Newly married, my husband, Eric, and I moved to a new home with our kids. Now we would start trying to blend our families.
From the beginning, it was total chaos. There were endless chores, to say nothing of the logistics of caring for four kids under 8 (two from our previous marriages and two we’d had together). At the same time, I had just started a new full-time job writing legal briefs from home, and I was trying to finish a dissertation for my Ph.D. in history. All of which meant that I was trapped inside for days at a time with my kids, whose constant bickering was driving me nuts.
Like millions of other modern moms, I tried to change them by yelling and nagging. This, of course, only made their behavior worse. After one especially trying day, I stomped off to my home office. Too exhausted to work, I sat at my desk and stared at a dusty shelf of books. And there I saw it: an old copy of “The Prince.”
Pulling it from the shelf, I studied its cover—a portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli. His determined eyes stared out humbly at me; his thin lips turned up in a slight, knowing smile; his stance, powerful and confident—everything that I was not at that point in my life.
I opened the book and began reading. Machiavelli’s name is synonymous with duplicity, deceit and the cunning, ruthless use of power. But the more I read, the more excited I became.
Machiavelli began writing “The Prince” in the midst of his own crisis. Fired from his position in Florence as a high-ranking diplomat, he had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured for his alleged role in a conspiracy to assassinate Cardinal Giuliano de’Medici and seize the government by force. Upon his release, exiled to the Tuscan countryside, he resolved to write a primer on politics in hopes of gaining favor among the Medicis and obtaining a new government post. Thus was born “The Prince,” the most revolutionary and widely maligned political tract of all time.
Machiavelli never wrote the infamous phrase often associated with him: “the ends justify the means.” His methods weren’t about acquiring power for its own sake. He saw power as a tool for securing the safety and stability of the state. He wanted to show princes how to ensure the happiness and well-being of their subjects.
A stable and safe home? Full of happy and prosperous subjects? It sounded like a worthy goal, not just for a prince but for a parent too. Maybe I could use Machiavelli’s rules to help me reclaim my own kingdom.
Being permissive and nice hadn’t worked with my children. Begging, bartering, harassing and even politely asking hadn’t worked either. But perhaps a pragmatic, tough-minded Machiavellian strategy would. With “The Prince” in hand, I set out to become a full-fledged Machiavellian mom. I was soon following several of the great political adviser’s key maxims.
‘Nothing wastes so rapidly as liberality, for even whilst you exercise it you lose the power to do so, and so become either poor or despised or, in avoiding poverty, rapacious and hated.’
Because men are fickle, hypocritical, greedy and deceitful, Machiavelli argues, their loyalties can be won and lost. To guard against shifting allegiances, he advises a prince to develop a reputation for generosity. He cautions, however, that an overly generous prince will quickly bankrupt the state and only increase his subjects’ greed for largess.
I thought immediately of my kids.
Like all moms, I was struggling to meet their every material need. Yet as I read “The Prince,” I realized that the more things I gave them, the more they expected and less grateful they became. So, on our next trip to Target, I applied Machiavelli’s advice to my unsuspecting young subjects.
Usually, on such outings, they would greedily toss DVDs and dolls into our cart. If I insisted that they remove the booty, temper tantrums would ensue. This time I had a plan. Instead of waiting for disaster, I stopped at the entrance and handed each of them $10.
“What’s this?” my 7-year-old daughter Teddy asked.
“It’s a 10-dollar bill,” I said. “And it’s for you to use today, but that’s all you’re going to get, so use it wisely.”
Once inside, my troops carefully examined the price of each item they liked. “What? $29?!” Teddy protested upon discovering the price of a Justin Bieber backpack. “Well, that’s just ridiculous,” she mumbled as she put it back on the shelf. “It’s not worth that much!”
Our shopping trip went much more smoothly than in the past, my kids were more appreciative, and they learned the value of money.
‘A Captain ought…[to] endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men…or by giving him cause…to separate his forces and, because of this, become weaker.’
Daniel: Wasn’t making the grade, until mom decided to divide and conquer.
I was already familiar with the strategy of “divide and conquer”; our kids are masters at pitting my husband and me against each other to get what they want. I decided it was time to use this maxim to my own advantage.
To that end, I “divided” Teddy and my 8-year-old stepson Daniel by pitting them against each other in a not-so-friendly competition over who could do better in school.
“Excellent!” I praised Teddy when she brought home a nearly perfect second-grade report card. I then rewarded her with a celebratory family dinner at the restaurant of her choice. On the other front, Daniel, whose report card wasn’t so stellar, got nothing, other than the shame of losing the competition—to his younger sister no less, as I reminded him.
But this defeat ignited his competitive spirit, and by the end of the school year, both Teddy and Daniel brought home outstanding report cards. Bottom line: By setting my kids against each other, I ultimately got what I wanted from them…and they both benefited.
‘Those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.’
With that victory scored, I turned to the part of “The Prince” where Machiavelli shifts emphasis from dispensing concrete advice to describing the personality traits of a great leader. It is critical for a prince always to appear honorable, he writes, but he cautions that a prince shouldn’t honor his word if doing so will threaten his rule. And since all men are dishonest, he adds, “a prince must be deceitful if it is to his advantage.”
Trevor: Never saw through the small lie that gave his parents a much-needed retreat.
This might make sense in politics, but I didn’t know if it would be wise to apply at home. But then my husband and I were invited to a golfing event in Santa Barbara for the weekend.
All parents know that weekends are dictated by kid-centered events, from sports to birthday parties to play dates. This particular weekend was no different, and all my kids had multiple events that I was supposed to attend. But I desperately needed a break, and suitable child care could be arranged.
So, to minimize resistance and feelings of unnecessary abandonment (“You’re going golfing? Can we come?!”), I told my kids that their dad and I were going away for the weekend on a business trip. And I didn’t feel a bit guilty about it. The result: When I returned home, I was well-rested and relaxed, and my kids, who had worn out their grandparents, were thrilled to have me and their dad back home.
In other words: Don’t feel guilty for lying to your kids if it makes you happy and relaxed…because having a happy, relaxed mom always benefits a child.
‘A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal…will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise.’
I admit to pausing when I encountered Machiavelli’s advice that “good laws follow from good arms” and that the very legitimacy of law rests upon the threat of coercive force. I should make it clear that I do not, as a rule, believe in spanking a child of any age. But this issue came into play when Katie, then 5, tried to escape from our house one day when she thought I wasn’t watching.
Katie has Down syndrome and is happiness personified, but she can also be stubborn and defiant. Some of her misdeeds include dumping a full bottle of water on my laptop and frequently escaping from home and school. On this particular day, I gave her a quick pat on the behind.
Katie’s eyes opened wide with surprise, but she didn’t let out so much as a whimper or whine, much less a cry. When she tried to pull the same trick the next day, I gave her another quick pat that was met with a slight grimace…followed by a wide, defiant grin. Clearly, this strategy wasn’t only ineffective, it was aggravating the situation.
I scoured “The Prince” and stumbled upon his maxim that “when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states.” A few days later, Katie sneaked outside again and tried to hide in the backyard. This time, I led her straight up to her room.
“You know you’re not supposed to leave the house without asking,” I said sternly. She nodded in acknowledgment. “Then you’re getting a half-hour timeout in your room,” I announced. “And from now on, whenever you choose to break this rule, that is what you will get. Every. Single. Time.” Then I slowly closed the door and walked away.
That might seem extreme, especially if you are not familiar with the unique challenges of disciplining a special-needs child. But when it comes to parenting and politics, context is everything. And if that kind of pragmatic and tough-minded Machiavellian strategy was what it was going to take to keep my sweet, spirited, stubborn young daughter safe and sound then, in my mind, it was in her best interest.
When I walked into her room a half-hour later, she was sitting on her bed flipping through a picture book. When she looked up, she sheepishly smiled.
“You ready to come out now and behave?” I asked.
“Yeah!” she giggled and clapped.
‘In the actions of all men, and especially of princes…one judges by the result.’
As peace and predictability began to prevail at home, I turned to Machiavelli’s most infamous advice. Though often mistakenly recalled as “the ends justify the means,” what he really says is subtler: that others will ultimately judge actions by results.
Eric: Wanted another child, but received a tough ultimatum instead.
Either way, the maxim came in handy one night when my husband got into bed, pulled close to me and said, “You know, I’d really like to have another kid.” To which I replied, “That’s nice, honey, but what you’re going to have instead is a vasectomy.”
With our four boisterous young kids finally coming under control, adding another to the mix—an obvious threat to my hard-won dominion—was a result that I could not accept. My husband resisted this edict at first, but when I told him that until he accepted it he shouldn’t expect any affection in bed, he quickly agreed to an appointment with a doctor.
There is nothing scheming or manipulative about following the path set down by Machiavelli. It is all about maintaining power and laying down the law with a firm hand. The great Florentine would be proud of his new disciple.