I consider myself an easygoing parent. I don’t hover over my children and I think there is value in making mistakes. As toddlers, I let them fall and as they grew I allowed them to sort out their problems without intervening. I just thought that I was raising independent children who would later become self-sufficient adults.
Over the summer, the rules become even more lax. Routine chores continue but without any school, I ease up on other things. There’s no real bedtime and if they want to lounge around in PJ’s, well that’s fine too, within reason.
Toward the end of this past summer, my children had taken it to extremes. My son seemed to be in perpetual sleepy clothes. Since he wears shorts and a t-shirt to bed, I was never quite sure if his day spilled into night or vice versa. Did he actually wear the same clothes for 4 days straight? One day, I called home to check on the bambini . It was 1 pm. Two-thirds of my children were asleep and the dogs had not yet been fed. They were still in the mud room, where they had been placed since 10pm the previous night. My voice grew low and slow on the phone. “Let the dogs out and clean up any mess they made.”
My mind was swirling! How could I let this happen? Did my “kids should be kids” mentality take over and turn them into child hedonists, indulging in every childhood pleasure all at once? It was time for me to get medieval (have you seen Pulp Fiction?) before I started living out scenes from Lord of the Flies.
Three days before the start of school, we all sat down for a chat. In a calm voice I told them that all chores would be done and there would be consequences for any lack of follow through. In the past years, I would wake them up in the morning. I’d just yell up the stairs “You up?” No more. No warnings anymore. Simply: if they were not in the car at 0730 I would leave them at home for them to find their way to school. I would no longer wake them up in the morning and neither would I wait for them in the car. If they were not in the vehicle, then I would leave them and they would have to find their own way.
I left my 14-year-old son on the second day of school. He walked the 1.5 miles to school. His sisters sat in silence as we drove. I know they were thinking, “Mummy is serious about this.” I fought every instinct to turn back and take him to school. I did turn back; mainly to make sure he wasn’t sitting in the house crying. As I saw him walking, I just yelled, “OK, regular pick up time later.’ I later cried at work and had to call my parenting “sponsor” (my mother) for words of affirmation. The Friday of that same week I woke up to dirty dishes and trash not taken out. Phone/Ipod/laptop were confiscated. If that happens regularly, “No” to the next invite you get. No yelling. I came home after working 14 hours that evening to a spotless house.
I haven’t checked homework in years. I just figure, they need to be accountable, not me; I have been through school, and lots of it. And it’s not that I am not concerned. I am quite interested in the tuition dollars that I spend. In fact, this way I am actually getting more bang for my buck. Independent thought will lead to more retention of facts.
Other rules: You forget your lunch, you can eat at school, but you have to pay me back.
Clothes not pressed for school? Press it out and be ready by 0730 or I am leaving you at home.
If we don’t hold them to a higher standard, they will always know that we are there to pick up the slack.
As far as how I will be perceived, I don’t care. My job is to raise selfless responsible adults. And to quote my late, great father, “I am not in a popularity contest.”
It’s been a month now and aside from the initial hiccups, chores are done, clothes are pressed, dogs are fed and children are ready by 7:15, waiting for me.
Sophia R. Grant, M.D., FAAP, is a board certified child abuse pediatrician at Cook Children’s Medical Center.