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Latest parenting trend turns to Machiavelli's principles

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
PAUL BERSEBACH, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Suzy Evans, of Newport Beach, Calif., author of 'Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children.'
Mark Brewer
Illustration by Mark Brewer
bn.com
“Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children
Deborah Gilboa
Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Necessity is the mother of invention, and, for parents, that means coming up with creative ways to control unruly children when traditional tactics don't work.

Today's moms and dads are more open to new ideas when it comes to keeping kids in line than previous generations, parenting experts say.

“We've started to see parenting as an art and science,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a Pittsburgh-based family physician, mother of four and parenting-book author, says. “People are looking for evidence to help guide what they do with their kids — they're asking for other people's ideas and going beyond just their tightest and most-trusted friends.”

With everyone from psychologists to celebrities writing books and blogs on parenting, the ideas are seemingly endless. In recent years, we've heard about the pros and cons of tiger parenting, the minimalist approach and child-rearing the French way.

For Suzanne Evans, inspiration came in the form of a long-dead Italian philosopher.

Evans, mother of four, gave her parenting style an overhaul when she applied some ideas in Niccolo Machiavelli's famed guide for ruling, “The Prince,” to how she governed her household. Evans details the process in her book, “Machiavelli for Moms: Maxims on the Effective Governance of Children” (Simon & Schuster, $24).

“If Machiavelli was anything, he was brutally honest, so I decided to share my most challenging struggles as a mother with the hope that other mothers might realize that they're not alone in their own frustrations and fears,” Evans, of California, says.

The idea was born out of crisis. Evans found herself recently remarried, working full time from home and trying to finish a doctorate in history while raising four young kids — and coping with the chaos that entailed. Her children were unruly, her house was a disaster and her relationship with her husband was becoming strained.

One night, after a grueling day, Evans was decompressing in her office when she saw her old copy of “The Prince.” In it, Machiavelli offers advice on gaining and maintaining power.

Some still consider his words shocking, stemming from his assertions that lying is called for in certain situations and that it's better to be feared than loved. His name is even used to describe someone seen as slyly manipulative.

However, his ideas about the need for sound laws and strong disciplinary forces resonated with Evans.

“What I quickly learned is that Machiavelli's intent in writing ‘The Prince' was to show the princes of Italy how to impose order and stability in a state, and that it's this stability that helps a prince ensure the happiness and well-being of his subjects,” she says. “So, while hesitant, I was intrigued by the idea that some of his rules (but not all of them!) could be successfully applied by analogy to parenting.”

The experiment helped Evans base her parenting on notions of power, authority, discipline and respect. For example, when considering Machiavelli's idea that it is dangerous to be overly generous, Evans realized the more material things she provided her children, the less grateful they were.

Instead of letting her children toss whatever they wanted into the cart when shopping (and preparing for the ensuing temper tantrum when she removed them), Evans opted to give them each a $10 bill and explain that was all they could spend. This caused them to pay attention to price tags, learn the value of money and made the overall shopping experience much smoother.

Lessons like that one helped her understand that, sometimes, the ends do justify the means.

“What I, ultimately, learned is that the happiness of my family didn't hinge so much on trying to change my children's behavior as it did on changing my own behavior. And once I learned that, I became happier and more relaxed, and, more importantly, my kids did, too,” she says.

Bedtime at Evans' house typically involved one child refusing to stop playing, another wanting to sleep in his parents' bedroom, another crashing on the couch and Evans dozing off in a chair. To make the whole scene less chaotic, she turned to Machiavelli's maxim “one who becomes a prince through the favor of the people ought to keep them friendly.”

She decided this meant she should be firm in establishing a new rule, but also remain flexible and consider what her children wanted. She worked with them to create a rule: They could keep sleeping as they were if they promised to go back to sleeping in their own rooms in the next two months. The long lead time and clear idea of what they needed to do helped everyone get on board, and by the deadline, everyone was back in their own beds.

“I, ultimately, got what I wanted out of my kids, and they thought it was their idea because they helped create the agreement!” Evans writes. “In other words, it's all about power. You've got it. But if they think they do, you're golden.”

Gilboa, author of “Teach Resilience: Raising Kids Who Can Launch!” and “Teach Responsibility: Empower Kids With a Great Work Ethic,” says when a parent considers changing his or her style, it's important to find the right fit for the family.

“Change takes patience and perseverance,” Gilboa says. “If you have a 13-year-old and you've not said anything about them speaking disrespectfully and how you're not going to tolerate it, the first time you do, you're going to get some version of, ‘Yeah, right. OK, whatever.' You have to earn their trust that you're going to do what you say you're going to do.”

Dr. Shafia Memon, an Allegheny General Hospital pediatrician, says a good way to start is by rewarding good behavior, rather than just punishing for bad acts. This works especially well with siblings when one is behaving and the other isn't, she says.

“If you reward one, but not the other, it creates competition, but in a healthy way,” she says.

Memon encourages parents to talk with others before making major changes. “Follow your pediatrician's advice, and talk to experienced moms,” she says. “There are a lot of books on behavior, and a lot of them are pretty reasonable and do-able.”

Gilboa cautions that it's more often more difficult for parents to change their habits than it is for children to adapt to the new rules. Make a plan, develop incentives and make sure the children understand fully what's expected of them.

“Say, ‘here is the change I want,' ” she says. “And remember, you're not asking for their permission to make that change.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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