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Diane Mufson: Parents need common sense, not Machiavelli

Apr. 23, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

Here's the lead into Suzanne Evans' article "How Machiavelli Saved My Family," which recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal. "At the end of her rope with four young kids, a mother turns to an unlikely adviser -- and learns how hardheaded rule can secure stability and happiness in the home."

Ms. Evans came across Niccolò Machiavelli's book "The Prince," a 16th Century treatise on controlling people, and decided that the writer's advice could save her from her young, unmanageable kids.

It's amazing that in the 21st Century, a well-educated parent has to resort to directions from Machiavelli, a man whose name is associated with cunning and deceit. Too bad the author could not have just employed parental common sense.

Ms. Evans, remarried with four children from their blended family and also working on academic and professional projects at home, laments her unruly kids.

In reality, any parent who expects to get lots of professional work done at home while caring for multiple kids has issues with reality testing. Either the expectations or environment need to be changed.

Beyond that, Ms. Evans highlights some of Machiavelli's principles that worked so well for her. First, he advises to be generous, but not overgenerous because this "will increase his subjects' greed..." Ms. Evans said, "Like all moms, I was struggling to meet their every material need."

Why? Why do so many contemporary parents, rich and poor, feel the need to buy their children whatever they want? That's ridiculous. Parents need to help children learn how to defer gratifications.

Machiavelli's new fan points out that on their next trip to Target, things were so much better because she gave each child $10 for their shopping pleasure. You see, previously they would "greedily toss DVDs and dolls into our cart." If she insisted that "they remove the booty, temper tantrums would ensue."

Good grief, mom. Don't you know that if you say "No" and mean it and suffer through a few public temper tantrums, they will eventually stop?

More Machiavellian advice, "...divide the forces of the enemy ..." This time Ms. Evans used the advice to get her grade school son and stepson to compete over school grades. The mother believed this worked because "By the end of the school year both ... brought home outstanding report cards."

Parental sanctioned academic competition among children often has more negative than positive results. Of course, it is quite possible that as this Mom was finally getting organized as a parent, the two young boys did well, not because of the grade competition, but because there were clear expectations for reasonable child behavior.

Ms. Evans even accepted the Machiavellian advice of dishonesty regarding a parental vacation, remarking, "Don't feel guilty for lying to your kids if it makes you happy and relaxed..." That is so "Machiavellian." It makes no sense and sends the wrong message to the kids. Rather, tell the kids what is going on; they will learn to handle truth and reality just fine.

There's more to Ms. Evans' fascination and following of Machiavelli, and for her it may work or just be good publicity. Reportedly, her children's behavior has improved, but then again, it sounds like almost any approach would have been better than what she was previously employing.

But for the rest of the parents out there, forget Machiavelli and don't depend too heavily on any one theory of child rearing. Common sense and advice from caring and pragmatic family and friends are apt to be much more helpful.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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