It’s one of the commandments: Treat all your children the same. Treat your sons and daughters the same. All kids get the same rules, the same stuff.
That’s great in theory. In reality, it just doesn’t wash.
There are a few universal rules. Don’t lie. Be as kind as you are able. Respect the people you live with (as long as they respect you).
Other than those, the best way for effective parenting is to make up a new rule book for each child. Do not start adding in rules until you are fully aware of each child’s personality.
That’s where I made my biggest mistake. I went into parenting with my list of rules and my expectations about enforcing those rules. They worked great with my daughter – more than great. She was the easiest child I’ve ever raised or even been around. That never stopped, either. Even as a teen, she was easy. My rules about school grades and behavior were never difficult to enforce.
I assumed that was due to my awesome parenting, but the truth is it worked because of my daughter’s personality. She never minded bedtime because she loved sleep. Her grades were good because she didn’t mind schoolwork, and most things were easy enough for her. If something did come up and I felt the need to pull out a punishment, all I ever had to do was threaten to take away her stereo. She never forced me to make good on that – partially because it meant that much to her, but also because she is by nature a pleaser. She didn’t want to lose her stereo or make me mad. She cared about those things.
I assumed (heh) that all I had to do was apply the same rules and techniques to my second child and we’d be golden.
All that would have been fine except my daughter and older son are polar opposites in, well, damn near everything. Right from the start I knew this, yet I held on to my belief that I had to keep the exact same rules and the exact same enforcement techniques. And that blew up in my face.
I talked about it before, but, well, that piece kind of blew up in my face, too, and for the same reason. I was trying too hard to make sure I wrote about all my children equally. I forced that piece, the same way I tried forcing equality into my parenting. And with the same results.
The truth is you can’t really treat all your kids equally. It’s not fair to them to try.
This is a tricky thing, though. We all know of kids (or were those kids) whose parents played favorites. We all know of parents who let their sons run wild and force their daughters to toe the line. I never wanted to be that kind of parent and did everything I could think of to prevent it.
Because I expected my daughter to get good grades, I felt I had to expect the same from my son. I knew that, like her, he was more than bright enough to get straight A’s. It was only fair to her to expect the same thing from him, right?
No. It wasn’t fair to either of them. It was the wrong thing to do, even if it was for the right reason, and it took me about 14 years to figure out that it just wasn’t going to work.
Which brings me to this time around and how grateful I am that I already learned the lesson. Of course, just because I learned the lesson doesn’t always mean I can put it into action, but at least it doesn’t take me forever to figure out what I’m doing wrong.
When Jonathan was about 14 months old, he started bouncing on the couch like it was a trampoline. Not acting up or anything, just bouncing. We had already taken him out of the crib and had him sleeping on a mattress on the floor because of his love of bouncing (I was worried that the crib wouldn’t stand up to it, that he’d knock the bottom out and crash to the floor). Since he was used to bouncing on the crib mattress we let him bounce on the big mattress, but that was supposed to be it. When he started on the couch, I put my foot down. Of course I did. What kind of parent would let a child bounce on the living room furniture? It was damn sure not something I would have let the other ones do. So I set the rule – no bouncing on the couch – and attempted to enforce it.
It took about three days to realize there was just no way I could make him stop, short of extreme physical punishment or getting rid of the couch. Time out didn’t work, redirecting didn’t work, taking away things didn’t work. I didn’t know at the time why he was bouncing, I only knew that he was determined to do it, and nothing I could do would change his mind or his need.
So I ripped that page from the rule book and let him bounce to his heart’s content.
About six months later, we (the husband and I) found him lying on the dining room table. He was quietly playing with his favorite truck, watching the wheels the way he liked to do.
“We can’t just let him lie on the table, can we?” I asked my husband. I was desperately trying to think of a reason not to, and the only thing I could come up with was parents don’t let their kids lie on the dinner table.
My husband shrugged, and the look on his face made me think he was also trying to come up with a good reason – and with the same amount of luck.
“Well, it’s better than putting him down, only to have him climb right back up and maybe get hurt.”
I can guarantee that if any of the other kids had tried lying on the table to play with toys, he would have freaked out and shut that shit down fast. We both would have. We were not the kind of parents to let the kids play on the furniture like that. Yet there we stood, watching our youngest do his thing.
After that, I ripped out all the pages that dealt with proper comportment on furniture and set them on fire – and I dared anyone to give me a hard time about it.
I wouldn’t have let the older kids bounce on the couch because they didn’t need to. They would have been doing it simply for the fuck of it, whereas Jonathan did it to feed a need.
What’s easy for one child can be torture for another. What one child does to push Mom’s buttons another does to fill a specific need. Even if the action is the same, the child doing it isn’t, and everyone will be healthier and happier if each case is treated on an individual basis.