Is Military Parenting Like Being a Prison Guard?

view of long fence in the desert
(Dave Palmer/DVIDS)

The other day at the bus stop another mom and I were comparing stories of how our toddlers constantly test us. It seems, we said, like they’re always looking to find and exploit our weaknesses.

For example, any parent of a young child knows that bad things are likely happening when that child is quiet. Quiet toddlers and toddlers who are into something.

Likewise, we all know that if we let a child of any age get away with something they know they’re not supposed to do, they will do it again and the next time they’ll push it -- whatever it is -- even a bit farther.

And some of us, myself included, know that if we don’t keep an eye on the doors, our children will literally try to escape.

I don’t recall which of us first said it, me or the other mom, but we both agreed that this was not unlike how in prison movies and TV shows the prisoners are always looking for ways to escape or to subvert the rules. The other mom studied criminal justice in college and comes from a family of police officers, so maybe it was her. Then again, I’m a massive fan of “Orange is the New Black,” so it could have been me.

Regardless, for both of us it was an epiphany: Parenting is like being a prison guard.

We laughed and laughed, comparing notes on our munchkins’ nefarious deeds. We thought we were so clever. No longer were those big eyed, chubby cheeked little girls simply energetic blank slates in our charge. Now we saw them for what they were: criminals bent on besting us.

And if parenting is like being a prison guard, then Must Have Parents are like prison guards who rarely get relieved by the next shift. In OITB terms, we’re 24/7 Pornstache.

I thought right then that I had an original idea for a column and that you readers would be similarly enlightened by this revelation. And then I googled “parenting prison guard” and turned up 1,380,000 results.

Apparently people put the words “parent” and “prison” together often.

Several of the hits were about a book titled "Everything I Needed to Know About Parenting I Learned in Prison."

Okay, so we weren’t original, but we were obviously onto something.

The author of that book worked as a correctional officer in her early 20s and then later went on to have five children. She says that when parenting hit her full force, she realized that the techniques she’d mastered as a prison guard would come in handy again.

The lead sentence for an article titled "What Parents Can Learn From Prison Guards" (by the way, how’s that for on point?) says, "Some of the best parenting advice I've ever gotten was from a website for prison guards."

The writer says there are seven things prison guards know better than to say to inmates.

Those seven things?

1. "Hey you! Come here!"

2. "Calm down!"

3. "I'm not going to tell you again!"

4. "Be more reasonable!"

5. "Because those are the rules!"

6. "What's your problem?"

7. "What do you want me to do about it?"

In other words, pretty much half of what I say to my children each and every day.

He goes on to explain why you shouldn't say each of these things. Mainly, he says, because communicating that way, to inmates or to children, doesn’t convey empathy or respect. When you don’t show empathy or respect, you’re priming the inmate/child to revolt.

The writer refers quite a bit to a communication program called Verbal Judo. After digging some, I discovered that Verbal Judo was created for law enforcement professionals by a guy named Dr. George Thompson.

It's fascinating stuff and there are tons I could say about it. The gist, in Thompson's words from one of his lectures, is this: "The secret of good discipline is to use language disinterestedly … You cannot punish or discipline anybody and show anger, condescension, irritation, or whatever. The moment you do, you lose power …"

That sounds exactly like good parenting.

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