What the “unfit” McDonalds dad and the Ford-family fiasco can teach us about the importance of parents actually parenting.
David Schorr, a New York father involved in a bitter custody battle, was recently declared “unfit” for refusing to take his four-year-old son to a McDonald’s. The kid made a demand and the dad said “no,” as he wanted his son to eat somewhere healthier and offered the choice of eating anywhere else or nowhere.
“The child, stubborn as a mule, chose the ‘no dinner’ option,” Schorr claimed as part of his testimony in a defamation lawsuit he launched against the court-appointed psychologist who told a judge that, based on this incident, Schorr was “wholly incapable of taking care of his son.”
“I wish I had taken him to McDonalds,” the dad now says, ruefully, “but you get nervous about rewarding bad behaviour. I was concerned. I think [what I did] was a 1950s equivalent of sending your child to bed without dinner.” The mother, of course, immediately took her kid to McDonald’s—thus declaring herself pretty much unfit to parent.
While 1950s parenting is not necessarily the best blueprint to follow (see: Mad Men), in this case, father did actually know best—rewarding bad behaviour is itself bad behaviour. Young children need parents to be parents, and that includes not letting them call the shots when you disapprove of their desired outcome.
Too often in this day and age, parents seem to acquiesce to kids’ unreasonable demands because, well, it’s just easier. You’ve seen it in restaurants, grocers, and toy stores, and God knows how often it happens in homes. There’s no question that whining, meltdowns, and tantrums are terrible for everyone—the parents, the child, and anyone else within earshot and eyesight. It’s understandable why parents simply cave. But, by doing so, they do everyone a disservice, especially their child.
It’s tough being a little kid—you’re surrounded by giants, penniless, with no control over your life. It’s natural for children, from about the so-called “terrible twos” onward, to push the boundaries of what they are allowed to do. But it’s up to parents to keep those boundaries in place. This domineering, disobedient behaviour has seen certain kids labelled as “alpha children” and being beta parents is not conducive to that kid growing up to be a good person.
My own four-year-old son is pretty easy to deal with. But even he pushes his luck where he can—usually around bedtime—leaving my wife and I no option but to put our feet down no matter how much it may upset him. We tend to deal with these instances by playing good cop/bad cop—with one of us reassuring him afterward he’s still much loved, because an upset kid needs to be calmly guided back down—while remaining firm on the position the other’s established. (If alone, we play both roles ourselves—you just need to leave a few minutes in between.) But wavering sets a precedent, and children remember precedent. They also smell weakness.
Rewarding bad behaviour, as the McDonald’s mother did, lets children know that it works and, if it works, they will simply continue to do it. But that’s not their fault—it’s a pretty reasonable supposition. It’s the parents’ fault for teaching them that acting out is an effective tactic. There will always be power struggles but, ultimately, the parent should hold all the power.
This is not to say that children shouldn’t sometimes get what they want or have no say over their lives. Parents need to hold their ground consistently over any issue they deem worthy of holding their ground—like not eating at McDonald’s, brushing teeth, dressing appropriately for the weather, or going to bed at a set time. But they should also let their little ones make as many little choices as possible.
A great trick is to provide options where you’re okay with whatever they chose. That empowers them and allows you to avoid saying “my way or the highway” while still getting your way. Let your kids dress up like superheroes, have input on meals, or decide between a bath or shower, because it makes them happy and proud. And, by all means, negotiate with them so long as you’re aware that little kids are surprisingly better at it than you think, and that you hold the ultimate trump card of being in charge.
Compromise is a wonderful lesson to teach, as is politeness, respect, and taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences. If your kid is rude, disrespectful, and bullies you, then it’s increasingly likely they will grow up to do that to others. It might be hard for children to hear “no,” but it’s ultimately worse for them to only ever hear “yes.” Discipline matters.
When you become a parent, you sign up for the long-haul, so short-term decisions that make your life easier now will eventually backfire—and it will make other people’s lives harder, too. Every one of us adults is responsible for our own decisions, but how we learn to reach those decisions is still taught to us by our parents when we’re still young.
Take the Ford family, for instance. Few have framed the mayor’s problems as a parenting issue—except for Rob himself, when he uses his kids to try to keep the press at bay or add some shine to his tarnished image. (As he recently told CNN: “I’m the best father around.”) But when family matriarch Diane appeared on CP24 recently to discuss the mayor’s many transgressions, she claimed her kids “weren’t raised that way.” Oh really?
Rob Ford is not an anomaly in his self-entitled family of bad decision-makers: city-councillor brother Doug is a Machiavellian bully and enabler with an alleged drug-dealing past; oldest brother Randy, also an alleged trafficker, was once charged with assault and forcible confinement; and sister Kathy was a habitual drug user with racist ties whose boyfriend accidentally shot her in the face while another ex once killed her then-current boyfriend with a sawed-off shotgun. Four out of four might lead one to assume the Fords’ parenting decisions are at least partly to blame for how their kids all turned out.
That’s the thing: It’s up to parents to shape their kids into responsible, reasonable, rational, and empathetic adults—and letting them grow up believing they can get whatever they want by throwing a shit-fit, or thinking that the rest of the world should revolve around their immediate wants, will not accomplish that goal. (Though, alas, it might help them become mayor.)
End note: While researching this article, I came across the greatest description of Rob Ford I’ve read yet—though it was written by Harvard child psychiatrist Joseph Shrand in an unrelated post about why kids can seem so frustrating : “Children’s limbic brain, responsible for impulses, emotions and pleasure, is more mature than their prefrontal cortex, responsible for thinking, making decisions, and anticipating consequences.”