MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on November 24th, 2014, 0 Comments

Modern Family: Season 6, Episode 8, Three Turkeys

Mitch Could Use a Back-Up

The Framework
Tonight’s episode opens with Phil ecstatically relaying to the camera: I’m cooking Thanksgiving this year! Huge step for Claire to trust me with this… Actually “trust” is too strong of a word. As Claire confides to Alex: [This] is a back up turkey. In case your father’s doesn’t workout – which I hope it does. But just in case it doesn’t, this could save him a lot of embarrassment. Please don’t tell him. He would die if he thought I didn’t trust him.

As much as Phil might resent Claire’s back-up, Mitch would welcome some back-up when it comes to parenting Lily. He complains to Cam: You give-in to her every whim, and I’m “mean Daddy” … Lily is going to turn into a willful, fat little girl unless you start getting tough with her. Because right now you’re her pal, and I’m just a pitchfork wielding she-devil.

It begins at breakfast with this exchange.
Cam (setting a waffle in front of Lily while whisking away untouched scrambled eggs): Here you go, sweetie. You’ll like this better.
Mitch: On my gosh! You’ve got to be kidding me. Not this again.
Cam: But she said her eggs were watery, so I made her a waffle. Please don’t make a thing out of it. I’ve seen you send food back. Remember that time in Miami.
Mitch: Okay. First of all, this isn’t a restaurant. Secondly, my bisque had a tooth in it.
Cam: It was a shell.
Mitch: There was a filling in it!

Lily (to Cam after overhearing her dads argue): Uhhh… I don’t feel like waffles. Can you make me cereal?
Mitch: Absolutely not! ABSOLUTELY NOT! Lily, you’re going to finish that waffle or you’re not going to have breakfast!
Lily: Can I at least eat in front of the TV?
Mitch and Cam (respectively and simultaneously): No. Yes.
Lily (leaving with plate in hand, first to Cam): Thanks, Daddy. (and then to Mitchell) MEAN Daddy!

It continues with this.
Mitch (to Lily): Honey, come on. It’s time to go.
Lily (appearing in casual top and slacks): I’m ready.
Mitch: Oh no, Sweetie. We bought you that pretty, new Thanksgiving dress.
Lily: But I want to wear this.
Mitch: She wants to wear that, Cameron. Thoughts?
Cam: Well, Lily, uhhh… we’re all dressed up. You don’t want to be disrespectful do you?
Lily: I should be able to wear what I want.
Cam: Well, Sweetie, listen. I’m afraid we can’t leave until you put that dress on.
Lily (before going off to change): Hhhh… okay.
Cam (to Mitch): See, as much as you want me to yell, I have a more effective method. When you say to a child, “I will treat you with dignity and respect,” that child will in turn say to you…
Lily (reappearing with dress on over her casual outfit): I left the tag on. This is going back on Monday.
Cam (pointing finger): Lily!
Lily (before dashing out of the house): You said,” Put it on.” Well, it’s on.

Mitch: We cannot let her run the show like this.
Cam: Okay. Trust me. I have another plan.
Mitch: Really? Because right now our child is walking around like a Vietnamese Annie Hall.
Cam: Mitchell, I will make it clear that she is NOT the boss.

But at that exact moment, there’s a series of impatient honks from the car.
Mitch: No. No. We can’t go out now.
Cam (as honking continues): Where did she learn that annoying habit?
Mitch: Claire has been picking her up from meditation Mondays.

Finally, there’s this exchange.
Mitch: Lily, Alex brought your backpack in for you, so why don’t you go ahead and take it out to our car.
Lily: Maybe later.
Cam: Lily, you are not in charge of what you wear or breakfast or anything! Now put that backpack on and march it out to the car!
Lily (trying to pick up backpack): Uhhh… It’s too heavy.
Cam: Well, that’s tough. Because I’m not carrying it out for you anymore.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
Seven-year-old Lily is definitely running the show tonight. And Mitch and Cam flounder as they try to deal with her. First they fall back on reactive and rote responses. When that doesn’t work, they panic and lay down the law.

We (as well as Mitch and Cam) can avoid becoming overwhelmed like this by getting clear about our purpose and what’s most important in raising our kids. We can then tailor our approach to fit our own values and expectations as well as to the unique personality and needs of our kids.

The preparatory thinking we do to clarify our own values and each child’s unique needs will give us a reserve to draw on when they challenge one of our decisions as Lily did tonight with I should get to do what I want! or variations on that theme – such as “Everybody else get to do it!“ “You are totally unfair!” “Nobody else has parents with such stupid rules!” After all if we’re not clear in our own minds about what we’re trying to accomplish, we can’t hope to communicate our ideas convincingly to our kids.

Cam (to Mitch): You know, [Lily] only [acts] the way she does to get attention.

Maybe Cam is right. It’s possible Lily is acting this way to get attention. But it’s more likely she’s doing it to get what she wants. Either way, the manipulation is working on her parents. And that’s the main reason kids do it.

Almost all kids see their job as figuring out how to get to do what they want to do. So it’s in kids’ nature to try different things to see what response they get. And it doesn’t take most kids long to figure out the advantages of playing one parent against the other to get what they want. They soon realize that just because mom says “no” doesn’t mean dad will too. Like Lily, they might even cuddle up to the more lenient parent while berating the other (the disciplinarian – who more often than not is us moms) when they don’t get what they want.

As we saw tonight with Lily, if kids succeed at this, the original issue is forgotten while the parents argue. Whether kids succeed depends on the parents’ vulnerability to being manipulated like this. But often we parents are unaware of what we’re doing to encourage this kind of behavior in our kids.

What’s a Mom to Do?
Below are a few tips to help you keep your peace of mind while keeping the peace in your home.

Present a united front to your kids. When you’re not united with your parenting partner, you’re not demonstrating confidence or being emotionally objective – both essential when dealing with a determined kid. Presenting a united front is especially crucial when it comes to important family expectations. So make up your mind not to argue in front of your kids during discussions with them. And avoid nonverbal communication that indicates contradiction or disagreement too. Even if your spouse says something you don’t agree with, unless it’s way out of line, go with it for the time being. You can come to an agreement later when out of your kid’s earshot.

Keep your rules simple and prioritize your expectations. Parenting is about managing our goodwill accounts with our kids. Imagine that you had just $1.00 a day to spend on setting and enforcing rules and expectations. Then prioritize how you spend it.

Have a broken record statement to avoid power struggles. These are particularly effective in helping us avoid hot-spot moments when our kids try to wear us down with never-ending repeated requests: “Can I? Can I? Can I? How ’bout now?” To avoid succumbing to these tactics we can determine our bottom line and develop our own broken record statement. For example, at the beginning Mitch and Cam might have said, “Lily, you must finish what’s on your plate before asking for something more.” If they both said this in a calm, matter-of-fact way, there would have been no need for further discussion. They could just keep replying with the same objective, calm response.

Model the behavior you want to see in your kids. Lily sends her food back as she had seen Mitch do before. She honks obnoxiously just like her Aunt Claire. And Lily is not alone. Many of our kids’ behaviors stem from mimicry. Our example is our best method for influencing – for better or for worse.

Tonight Lily’s dads let her behavior drive a wedge between them.
Mitch: So did you have it out with our daughter?
Cam: Well, you know it’s a holiday, and I just…
Mitch: Fine. I will be the permanent bad guy in this family because you are so afraid of our daughter not liking you. But just so you know – I had one parent growing up who wanted to be my friend and another who didn’t care about that. Guess which one is still in my life.

While in the short run splitting her parents might help Lily get what she wants, in the long run Lily would benefit more if, from the beginning, Cam (the current favorite) had backed-up Mitchell (who is out of favor at the moment). Because when parents are loyal and committed to each other, home feels more predictable, more secure, and safer. And these are feelings all kids benefit from.

Your Parenting Experiences
From a big picture view, what are you hoping to accomplish with your children? What attitudes do you hope to instill in them? What are your worst fears for them? What decisions do you want them to make? If you had just a $1 a day to spend on accomplishing what’s most important, how would you spend it?

Sources and Resources: “Pitting Mom Against Dad Just Comes Naturally” by Lynn Smith in the Los Angeles Times; “How and Why Teens Manipulate Their Parents” by Lisa Zamosky and Louise Chang, MD a WebMD feature

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