Parenting: Being Mean to Kids

By: Julie Gamberg

I spent years teaching in very tough inner-city schools, and I prided myself on my great teaching, especially my strong classroom management skills. I could take a group of kids who perhaps hadn’t had breakfast, or even dinner the night before, who had somewhat or very unstable home lives, who may have had drug-addicted or prostituted parents — kids who did not come to school ready to sit down, listen and learn — and create a sense of structure, and order. I could make the day feel “safe”and contained. How did I do this? Through the use of a tough, disciplinarian, take-no-prisoners style…one which was very common in the schools I taught in and which involved creating “rewards” with charts on the board and/or a clipboard, and acknowledging and lavishly praising wanted behavior while immediately punishing – with things such as time-outs and loss of privileges – unwanted behavior. There were also promises of future reward and punishments, such as ten minutes’ free playtime, or a withheld part of recess, based on behavior. These “consequences” were applied consistently, compassionately and extremely firmly, with no “wiggle room” which might have allowed for the child’s “manipulation” of me or the situation.

Parents of my students would sometimes ask me to teach them these techniques, so they could “try to get control” of their kids at home. I was thought of as something of a parenting “expert”, although in truth the techniques I was teaching and using were in no way creative, fresh, original, or hard to come by. Parents, if you really want to apply these techniques, you do not need to look very far, and you don’t need to work very hard. They are easy to use and they are ubiquitous. They are, for starters, in every playbook of every mediocre classroom teacher I know of. They are the worst of what a “great” teacher does, and the only thing keeping a bad teacher from a classroom of complete insanity. But they are nothing to be proud of. Although I know on our hardest days it doesn’t always feel like it, controlling kids is ultimately pretty easy. After all, until they become old enough, we can simply manhandle them if we want to. We’re bigger, we’re stronger, and we know a lot more about how the world works. We feed, clothe, and shelter them. They love and worship us. They are completely at our mercy. Being mean to kids in the name of creating order is not a hard feat. Being a little bit mean is also pretty darn easy. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we are not being mean, just “firm,” yet even this is relatively easy.

The hard stuff begins when we decide that parenting with control, manipulation, rewards, and punishments, will no longer be in our own parenting playbooks. Letting go of those “tried and true” workaday “solutions” to the behavior of our littles that most troubles us, and seeking to raise our children through connection, listening, empathy, reasonable limits, and yes, some reading, some talking, and some hard work on our end…that is where our highest calling as parents begins.

As I began to come into my own in the classroom, I felt proud of my teaching accomplishments – I could keep a group of kids quiet, in their seat, and for the most part engaged, and happy to be there. I had good relationships with my students. However, something nagged at me. The part of my day that involved classroom management in a very authoritative style (a lot of the day) – one I slowly came to see as downright draconian – always felt…not right. These children were not seals-in-training. They were complex human beings with an array of emotional needs and wants which were going totally unmet. The only acceptable behavior in the classroom was my way. I began to think about alternatives, but really couldn’t envision managing so many children with such diverse and divergent needs, any other way. I think my crisis of thought at that moment – the fact that I simply could not see or envision another way – reminds me of the crisis of thought I hear from parents now. They feel, in their bones, that they want to parent another way, but on a practical, day-to-day level, they just don’t see how it can be managed.

During my last year of teaching, I was lucky enough to be at a small, inner-city public school, which was supplementally funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. The school attracted extraordinary teachers, and for the first time in my life, I began to see (some) teachers who were managing their classrooms without a reward chart, and without explicit punishments and consequences. These teachers leveraged their relationships with the students and the class, to figure out together how to solve any problems they encountered. They worked on building their students’ problem-solving capacity, and gently helped children communicate with one another, and discuss and solve their issues together. I realized, with no small amount of shame, that while I was giving my students “good days” at school –and, through external force, giving them an example of what managing their behavior might feel like –as well as warmth, support, and education, these teachers were going a million miles beyond that. Their students were developing communication, negotiation, conflict-resolution and self-regulation skills that would last them a lifetime. They were gaining confidence and mastery while finding intrinsic motivation and a love of learning. They were seeing a model of problem-solving based on caring, empathy, listening and working together, rather than discipline, fear, and control.

Although I was leaving K-12 teaching, it became clear that this was altogether a better method. Whereas I was working toward being a “great” teacher by the old playbook, these teachers were in a different league altogether. A friend who went to a prestigious law school once told me how brilliant and important he felt in high school and college, and then how dumb and inconsequential he felt when he got to law school. It is a humbling moment to realize that as much as you think you are doing, there is someone doing so much more and, more importantly, to realize that is who you would prefer to be.

I took these lessons into parenting. I vowed that if these teachers, and others, could do these amazing things with a huge group of students who came to school facing enormous obstacles to learning and socializing, then I could surely do that much and more with my one, or two, or three children who would have had (if they were hungry) dinner the night before, and breakfast in the morning, and who would be free from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and who would have a stable and consistent environment. I vowed to read, and join online lists, and talk to other parents, and watch and ask about good parenting when I saw it, and do the work that these amazing teachers did, so that I could give that experience to my child.

I am glad to have had so much teaching experience going into parenting. I know it has helped in many ways. Of course it would have helped so much more had I learned about these progressive and effective teaching philosophies while I was still able to practice implementing them. But ultimately parenting is very different than teaching. It is so much easier in that I have control over all of the variables, so I can stack the deck enormously in my favor. And it is so much harder because it’s 24-7. So far, I’ve found challenges that far surpass those of teaching. Such as having a colicky baby –requiring me to push at the boundaries of human exhaustion to care for her, or dealing with a full-blown tantrum over not being able to play with my cell phone. But I am grateful that in all of the hard and complicated moments, there is no part of me that has longed to return to the draconian days of “if you don’t x, I’m going to y”, “good job -you get a star!”, “time out!”, or any other methods of top-down authoritarian control that were such an important part of my arsenal as an urban educator. Mostly, I’m so glad that I’m able to deal with problems that come up without being mean. To all of the kids to whom I’ve been mean in the past: I wish I had known better. And to all of the kids who I will know in the future: I hope I’m always able to offer guidance and maintain limits without being mean. Because I have no excuse. I know better now.


  1. says

    Love your writing Julie and you do stir up the pot in a good way. You seemed to have turned out well and able to make changes and ebb and flow with the times and grow as a person. How were you raised?

  2. says

    I too have worked with a lot of at-risk kids who desperately needed the attention and empathy and love and compassion that they were not getting at home. But I do not believe that giving them rewards for good behavior or consequences for bad behavior is “being mean.” Sometimes the children i’ve worked with desperately needed boundaries, and once they had boundaries and understood “the rules” of our relationship, they were able to feel secure and stop wasting emotional energy on feeling secure so that they could spend that time and energy on developing their own talents. I do really enjoy the debate that you’ve provoked with your parenting style, and I’ll continue to watch with interest. But you’re never going to convince me that consequences and rewards are “being mean.” If you would like to present me with some practical ideas for how to manage my currently-establishing-his-independence-and-expressing-his-disappointment-about-having-to-share-me-by-being-defiant 3-year-old and my infant in the real world, I’d love to hear them. But I need to operate in the real world where I have to be on time for things and my children cannot run out into traffic and it’s not okay to throw things at other children and I need to get sleep at night to function. How might you suggest I get a 3-year-old to sleep more than 8 hours a night when I know he needs it? Reasoning and listening and empathizing hasn’t “worked” but sticker charts do. Occasionally. :)

  3. Nicole says

    I agree with Barb, wholeheartedly. I am surprised Julie, because you are a good writer, with a strong command of the language, that you so casually call using consequences for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior “being mean”. I’m surprised that you don’t even seem to believe in consequences. And then you go to a strange extreme (which I find quite troubling) by writing that “controlling kids is actually pretty easy”, that we can “manhandle” them “if we want to.” Huh?? No, we can’t manhandle them. That, actually, would be mean (not to mention morally , ethically, and legally wrong). I’ve also been DYING for you to give us SOME sort of practical solutions to go along with your theories. From reading your other blogs I know you have a young daughter. Is she not hitting, biting yet? Not trying to climb up on the table at a restaurant? And if/when she does, are you saying you will meditate with her? Well, good luck with that. (By the way, what “reasonable limits” did the stellar teachers, the non-“mean” teachers at the Bill Gates school set for their students? What EXACTLY do you mean? I SO want to hear some practical examples to support the fluff you’re so eloquently throwing out.) I’m surprised you don’t see the benefit, the independence, a child receives from learning that there are consequences to incorrect behavior. That the boundaries, set by a parent, by the person/people who love them more than anyone in the world, are not only needed, but also desired by a child. That the bonds of trust and communication between child and parent are strengthened when that parent teaches that child right from wrong and the rewards and consequences that go with that. And by the way, a child can be given a consequence (like a one- or two-minute time-out) that is also delivered with empathy, non-judgment, love, and yes, even a little meditation. My son, at age 7, now announces, when he’s having a hard time behaving, “I think I’m going to go rest in my room. My body can’t seem to behave.” I taught him when he was very young (like 3), when he behaved in a way that didn’t so much merit a consequence –i.e whining, as opposed to hitting his friend –to go hang out in his room for a bit. I would say, “you are not in trouble, but I suggest you go to your room for awhile until you feel like being with the rest of us.” I would tell him that maybe he was tired, maybe he just needed a “breather”. Sometimes I would gently knock on the door after a few minutes and he would welcome me in and I lay on his bed and we would talk about it. Sometimes we would just cuddle and say nothing. Sometimes he would still be too angry, too frustrated when my knock came and he would ask for more time alone. He might draw, talk to his stuffed animals. He hasn’t been assigned a mantra or anything, but I would say he was meditating, and that I gave him the tools to do that. But on the flip side, believe me, if he didn’t share his toys at the park with his friend (totally normal, no big deal, not fun or easy to share), but still refused to do so after not only being reminded (gently the first time), and then warned (the 2nd and 3rd time) that we would leave the park, I would pack it up and leave right THEN. Even if he was screaming, begging for another (4th) chance, even if my girlfriend was annoyed that our conversation and her kid’s playdate were suddenly cut short. We would leave. And he would then learn not only that sharing is important but also that mommy means it. And I have no doubt in my mind that those lessons have been good for both of us.

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