When my 7-year-old twin boys were first learning to play piano, I would check in with them regularly to see if they were still enjoying it. Finally, their teacher—a Russian woman who was evidently unfamiliar with fashionable theories of child rearing—told me that if I wanted my kids to learn an instrument, I needed to cut it out.
“Some weeks they won’t like it,” she said. “So what? Stop asking.”
Experts have long debated child-rearing methods. What’s best for the children? What’s best for the parents? Now the vogue is to refer to parenting “styles,” adding a patina of theory to what was once a matter of instinct. “Authoritarian parenting” describes those who believe “because I said so” is the best reason a parent can give. “Authoritative” describes those parents who offer children actual reasons. And “permissive” describes those who provide a Hobbesian childhood in the State of Nature, when children were raised like Mowgli, by wolves.
Long before the official classification of parenting styles, two ancient approaches prevailed. I’ll call them “dad-style” and “mom-style,” but either parent could perform them equally well. Together, they aimed at a balance, which is important for boys and girls alike.
Dad-style parenting consisted in, roughly, “knock it off” for bad behavior and “shake it off” for bad feelings, while mom-style relied on nurturing, accommodation and, above all, discussion. The masculine method generally tracked the authoritarian school, but it never formed any self-conscious philosophy. That was its beauty. At best, dad-style parenting promised total and reassuring consistency. Dad’s physical presence provided comfort and discipline like a home-cooked meal, straight from the source.
When a dad-style parent said “knock it off,” it was the child’s job to figure out the precise behaviors from which to desist, accepting that definitive knowledge of what or why might never come. The pestering touch of persons and things, drumming of fingers and clicking of tongues, ululating and whining—each on its own might not be grounds for punishment, but together they could drive an adult to madness all the same. Discipline socialized children. They became tolerable to those who didn’t already love them.
As Orthodox Jews, my husband and I frequently host other families for Sabbath meals at our home. I often spend Thursday night and many hours on Friday preparing several-course meals only to have a parent turn up and confess that junior had something else in mind. Could I possibly whip up a dish more to his liking?
I get it. In the age of psychology, we mom-style parents are hyperattuned to our children’s needs. We treat their thoughts and intentions like satellite signals. With enough effort and the right equipment, we think, we ought to be able to unscramble every whine, answer every plea. It’s a hard habit to quit.
But there is a time and place for “knock it off,” though I can’t remember the last time I heard a parent use that expression. What I hear these days from moms and dads alike is so much pleading and explanation. “Please stop doing that, honey, it’s annoying.” Then comes the negotiation. “All right, three more tongue clicks, and that’s it. No, I said, three. OK, four.”
Here’s the rub: Kids need dad-style too. “Shake it off” conveyed a dad-style certainty that children could survive minor injuries. Not every scratch called for a stretcher. Children should learn to overcome, not exaggerate, their pain. If an injury is unserious, a child should rise to the occasion and play on.
I learned this lesson the way you do, the first time I prepared one of my kids for surgery. For six years of his life, unknown to us, an aggressive growth had snowballed in my son’s inner ear, dissolving bone structures in its path and burrowing toward his skull. Major operations were necessary to remove the growth, eardrum and ear bones, and to fashion a new eardrum from a piece of temporal muscle. A year later, my son needed another surgery to insert a prosthetic device that would restore his hearing. I never doubted the necessity of the surgeries. And yet, just before they took him into the operating room, after he’d drunk the “happy juice” and I was instructed to say goodbye, I had the impulse to throw myself on the cot like a human shield.
I didn’t do it. I did what we all do in such situations. I borrowed strength from a role I’d seen others play. I faked a godlike certainty that everything was going to be fine because the possibility it wasn’t was too frightening to bear. For the sake of the little boy barely visible under all those sheets, I pretended I had confidence. I told him he was more than tough enough for a six-hour surgery, and then another. My pretending made it true. He believed me.
The dad-style approach offers more than expedience. Tough love can offer emotional nourishment too. And kids learn to soldier into the world with what a cynic might describe as naiveté. Others call it courage.
Ms. Shrier is a writer living in Los Angeles.
Appeared in the March 13, 2018, print edition.