How not to discipline a child: Instructions should not be phrased as questions or observations

At the end of last year, I mentioned the issues with my son’s behaviour. I’m not so sure I identified the problem correctly before, or at least there is another aspect to it that I didn’t consider… my mother.

Full disclosure: I’m not happy that my mother is staying with us. When I rented the apartment six years ago, the main bedroom was supposed to be for Megan and I, and the second bedroom for Josh. But that relationship didn’t work out, so the main bedroom is now shared by myself and Josh, and my mother uses the second bedroom. She stayed with my brother for a while, until he kicked her out leaving her with nowhere to stay besides me. Aside… Recently he asked some odd questions – he asked me if there are any photos of our mother pregnant with him. He’s implying that she isn’t his mother. (She is.) Anyway, it is what it is… my mother is a burden that I am stuck with.

I have two issues with the way she disciplines my son, one of which I spoke to her about… The first is that she is getting old and cranky, and she complains, moans and groans about everything. We all knew someone like that when we were children, didn’t we? The old woman who’s always complaining… And what did we do? We ignored her. Here’s why: Even if a person is in a position of authority, if they complain about everything, there is no difference in their tone when the things they say are important, versus when they are not. She is effectively teaching Josh to ignore her. This is what I tried to explain to her last night – it did not go as well as I would have liked.

The other issue would be amusing if it didn’t have such horrible side effects. She doesn’t give him clear and unambiguous instructions. She says things that can be taken literally, as either statements of fact, observations, or questions.

Some examples: “Did you wash your hands?” is a question that he might answer with “yes” or “no”. It isn’t an instruction. “Both your toy-boxes are open” is an observation. It also isn’t an instruction. Some of these statements come closer to instructions than others; some are the opposite of what she expects him to do.

Instead of saying directly what she wants done, she makes these statements, questions and observations all the time. In order to obey and be perceived by her as obedient, he needs to see through the innuendo and take the hints. That’s not his fault. It’s hers.

I don’t know how old you have to be to get hints, but as mentioned, some are more obvious than others. Heck, I don’t even get all her hints. “You need to do something about the kitchen light” (because one of the two fluorescent bulbs stopped working) will result in my response, “Yes, I do”. And then I’ll forget all about it. “You didn’t fix the door”… Yes, that’s right, I fucking didn’t.

If you expect a child to listen to you, even your 45 year old child, be clear. Request what you want done, or in the case of a small child, instruct them exactly what they must do. Don’t expect them to get your vague hints, and if the instruction is phrased as a question, an answer is not backchat. For example, “Did you brush your teeth?” may result in an answer of, “no”, without the child realizing that you actually want him to brush his teeth.

I don’t know if I’ll raise the second issue with my mother, or how… She did her job of parenting already, and I should not have to give her this kind of advice, for goodness sake…


Edit: I do feel bad about being negative about my mother. She is having a tough time… A few months ago, she fell off the kitchen ladder and damaged her last vertebrae – now she needs a spinal fusion operation. So she is in a fair deal of pain. Going to a public hospital, she is on a waiting list of almost a year. I felt especially negative about her this morning because the guy we were using for lifts had his car break down. So I had to take her for her monthly appointment at the hospital this morning. I dropped her off there – in the opposite direction to my work, at around 6:30AM. (She uses public transport to return.) So this morning we also had to leave Josh waiting alone for his lift to school.

But she is really annoying too. She seems to think I am under some obligation to drop everything and take her to hospital. I shouldn’t have to. I do it because I care, but it doesn’t help that she is always complaining. I’m an easy going person, and having someone at home complaining all the time really gets to me. I’ve had pain too… A few years ago I was punched such that the gash extending the left side of my lip went nearly right through my cheek, and it was fucking sore, but I didn’t have to remind everybody around me how much pain I was in all the damn time. In fact, I pretended everything was just fine, and said nothing about it.

Having somebody who is so negative around all the time affects me too. And her never-ending surly comments to me and Josh creates a tense atmosphere in the one place where I want to relax. Plus it almost amounts to bullying to Josh. Discipline should never resort to that. I love my mother, but I might love her more if she was a bit further away…

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About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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One Response to How not to discipline a child: Instructions should not be phrased as questions or observations

  1. bbnewsab says:

    You are not alone, Jerome. I’ve heard and seen the same things going on among my friends here i Sweden.

    Mothers can apparently act in the same way all over the world. I think it may have something to do with evolution and genetics. Both nature and nurture are involved.

    Liked by 1 person

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