My wife and I had just helped celebrate our granddaughter’s first birthday. One year earlier we had received a phone call at 1 a.m. in the morning from our youngest daughter informing us that she had just given birth to a baby girl – our first grandchild. Seven hours later, I was sitting in a chair in the hospital room holding our little 6 lb. 5 oz. granddaughter. It was a surreal moment. As I was trying to balance my tiny granddaughter in my arms for the first time, standing right next to me and monitoring my every move was her mother. 31 years earlier -she- was the little 6 lb. 7 oz. baby I was trying not to drop as I held her for the first time.
As we drove home from the hospital after having met our granddaughter for the first time, I started to think back to what I had learned about parenting. I reflected back on the childhood of our youngest daughter who had just become a mother herself. Our youngest daughter was never a child who created a lot of problems for her parents, but she always seemed to be in the middle of sibling squabbles with her two older sisters. Even in kindergarten she had been sent to the principal’s office for drawing blood when she clawed a fellow student for not being willing to share the toys.
It was this same daughter, at the age of two, who taught me the most fundamental of parenting lessons. These lessons were learned at our supper table. Our two-year-old sat in her high chair. Her four-year-old sister sat to her right at the end of the table. Her six-year-old sister sat across the table. Once the food was served, the two-year-old would frequently throw food or utensils at one of her sisters – always precise with her timing when her mother and I were looking the other way. Scolding her had a minimal effect. Telling her to straighten up? Also, minimally effective. Taking her food away? Again, virtually no effect. She would make faces at her siblings and they would point at her and say, “Mom, see what she just did?” The two-year-old was quick and cunning.
Her mother and I were getting frustrated and running out of solutions so we embarked on a new plan and this was where my lessons started. As soon as an altercation took place at the table I stopped eating and would get up from my chair and without saying a word, walk around the table and pluck the two-year-old out of her high chair. As I walked into the living room with her in my arms, she would be kicking and squirming and protesting. Eventually, she would slowly start to relax. I would then look into her eyes and tell her that she was a wonderful person but the behavior she had just exhibited at the supper table was not appropriate and unacceptable. I explained as best I could in a language that a two year old could understand that she had two choices. She could return to the supper table and change her behavior or she could head off to her room and I would bring her supper to eat by herself before going to sleep. Then I would put her down on the couch and leave her to decide which of the two choices she was going to make. Without exception, she would return to the kitchen to finish her supper without incident. This scenario happened two to three times per week. And went on for a few months.
So what were the lessons I learned from our youngest daughter? I learned that even two-year-olds can make good decisions for themselves when given the appropriate guidance. (It would have been nicer if she would have made the decision to behave without having to leave the table but that was the process we had to go through with her to eventually reach the point the family could all eat supper together without the drama). She obviously did not like the consequence of eating alone in her room so she chose to rejoin her family and change her behavior – at least for that particular evening. Both as an adolescent and as a teenager, our daughter would always push back if her mother and I pushed our ideas too hard. However, when we gave her the responsibility for making her own decisions after explaining what the consequences would be, there was much more harmony in our home. There were times that she made choices where the consequences were not what she anticipated but she still lived with her decisions. At times this was difficult for us as parents to watch.
In conversations with her now as a young mother, our daughter has said that our confidence in her to make good decisions for herself at a very young age without being told what she absolutely had to do, has been a very fundamental cornerstone in how she is now mothering her own daughter. She also said that the most important thing that has stayed with her is that she understood that we as her parents would enforce the consequences of her decisions.
Life is all about making decisions and living with the consequences. Running a business, whether it is a farm, or another business in the city, is also all about making decisions and living with the consequences. Parents who want to protect their children from the consequences of life, or the consequences of the business world do their children no favors.
When I look at my own life, it is those difficult events where I learned the most. Experience is a great teacher. Protecting our children from experiencing the negative consequences from the decisions that they made may make us feel better – at least in the short term, but it does not give them the opportunity to learn and understand how to take responsibility for themselves.
I love the analogy of learning how to ride a bicycle: It is all about getting on the bike and pedaling until we lose our balance and fall off. You get back up and make the decision to try again. Scrapes and bruises are part of the process. But once you have mastered the ability to balance on two wheels that skill will stay with you for life.
Life is about choices and consequences. Even a two-year-old can begin to make good choices for themselves if we as parents don’t flinch when the going gets challenging.