Knock it Off, or Else: Disciplining the Kids

By Bruce Frassinelli

The other day, I stopped at a diner near my home. At the table next to me was a mother with two children. The kids looked to be about maybe 10 and 13 years of age, and the older one was tapping away at his phone.

The mother apparently was looking for some quality time and interaction with her son and nicely asked him to put away his phone.

“Shut up!” he bellowed and continued tapping away.

I was so shocked that I dropped my fork. The mother looked embarrassed but said nothing.

I thought to myself what would have happened to me if I had ever told my mother to “shut up?’’ As we used to say during my youthful days growing up, “I’d be spitting teeth for a week.”

Today, of course, Mom would be charged with child abuse and might do hard jail time, and I might have been shuffled off to a foster home.

Has it really come to this, I wondered, or was this just one out-of-control kid? When I got home, I started researching the question and came upon a recently published book which convinces me that what I had recently witnessed might be the new normal. “The Collapse of Parenting” by Leonard Sax of Exton, Pennsylvania, a family physician and psychologist for 29 years, says that American families are facing a crisis of authority, because now kids are in charge.

Sax recounted an experience similar to mine, except it was in his office where a mother had taken her 10-year-old son because he had a stomachache. Sax said the boy was playing video games on his phone and ignoring his questions. The mother began describing the boy’s stomachache to Sax when the boy chimed in and said, “Shut up, mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sax said this kind of behavior is becoming common. “Children — both boys and girls — are disrespectful to their parents, to one another and to themselves,” Sax said.  He said the culture has changed dramatically in a short period of time, causing significant harm to children.

His book is about the transfer of authority from parents to children. Sax said that he believes parents should treat older kids like grown-ups. “You should expect them to be mature and to behave,” he said. As for pre-teens, he said, that is something else, and it is up to the parents to exercise authority and be able to say, “No, you’re not going to do that.”

As I searched my memory bank, I concluded that our three children were relatively well-behaved. To confirm this impression, I called my former wife, Sylvia, and told her what I was up to in writing this StoryWorth essay.  She agreed with my assessment.

I thought about my expectations for our children, because, after all, kids will be kids, but there are important boundaries. She reminded me that if they misbehaved at weekend Mass that I would pinch them as a signal that their behavior was not appreciated. She conceded that this got the desired results.

She told me that I was incensed on one Sunday night when the children wanted to continue watching the epic motion picture “The Ten Commandments,’’ and I insisted that because the next day was a school day that they should go to bed before the movie was over. Sylvia said I actually kicked the boys. If indeed this did happen, I do not remember it, and it was over the line. (I was not wearing shoes at the time, she said, which made me feel only slightly better.)

I did have a tendency to use the belt on them on rare occasions. This resulted only after I had exhausted traditional measures, such as warning them several times to knock off their unacceptable behavior, usually chaotic roughhousing,  then warning them that the belt was going to be the next step. So, if even then, there was not compliance, I administered a swat each to the offender’s or offenders’ backside. 

The warnings were poor justification for these barbaric acts, and in my later years I have come to accept that this was terribly wrong. I apologized several years ago to all three of my sons for regressing to this unacceptable form of punishment. One of my boyhood chums said I was a “wuss” for having these regrets and had no reason to apologize. I disagree.

I reached out to my sons to ask them to reflect on the punishment methods I used when they were young. My oldest son, Steve, said he “cringes’’ when he recalls the belt incidents. My son, Mike, acknowledged that I was “kind of a jerk a few times with the belt.’’ Mike said it makes kids resentful, but he also admitted that I do have some redeeming qualities, so all is not lost. Neither Steve nor Mike remembered my kicking them. Paul said he suffered no ill effects or lingering hostilities from my use of the belt and said we can’t judge what was done 50 years ago by today’s standards. He thought I could have defused the roughhousing incidents by putting them into separate rooms.

I am sure some of my disciplinary tactics were modeled after those I received as a child. My mother was physical when disciplining. She would tend to slap as opposed to administering backside smacks. Those were the exclusive domain of my father (described in a previous essay). My mother was also a “projectile launcher.’’ As I also described previously, it was wise to break bad news or misdeeds to her when she had nothing in her hand, because until I learned otherwise, she would throw whatever she was holding my way. It did teach me a certain amount of deftness for self-preservation.

I bought a child-rearing book called “Between Parent and Child,’’ written by Hans Ginott. Later, he wrote a sequel, “Between Parent and Teenager,’’ which I also bought. These taught me to temper the physical and gravitate more toward reasoning, especially as our children got older.

Children are not born knowing how to behave. We parents must teach them right from wrong, and some are doing a poor job of it. Many parents have put their children in the center of the universe. I, on the other hand, was a satellite in my parents’ universe. The result today is that these kids are losing perspective on what’s important. Instead of instilling concern in children about reaching out to others, it has become all about them, all the time. We are growing a generation of self-absorbed narcissists, which does not bode well for humanity and society.