Discipline: Baby Boomers and Their Daughters

Reading other mothers’ blogs, I am feeling all of my 62 years and every strand of my silver hair. Although I might feel more comfortable with these eloquent younger women, I belong to their mothers’ generation and might symbolize for them their mothers’ mistakes. I was born the day after the atom bomb was tested in 1945; I am six months too old to be a baby boomer. Most of my contemporaries didn’t stay home with their kids, didn’t have 4 children, and pitied me for my domestic imprisonment.

On Frog and Toad Are Still Friends, Beck published two brilliant posts about discipline. I was surprised by how much stricter some of the moms who commented seem to be. My oldest daughter, 34, , speculated that her generation believed more in discipline than their parents did, because so many of their parents worked long hours and used permissiveness to assuage their guilt about their unavailability to their kids. Do you think she has a point? Or does the economic necessity of entrusting children to group or nanny care at younger ages demand better behavior than parents who stay at home would expect or tolerate?

My four daughters were not model children. I was better at stimulation and creativity than boundaries and discipline. They were excellent students when they showed up in school. In retrospect, I permitted an overly permissive ad hoc home schooling option for the easily bored who could cough convincingly. They did not speak to their grandparents, teachers, any other adults the way they were allowed to speak to their parents. I often heard about my charming, delightful daughters.

Reading some of the comments, I got nervous that today’s moms would not have let their kids play with my kids. My kids were allowed to express their feelings endlessly. They rarely picked up their toys and their rooms were unspeakable. Chronically late, they often needed to be driven to school that was close enough to walk to. Household chores were not their strong points. No doubt I was rebelling against the strict, guilt-inducing discipline of my Catholic childhood. I transferred my first daughter to another public school because her teacher said "for shame" to her on the second day of kindergarten.

I was not permissive about violence. I always stopped my oldest daughter from hitting her younger sister. She was only 2; I didn't punish her. But I made a big deal of encouraging her to express her anger in words. "Use words not hitting to tell Michelle how you feel." Anne dictated stories and drew pictures to express how she felt about her sister. The books were simple affairs. I folded construction paper, used a hole puncher on the fold, and tied the sheets together with string. I kept them, and everyone still loves to read them. I always took away the toy used as a weapon. By the time Anne was 4 and Michelle was 2, they usually could play happily with blocks without mayhem.

Punishment would not have taught Anne a lifelong way of handling her anger; it would have just made her more rebellious. I hurt my back when she was 3 and could not play with her as usual. "Draw me a picture of the dummy mommy with the bad back," she instructed. She then took a pencil and stabbed that picture countless times. I was appalled, but it helped her. Anne had almost perfect recall of her dreams from the time she was 2. Their violence was a revelation. "Daddy went under the train last night because I didn't like his noise. Then I went to live with Ellen." "But Ellen sometimes yells at her children," I pointed out. "Then she will have to go under the train too," Anne said matter of factly. Now Ann works for a world peace organization.

My two younger daughters were relatively peaceful creatures who were born using words not weapons. Carolyn, the baby, was babbling once her head was born. Their older sisters adored them. I attributed such harmony to the sibling bonding that occurred when Rose and Carolyn were born at home. Three and one half years apart rather than 2 years apart make a tremendous difference. Rose, my third daughter, would remind me that toddler Carolyn sometimes bit her without provocation, and Rose, a wonderful big sister, never responded in kind.

Disciplining them for verbal aggression would have been a full-time job. Their father and I were not perfect role models. When I was 7 years old and made my first confession, my sins were: disobedience, talking back to my parents, and hitting my brothers. In succeeding years, despite frequent repentance, I managed to stop hitting my brothers, but made little progress on the other two sins. We tolerated our daughters talking back to us if they were not abusive. "I hate you mommy" was acceptable if they could articulate their anger more specifically. I admit “respect” was not a word they heard frequently.

My younger daughter’s daughter's college application essay gives an evaluation of my discipline style I don’t deserve: "We were never spanked or severely punished when we did something Mom disapproved of. Instead, she simply told us how she felt about it. I'm sure some parents would say that my sisters and I weren't disciplined enough. However, I've noticed that when friends of mine are grounded, they often complain about their unfair parents, but I take it very seriously when Mom tells me she's disappointed in me. “ She charitably left out all the times I let them behave in a way I found intolerable and then I yelled at them. Obviously it would have been better to respect my limits and save them from my harsh words.

We were strict about academics, safety, and seatbelts. Dropping out of honors classes or not taking advancement placement courses because they required too much work was never acceptable. Possibly we pressured them too much to succeed academically, but we expected them to honor their considerable intellectual gifts. We threw out our television set when our oldest was four and didn’t get another for five years. We were extremely strict about TV; we had a lock on it. They could not watch TV on school nights. We rejoiced that we had the only teenagers who felt they were being bad by watching TV. There were no problems with boys, booze, or drugs. We were relatively poor, so we didn't buy them lots of clothes, toys. We encouraged their interest in world affairs, occasionally took them to peace demonstrations.

I made countless mistakes, but they all are well-educated, compassionate, dedicated women, able to own and use all their particular gifts. They have met and married wonderful men. They assure me they are going to be much stricter with their kids and make them clean up their room, vacuum, mop, clean bathrooms and go to school every single day they are not running a 103 fever. We all try not to repeat our parents' mistakes, possibly then making our grandparents' mistakes. We might only learn the truth about our parenting by watching our children parent our grandchildren. My oldest daughter is a far better mother than I was with her, but my first grandson is only 5 months old

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