Yesterday, my three-year-old son had to put away his toy truck because he kept ramming it into our furniture like some rude house guest.
After he parked it in its spot, he turned around and gave me one of those, “I really don’t want to let go of this thing, dad” looks. Knowing my son and his propensity to give in to these sorts of toddler feelings, I quickly said: “Don’t touch your truck again.”
What do you think he did? You guessed it; he reached out and touched his truck. Now, I’m undoubtedly the softer disciplinarian between my wife and me, so when my son did this, my inclination was to be overly-lenient in my response; to give him an extra chance or to dole out a relatively light consequence. But I recently learned something about disciplining as a soft parent that completely changed how I ended up responding to him.
It all started when my wife and I were watching a stand-up comedian last week. The comedian talked about how his emigrant dad was tough on him growing up: “Dad, you have some cash for a tip?”
“Why would I need cash to tip the pizza guy when I have you to go get the pizza? Now get outta here and go get that pizza.”
Over the next week, my thoughts kept going back to this comedian and his dad. There was something about the way his dad treated him that seemed… right. Like, it was okay that his dad was being tough on him. This idea was strange for me because, as a naturally lenient parent, I’ve always associated “being tough” on a child with acting like the drill sergeant dad or like the overbearing mother.
But this dad’s toughness seemed different. His toughness seemed to be motivated by some good force rather than from the unhealthy place that the classically tough parent seems to parent from (for example, the parent who thinks, “If my child misbehaves, it’s because I’m a failure as a person”).
After thinking about it for some time, I realized that this dad’s toughness came from believing his son was always capable of more: of accomplishing more; of obeying better; of trying harder.
So, when his son wasn’t living up to the bar his dad knew he was capable of reaching, his dad pushed him toward that mark. If he didn’t get the grades his dad knew he was capable of, his dad would push him. If he started whining about a chore his dad knew he could handle, his dad pushed him. He was tough on him because he loved him and believed great things of him.
This idea was eye-opening for me. As I soaked in this new way of thinking about parenting, my overly-lenient ways which had always felt so loving and compassionate suddenly seemed wrong and backwards.
I realized that I had been giving my children empathy but depriving them of the push they sometimes need. I had been abundantly giving leniency “out of love” for my children without realizing I was failing to teach them the right paths to walk down. What my children needed from me was to believe the best in them and then push them towards that mark. But my own fears of being mean, harsh, and unloving towards them led me astray and into a lenient parenting style that was lacking.
I needed to change my parenting style and change, I did. I took to heart that pushing my children to higher levels is a good thing when it comes out of a place of love and knowing they are capable of more. This idea should ring true to anyone who has ever had a teacher, boss, or anyone else believe the best in them and push them towards that goal.
My wife believed great things of me when we were dating, even after seeing some of the ugly sides of me. She believed the best and wouldn’t except less from me and, because of this, I became a better man. I am eternally grateful for her belief in me and persistent love.
But let me go back and finish my story. So, there I was standing in the playroom. My son had just reached out and touched that truck, after knowing I had just told him not to. Had this happened only a few days prior, he may have gotten away with it. But I know my son is capable of following instructions and obeying better than this. So, I enforced an effective consequence.
And, you know what? My son is better off for it. Yes, he cried and it was hard for me and for him, but it was the right kind of hard. He was learning exactly the lesson he needed to learn. In the end, I didn’t feel like I was being mean to him by enforcing the consequence. It felt good and right.
Your beautiful, wonderful child needs you to push them to heights you know they are capable of ascending. What better set up is there for our children than to have parents who believe the best of them and push them toward those goals day in and day out?
Our lenient ways which are full of compassion and empathy need an infusion of accountability. Love is equal parts grace and truth. It’s time to stop leaving out the truth.