There are reasons, I have discovered much too late, why this was so, but I probably still would have been a sea-lawyer even if those reasons weren’t in play.

girl-tantrumYou don’t have to be a psychopath parent, of course, to have an insanely argumentative kid.

So I thought I’d offer a couple of suggestions I think might have helped me.  I’m only guessing backwards, though, and I could be quite wrong.  Possibly nothing but not having a psychopath for a parent would have helped, and very possibly I’d have been stubborn and argumentative and contradictory even if both of my parents had been haplessly normal, instead of one haplessly normal and naive person married to a psychopath.

Maybe I would have been slightly less argumentative if somebody had defined arguing a little better for me so that I understood being right had nothing at all to do with whether it was arguing. I seriously, honestly, totally, did not understand that at all.

Probably somebody needed to do a better job of getting it through my head that not every hill was a hill to die on.  That couldn’t happen in my home because the psychopath disagreed, and I really did not know this.  I honestly thought everything mattered and it all mattered the same, which was always, yes, it matters enough to die on that hill.   Granted, it’s really hard to teach a stubborn kid in any case.  But over time, if a parent refuses to engage in those truly silly, ridiculous arguments that you regret three ‘is-not’s into the exchange (or maybe sooner), gradually a child might learn.  I don’t mean you give in, surrender.  I mean you shrug your shoulders and say, “Whatever. I’m not talking about it anymore” and then don’t.  Sing. Hum.  Wash dishes. Dust. Sit down with a notebook and coloured pencils and ask your budding lawyer if he’d like to draw with you.  Change the subject, be willing to include the arguing child in the new subject or new action, but do not get dragged back into arguing.

Respect for authority- there was a real effort to drill into my head the idea of respect for authority.  Of course, this backfired because I saw it for the self-serving nonsense it probably really was.  But you don’t need to be that kind of parent.  There is truth to the notion of obedience and respect for authority, and if you are merely a haplessly normal parent, you can probably convey this to your children without making them scorn and resent you. I just feel like the more hapless you are, the longer it will take, but it should take eventually, and it does need to.

One important thing to remember is that just as there are no responsibilities without authority, there is also no authority without responsibility.  You have an unspoken but very real contract with your children.  When you took on the role of parent with all the authority that entails (and even the most lackadaisical of parents assert authority in ways they don’t even realize, making decisions for everybody that you all take for granted), you took on a compact not to abuse that authority.  You took on the flip obligation not to take it for granted without considering things from the children’s perspective.

They will grow up, you know.  They will not always be children, beholden to you.  You are parenting future adults who will be passing some kind of judgement on what you did and how you did it.  Because I said so is valid a few times, but it’s not a parenting mantra worth nailing to the wall.

Here’s an example of what I mean: I’ve shared before that in the matter of car trips, we grew tired of 7 children asking five times each on a 3 hour trip if we were almost there and so we made it a rule that they could not ask.  However, we also recognized that by making that a rule, we had also created an obligation for ourselves to keep them updated, so they did not feel like they had to ask how long it had been or how much longer we had to go before we’d be done.  (they could, of course, ask for bathroom stops).  We required them to stop with the endless ‘are we there yet how much longer how long will it be how long how long how long? and in exchange, we tried to update them regularly.

Likewise, as the parent, if you have a rule that flatly contradicting the parents is disrespectful and/or unacceptable, than you have also given to yourself the moral obligation to make assertions with much care and judicious consideration of information so that you are not routinely making idiotic statements that scream to be flatly corrected.  It is also your obligation to provide ways for children to present alternatives politely.  This takes time, and it takes care.  It’s not easy.  You will have to say at least a hundred times, “It’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it that makes it sound rude and disrespectful.” and then you will have to model acceptable ways to say the same thing, and perhaps even have the child practice.

You: We’re going to the library and then the park

Child: No! I want to go to the park first!

That’s not okay.  But the child can be taught to say, “Would it be okay to go to the park first?”

Possibly the child even knows something you don’t- rain is being predicted for later in the day, or you have another appointment you forgot about.  A parent needs to be open to hearing disagreement and additional suggestions, ideas, input.  But kids also need to learn the right way and wrong way to do this- and not only because ‘you’re the grown up.’  This child will one day be an employee, a student, a member of a team, a person with a wider circle of friends than Mom and Dad- and nobody likes being flatly contradicted and argued with on a regular basis.  We all prefer to have disagreements and alternative suggestions couched in more polite verbiage, so it’s helpful to show your kids how to do that, both in walking them through the right way to do this with you, and modeling it for them (in case you are wondering, yes, I am aware I still stink at this).

Even when you can’t really help it (You don’t have time to politely ask, ‘if you don’t mind, would you please not poke that black widow spider with your finger/dash into the road after a ball/’), you can address the issues more calmly when the urgent and immediately need is over.  So after your screech, it’s good to sit down for a cuddle and explain that you were frightened and worried, and why he shouldn’t have done what he was doing, and make sure he’s okay.

You will also need to teach them the difference between accidental facts and facts that matter.

If somebody says something happened five minutes after we got home, and it was actually ten or fifteen minutes later, unless we are establishing an alibi or time of death, this is probably an accidental fact.  It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change the important issues of the story.

If you are telling an interested friend that you painted the bedroom door rose coloured and the child wants to tell the world no, it was more like a pink, this is irrelevant and unnecessary insertion into the flow of your story and the contradiction is rude and unnecessary.

This, too, will take time to explain and demonstrate.  It’s probably best when the child flatly contradicts you in front of others to say something like, “Okay, I want to talk with you about this later, but right now Mama is telling the story and I need you not to interrupt.”  And as soon as you can, take him aside and walk him through the story asking which details *really* matter, would change the whole story, and which are only ‘accidental truths.’

You can also use examples from real life.  Once my older girls accidentally thumped the baby’s head on a concrete wall.  One of them ran to tell me about it, but first she filled me in on all kinds of unnecessary background, “Remember the wall by the house where we lit firecrackers with Brianna and Geneva last year, and there is a green bush next to it, and we sit in the shade and watch the birds and also we color there sometimes and we can climb the wall? well the baby’s head hit that wall and she is crying.”

The only thing that mattered there is, “come with me, the baby is hurt.”  But kids aren’t experienced with sifting and weighing information, so often they need your help.

Remember they are new on the earth and still learning the culture.  Most of all, love them.


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