I might have called this little girl a brat if I’d watched this scene 15 years ago. Maybe even 10 years ago. This little blonde girl appeared to be about 3 or 4. She was with her parents in Chick-fil-A — and she was having a loud and sudden meltdown.
I grew up believing children should always be controlled and composed. That belief followed me into my early adult life. I expected children to be little adults in child suits, always in control of their behavior, always perfectly obedient — like little robots.
The little girl in Chick-fil-A seemed sweet. I had talked with her a little bit in line while her parents and I both ordered. She seemed loving and kind. But she was tired from riding in a car all day. Her mom told me they had left Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the morning and they had been tied up for hours on I-20 west of Atlanta by a horrible traffic accident.
The sweet and loving little girl was just tired and cranky. Where I might once have criticized her — and her parents — I now felt empathy for all of them. And it made me think again about how much my attitudes have changed about how to raise children.
I was trained to be a little robot. I was always in control of myself. I could carry on perfectly correct and polite conversations in pretty much any adult situation. As far as I can recall, I was never seen out of control in public from the time I was old enough to understand what behavior my father required. Isn’t that the way all good kids act?
For a long time, I had contradictory attitudes about this aspect of my childhood. I came to understand that my father had used fear and intimidation to control us, but I was still proud of having been a perfect little child. Even though I didn’t think other children should go through what I went through, I somehow thought the perfect, robotic behavior should still be the standard.
It took me a long time to understand why my expectations for children’s behavior had to change. I didn’t want to accept that the perfectly obedient behavior I had displayed was rarely going to exist in a child without the rigid control I had grown to despise.
I know that perfect behavior in children is possible. Not only did I experience that from my sisters and me when we were young, but I’ve seen other families which appear to be the same. I’ve known families in which the children are always perfect, are always subdued, always under control — but I now feel suspicious of those families.
When I experience it now, it seems creepy — and I fear that those children are being subjected to the same sort of fierce anger and constant terror that controlled my life as a child. At this point, I’m more likely to have questions about the parenting of those fathers and mothers than I am of the ones whose children have some meltdowns from time to time.
I have no idea where the right balance is. I don’t claim to be an expert. I don’t expect people to listen to my brilliant ideas about how they ought to raise their children. More than ever, I’m certain that raising emotionally healthy children is the most difficult thing we do in life — and our goal has to be to minimize our mistakes, not find a way to make ourselves (or our children) perfect.
Children can be controlled by consistent force and fear. There was a time I would have favored that — and when I would have parented that way — but I’ve realized that getting compliance in the short term isn’t worth the damage it does to a child in the long term.
I’ve always known I wanted children, but when I was younger, I felt afraid to be a father — because I was afraid I might be too much like my father. I’m glad I’ve learned enough and matured enough that I no longer have that fear.
When I have children, they won’t be perfect. They might have meltdowns. I might not always be fully in control of their behavior. But they’re going to grow up feeling more confident and more loved than I did. I hope I can strike the right balance to raise healthy and happy children who will be able to grow and mature in healthier ways than I was allowed.