In many ways, I’m one of those parents whom the Supernanny would want to smack. Except when it comes to my twin girls’ safety, most everything with them is negotiable, which the spare-the-rod- spoil-the-child types say leads to manipulative, chaotic kids—the kind who threaten to stop breathing if they don’t get that cookie or $330 iPad mini. Often I think I’m just lucky that my daughters, who are now 9, are for the most part well behaved, if a bit loud. I admire their ability to state their case, and when they do so convincingly, I yield to what they want. Someday they’ll be wealthy partners in a law firm and keep their mom in cosmetic surgery through her dotage.
Sometimes, though, I wish they would just shut up and do as I ask. The first time. Which is why I read Suzanne Evans’ brand-new book, Machiavelli for Moms, with an open mind. When Evans, who has four young children, started to feel powerless in her own home, she decided to apply tenets from Machiavelli’s The Prince to parenting, with largely positive results. “I began to see parallels between a 16th-century Florentine prince and 21st-century motherhood and quickly became convinced that the same strategies of warfare and statecraft that Machiavelli prescribed could also be applied to my kids,” Evans writes.
But for me… not so much. I also tried out his power-acquiring rules, with mixed results.
Machiavelli’s principle: Punish wrongdoers swiftly and severely.
One morning over breakfast, general bitchiness ensued. “Great, you finished the milk,” Sasha said to her sister, sarcasm curdling what was in the cereal bowl. Vivian took the same tone in defending how little was left. It drives me nuts to see my girls bicker. I’ve told them this many times, explaining that kindness yields kindness. It sometimes works. Not today.
So instead of asking if Sasha might have expressed her anxiety a bit more generously, I did as Machiavelli suggests, punishing quickly and harshly: “That’s it, Sasha. No computer for the rest of the day.” They both looked at me in shock. “You know I don’t like it when you’re disrespectful to one another,” I said. “We’ve talked about it endlessly. Next time you’ll remember.”
Sasha ran from the table, screaming how unfair I was and sobbing for the next half hour. Vivian lost her appetite. “Gee, Mom, you could have given her a warning first,” she said.
My verdict: I felt like a hypocrite, responding unkindly in an attempt to promote kindness. And it didn’t work. Sasha glared at Vivian the entire way to school, as if it was her fault she got into trouble. That night, Viv said she didn’t feel like using the computer, perhaps because her sister couldn’t. The fact that this created the solidarity I was hoping for was of little comfort.
Machiavelli’s principle: It is dangerous to be overly generous.
Most of us don’t say yes to everything our kids want, for their own good and for ours in being able to pay our mortgages. So I dug a little deeper into what Machiavelli meant by this, and it turns out that in The Prince, he is in favor of “niggardliness,” or stinginess, in favor of “liberality” as a way of controlling the masses and staying solvent.
Since I noticed no uptick in kindness after the milk episode, I tried a different tack. The girls like to stop at a deli near their school for a pastry. I almost always say no, because it’s not healthy and I want to keep that reward in reserve for when I need something in return.
Why, that’s downright Machiavellian, isn’t it? A few days after the milk incident, I offered to take them to the deli if they promised to be extra kind through the following weekend. They eagerly agreed. I pointed out I’d be watching for signs of niceness, and as if on cue, Sasha offered Viv a bite of her treat, and Viv broke off a hunk of her lemon poppy-seed muffin for Sasha. All was well in my principality.
My verdict: Proactive but controlled generosity worked in this case, and my kids responded beautifully. I don’t know what Machiavelli would think, but I suspect I’d get two thumbs up.
Machiavelli’s principle: The prince must be deceitful if it is to his advantage.
Lying to kids is wrong, but I do it every so often, mostly when I want to take “selfish” time away from them, which I usually feel guilty about. So I’ve told my kids that I’m out “doing an errand” or “at a meeting” rather than at the gym. This week, I do the opposite of what Machiavelli might recommend and I’m truthful, in the name of true power over my subjects.
“Girls, you’re staying with Lulu while I go to the gym,” I announce one night after work. Vivian is fine, but Sasha complains that she hasn’t seen me all day. “OK. I’ll come with you,” she proposes. I tell her that would defeat the purpose, and besides, she has homework. Sasha pleads and gets upset, but I’m firm. I leave, feeling like a horrible mom.
When I return home, full of apologies and with a pint of ice cream, Sasha looks up from her book, clearly over her distress. “Thanks for giving me that time to myself,” I said, kissing her on the head. “Sure, mom, whatever,” she says.
My verdict: Self-serving lies might work for a prince but not for a parent. Whatever abandonment Sasha may have felt was long gone, and she was able to handle my leaving to do what I needed to do.
My bottom line on Machiavelli: I find the very premise of The Prince—that you want to acquire and hold “power” so you can “rule”—antithetical to the way I run my household. Every family is different, of course, and perhaps if mine were truly in rebellion, I’d endeavor to be feared first, loved second. But mostly I’m just glad I’m a parent, not a prince.
Stephanie Dolgoff is the author of My Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young. She lives in New York City.