Q: Dinner with our three kids always, and I mean ALWAYS, turns into a disaster. Typically, the oldest, 11, begins to needle the youngest, 6, and then, when the middle one, 9, figures out which of them is winning, he jumps in on that side. We’ve yelled, sent the instigator from the table so we can restore a semblance of order, not allowed television in the evening and so on. Needless to say (or I wouldn’t be writing) nothing has worked. Needless to say, the bickering between them is not confined to the dinner table. Help us, please, before we commit a felony.
A: Nothing has worked because you’ve done essentially nothing. As is the case with most of today’s parents, your consequences do nothing but annoy your children. You set off firecrackers when you need a hydrogen bomb. You try to stop charging elephants with flyswatters. And then, when the elephants trample you, you blame the elephants. This problem began because of the children. It continues because of you.
What is it with you folks (meaning not just you, but parents of your generation)? Never mind. I know the answer. You (plural) won’t use BIG, HUGE, MEMORABLE CONSEQUENCES— as in, consequences that go beyond annoying and truly mean something. Why? Because you want your kids to like you. As a result, a lot of you end up not liking your kids. Furthermore, your kids don’t take you seriously until you begin acting like escapees from the local looney bin.
You’ve yelled? It is inevitable— and I mean it is a 100 percent ironclad guarantee— that parents who want their kids to like them end up yelling at them on a regular basis. You’ve sent the instigator of this chaos from the table and/or taken away television for— what?— two hours? Wow! And then you experienced great guilt, right? Right. Because parents who want their kids to like them are wracked by guilt on a regular basis, whereas their children feel guilt rarely if ever.
Here’s the paradox: The less a parent wants to be liked by his/her child, the better the parent-child relationship will be. I’m not talking about being hateful toward one’s child; I’m talking simply about not giving the proverbial hoot nor holler whether or not the child likes you or any decision you’ve made at any given moment in time. You know you love your child. You know you would make the supreme sacrifice for your child. Right? Right. And that, my friends, is all that matters. Not what a CHILD thinks about you.
Only your children can solve this problem, but they will not take any steps in that direction until the problem upsets THEM, and THEM only.
Since three children are involved in this mealtime circus, bar all three from the dinner table for a month during which the two of you enjoy civilized evening meals for two. While you dine in the sublime peace of childlessness, confine them to their rooms. When you’ve finished your meals and civil conversation, release them to clean up after you. When they’ve finished and you approve the result, allow them to fix themselves sandwiches or some other cold plates, after which they clean up after themselves and then return to their rooms until bedtime.
After a month, give family meals another go. If the circus begins anew, put them on the fix-it-yourself cold sandwich diet for two months. At some point, this is going to get very old— for them, that is.