9 Things I Learned In The Parent Encouragement Program, AKA Shitty Parents Anonymous

The Parent Encouragement Program is a series of classes and workshops that are available to parents living in the D.C. area. The introductory class is free, and so I went a couple of weeks ago, because it didn't cost anything and because I need all the help I can get. The title of the workshop was "Why Don't My Kids Listen To Me?" On that premise alone, I'd say roughly three billion people could have stood to attend. I grabbed a pen and a big legal pad for taking notes, and I went to go learn how to not be a terrible father.

The class I went to was located on the third floor of a nearby church. It was the kind of multipurpose church room that would be perfect for an AA meeting. This was fitting, because I felt like I was attending a meeting of Shitty Parents Anonymous and not some night class for supposedly normal people. Our teacher was a very perky 40-year-old woman, who readily admitted that she was a teacher in the program because it helped her remember all of the shit that she was supposed to do in order to be a good parent. Her kids were all teenagers and she still had issues dealing with them. I found this fact completely deflating. Here was someone who was GOOD at parenting, and she still felt compelled to go to classes and still had kids with terrific asshole potential.

The class started with a bit of role-playing, with people from the audience reading from a scripted exchange between a child and a parent. They demonstrated three different techniques of parenting: Authoritarian Parenting (Bob Knight-types who yell at their kids and whip them with hickory switches), Permissive Parenting (hippie dipshit parents who let their kids do whatever the fuck they want), and Democratic Parenting (the right kind of parent, who establishes firm boundaries for their child and gives them a certain amount of freedom within those boundaries). The aim was to teach us how to be Democratic Parents. I was more than willing to learn. I have yelled at my kid. I have given my kid timeouts. I even tried spanking my kid a few times, which was mortifying. All of it failed, and all of it made the problem worse.

So the purpose of this class was to find the happy medium, that place where you say the EXACT RIGHT THING in order for your child to do what you want him or her to do. Talking to your kids is like perfecting a golf swing. You have to get the technique just right, otherwise everything goes to shit. And whenever you pick up new techniques, you have to remember them all simultaneously and execute them correctly in a single instance. This is fucking annoying. Kids shouldn't work that way. Evolution should have knocked some of the snotty bullshit out of them. But nooooooo. No, asking them to do something doesn't work. You have to CRAFT what you're going to say. You have to offer creative solutions to problems, which is fucking exhausting.

So the lecture began and immediately people started asking questions. And the teacher was remarkably patient, given that virtually all the questions were specific to that parent's one kid and had no universal application. One lady droned on and on about how she was separated from her husband and that the husband bought her kid too many toys. BITCH, TELL YOUR DIVORCE LAWYER. You're ruining the learning process for the rest of us. Another lady said her husband was too much of a pushover for their kids WHILE THE DUDE WAS SEATED RIGHT NEXT TO HER. She just threw his ass under the bus in front of 50 total strangers. I wanted to buy the guy a soda.

But eventually, we were given some legitimately good advice as to how to handle these little fuckers. Here now are some of the more basic techniques of Democratic Parenting (I also like to call it Huxtable Parenting):

Never repeat yourself.
The second you repeat yourself, you're dead. The kid will just be like, "Hey, I can just sit here and dad will say the same shit over and over again. COOL." Kids think this way because they're evil. Say it once. If the kids don't act, take them by the hand and guide them to their task. This piece of advice caused me to ask a question:

ME: What if your kid is naked on the floor and screaming her fucking head off and you literally can't take her by the hand and guide her to the sink to brush her teeth?

TEACHER: Just avert your gaze, hold out your hand, and stand there until she knows you aren't interested in her B.S.

I tried this later in the evening. Totally worked. IT'LL NEVER WORK AGAIN.

No drive-by parenting
You have to get down face-to-face with your kids to ask them to do shit. You can't stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell at them to stop fisting the dog. They won't give a crap. Dog-fisting is too much fun.

Talk to your kids as if they're normal human beings.
None of this, "You need a wowwipop" stuff. The idea is that if you treat them as mature adults and talk to them with respect, they will reciprocate. I wanted to bring up Norv Turner as a counterpoint to this, but we were short on time.

Accept that your children are going to do annoying shit.
We were told there was a list out there that detailed typical behaviors for children based upon their age. Two-year-olds will throw things. Five-year-olds will break things. There are certain annoying facets of children that are simply the cost of doing business, and accepting that makes it a little bit easier to tolerate it when your kid is spitting in your goddamn ear.

Never do for a kid what a kid can do for him or herself.
This was the big one. Sometimes, your kids will stand there for eight hours before they brush their teeth and you're just like FUCK IT, and you grab the brush and assault their mouth because it's EASIER to do things for them. But once you do that, they'll never do anything for themselves. You have to have Herculean patience to let them figure those things out, and then that problem is solved for the long term.

Never chase a kid.
IT'S A TRAP! THEY LIKE BEING CHASED!

Never get locked into a power struggle.
If you say to your kid, "Hey, eat your dinner," and the kid is like , "No," and you're like, "You're grounded if you don't," and the kid still says no, you've basically signed yourself up for a full night of SUCK. Because now you're in a power struggle with a kid, and you won't want to lose because you won't want them thinking you're a pussy, and they won't want to lose because, hey, what's an hour wasted to them? NOTHING. Kids were born to waste time. They have nothing better to do. May as well ruin your shit while they're waiting to become drinking age. If the kid doesn't eat dinner, the kid doesn't eat.

Never ask "OK?" at the end of a request.
You have to explain what needs to be done. For example, if you say, "Hey, your shoes are still on the floor," the kid is more likely to put the shoes away than if you say, "Hey shithead, put your shoes away, OK?" I got home from this class and I was shocked at how many times I said "OK?" at the end of something. Even when I was actively trying to prevent myself from saying it, I still did anyway. It's like a goddamn tic. The best way to get kids to do something is to present them with a problem that they can help solve.

The only person you really have any control over is yourself.
That's pretty much the beginning and end of this. There's only so much you can control with your kids, and it's best to praise them when they do what you want instead of berating them for the times when they fail to act. You're never gonna get them to do everything you want at all times. They aren't programmed that way (even though they ought to be). You have to learn to tolerate some of their bullshit, and then be firm and friendly in the face of extraordinary rebellion. It isn't easy, and I'm probably gonna have to take a lot more classes just to fail less. But trying is the most important part. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go tell my kid to stop throwing baseballs at the TV set.

Photo illustration by Jim Cooke. Child photograph by Kathleen Spencer/Shutterstock.