My eldest daughter, Maya, is the guinea pig for our different parenting styles. Our bedtime routine for her is a good example of that difference. I would classify my wife’s style as “obedience out of fear.” I generously call mine “obedience out of love;” whether it’s truly love or just plain spoiling the child is something my wife contends.
For many months, I’ve been responsible for putting Maya to bed. The routine after dinner is simple: take a bath, drink 8-oz of milk, read 2 to 3 books, brush teeth, read 2 to 3 more books, pray and then get tucked-in by 8:30pm or so. Maya also has two 8-oz bottles of water on her nightstand that she would ask me to refill before she even finishes with one of them.
Not surprisingly, Maya needs to potty three to five times before finally falling to sleep. This means she’s not sleeping until 9:30 or 10pm on some nights. Often, around 2am or 4am, she would wet her pull-up diapers completely, cry, and ask me to change her into a new one.
I do all of this without complaining. I admit it’s a bit inconvenient for me. Occasionally I put my foot down (i.e. refusing to tuck her in three times in one night), but I usually do everything she asks because it’s our idiosyncratic bedtime routine. I know that this behavior will eventually pass and all of it would make a great story when she’s older. Also, quite simply, love means self-sacrifice — giving up my preferences for the benefit of another.
When I went on a week-long business trip several weeks ago, my wife had to put Maya to sleep. She was surprised by how spoiled Maya was. Since she also had to take care of Hana, our youngest, at the same time, my wife changed the routine to accommodate the extra burden. No water refills. Change your own pull-up diaper. Go potty only once or twice. And, no tucking in. Maya, of course, threw a tantrum, and my wife would threaten to close her bedroom door completely — an act that Maya sees as heavy punishment.
Coming home, my wife still wanted to put Maya to sleep because she had to “re-train” her. So, every night was a scream-fest with Maya and mommy. While I agreed with my wife that we should ween Maya off from her peculiar bedtime requests, I disagreed with her use of tactics that we usually employed only as a last resort. I also threaten to close her bedroom door for time-out, but only for major infractions (i.e. repeated rudeness, throwing a hysterical tantrum, etc.) Most of all, I disagree with my wife’s tone when reprimanding Maya.
Don’t get me wrong, my wife is a sweet woman. So, even her deeply disapproving reprimands are like lovely feminine frowns. She’s exhausted and needs to tap me in, like a wrestler in a tag-team match. Yet my wife insists on staying in the ring. Her willpower to resist Maya’s demands only gets stronger the louder our daughter screams. I love my wife for devising punishments Maya fears that doesn’t involve spanking. They’re effective and I use them, too. But, a parent’s threats to induce fear will need to get more severe as the child grows older. Sure, right now, Maya fears time-out with her door closed. She’s only two, now. What happens when she’s nine? Or fourteen-years old? We need to use the heavy punishments sparingly.
I take a different approach, normally. I want Maya to love me so much that it is my absence that she fears. She usually complies with what I want her to do if I threaten to walk away. My nuclear option is mommy, as in, “Okay, mommy will [feed you/give you a bath/brush your teeth, etc.]” Yes, I realize it’s unfair to leverage my own wife this way. It’s ironic, though: throughout history mothers would threaten their children with “Wait until your father gets home.” Maya would probably shout, “Yay!”
When my wife and I are calmly talking about our different parenting styles, I point out how her “obedience out of fear” is like how the Church gets people to behave and my “obedience out of love” is like how our Heavenly Father gets us to behave. This is the Father that Jesus reveals, of course. The God in the Old Testament is pretty scary at times. It’s from the Father that Jesus reveals that I take my parenting cues. I don’t spoil my children; I am merciful as Our Heavenly Father is merciful. Doing God’s will out of fear leads to resentment, like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In my spiritual life, I seek to love God so much that I want to do His will as a loving response. So, my Father is to me, I am to my children.
I observe that this “obedience out of love” is incredibly inconvenient for me. I need more patience compared to the fear method. Sometimes it doesn’t work and Maya still disobeys. This is no different than God’s experience. Torture and death on the Cross is pretty inconvenient. We still disobey quite often despite God’s infinite love for us.
I’ve come to conclude that both obedience out of fear and out of love have a place in parenting, just like we need the Church’s doctrine and God’s mercy in our spiritual life. My wife may be harsh at times, but just like how the Church’s moral prescriptions may be harsh, they’re good for us. She may be too strict, but they will always find mercy from me. The Church’s doctrine may be too strict, but God’s mercy is greater. Our children’s first experience of God will be through us. Mommy’s discipline and Daddy’s forgiveness will build their character. The Church’s discipline and God’s mercy will build their spirit.