In college, I worked at a restaurant and the manager said, “We’re not here to make the staff happy.” At the time I was horrified (so much so that we made it into staff tee-shirts), but, as the the manager of my home, I now have respect for her sentiment. Our parenting goal should not be to create happy kids nor is it to make our kids miserable. Our goal is to love, teach and launch our littles.
I may be a bit counter-culture when I say this, but I’m willing to risk it: it is not our job to make our kids happy. I’m not talking about depriving our children of joy; life certainly should have large quantities of fun, but not at the cost of avoiding conflict, preventing hardship or deflecting reasonable consequences away from our children. We must take an active role in helping our children understand expectations, know the limits of what is allowed and accept the consequences if limits are pushed or expectations are not met.
So, if you’re ready to join me in being a mean mom, take note of the following three steps:
1. Set Clear Expectations
Tell your children what you want from them. Do you want shoes off at the door? Tell them. Do you want hands washed before dinner? Make it part of the routine. What words are acceptable in your household? Be clear about which words you won’t tolerate (‘hate’ is one of those words for me).
Every family, and within each family, there will be different expectations. Be sure to communicate with your co-parents about reasonable expectations. The goal is to let the child know ahead of time what the expectations are, so that there is
no less confusion when you move on to the second step.
2. Have Firm Limits
I get it, sometimes we just don’t want to repeat our expectations over and over again like a broken record. But broken records are effective, so keep on repeating your expectations and don’t back down. Make sure your expectations and limits are reasonable, enforceable, and age-appropriate. For example, don’t expect a two-year-old to color match his socks or a five-year-old to do the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner.
But, when you tell your 4-year-old that “chairs are for sitting” and your tiny human is using hers as a stage to sing on, remind her of the expectation you stated earlier. Say, “Sweet daughter of mine, chairs are for sitting. If you don’t sit, I will take your chair away and you’ll have to stand.” When she stands on the chair again, it’s time for step three: enforcing consequences.
3. Consistently Enforce Reasonable Consequences
Nobody wants to be the one to make a child cry, which is why this is often the hardest step. In an attempt to avoid consequence or simply because they are mad, children (and adults) tend to whine, tantrum and push back when consequences are enforced. If you notice this behavior, it’s not because you are unfair, terrible or heartless. It’s because you are doing something right. Over the course of time, behavior will change if consequences are consistently enforced.
Natural consequences exist to discourage certain behaviors and encourage others. Think back to the child standing on the chair. The expectation is that “chairs are for sitting” and the consequence of standing on your chair is not having a chair at all. If her behavior doesn’t match your expectation, apply the consequence by taking away her chair. Her legs will get tired standing through dinner without a chair. In all fairness, she may not cease standing on chairs right away. However, if you consistently take away her chair when she stands on it, I guarantee* she will eventually stop.
Taking responsibility for your child’s happiness is an unreasonable and impossible standard by which to measure your parenting. If we see our task of parenting as creating people who are happy all the time, we will always feel like a failure. No one is happy all the time, nor should we be.
We love our kids. We love to make them feel happy and we need to love them enough to make them unhappy at times. In the long run, we all want a world filled with decent, thoughtful, kind adults. Just know you may have to tolerate some temporary unhappiness to get there.
*I don’t actually guarantee this, kids can be cray.