Sometimes as I watch how fast my babies are growing, I think back to the wildly naive expectations I had of parenthood just a couple of years ago. I used to look at my sweet darling firstborn, gurgling away holding his legs after a fresh nappy change, and just revel in the wonder of being blessed with a baby who clearly could do no wrong. An angel incapable of sin. I thanked God that he had taken mercy on me and my short temper, and given me a cherub who was just never going to test it.
Last week, I found myself wondering how clearly my neighbours hear me when I’m bellowing “GET OFF THE DOOR YOU DON’T PLAY WITH DOORS I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS”... if they live on a different floor.
I’m not quite sure when the change happened, when was the first time I realised my son - and subsequently, either of his siblings - did something they knew was wrong. I do know that it took me a while to realise that I had to learn to tell the difference between them working something out versus making a choice to be naughty, and I then had to learn how to respond properly. There was a difference between when they knocked over their cup of water because their gorgeous chunky hands were learning to feed their beautiful gummy mouths, and when they slapped it over because they were having a paddy.
And not long after, I was playing catch up again, not only discerning between accident and purpose, but between purpose and… higher purpose. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a tantrum at the root of things (“you need to calm down”), but it could be a premeditated crime, designed to get a reaction (“don’t kick me when I’m wiping up the water”).
Before I knew it, I was falling back on my own short temper. There was a lot of OI-ing and STOPIT-ing going on. As parents, Brook and I were in agreement from the start that we’ll discipline our kids; neither of us are about having an intellectual discussion with the child to ‘convince’ them of the right thing to do: that conversation can take place later, but in the moment, them doing as they are told matters (more on this another time). BUT, just as importantly, we’ve been in agreement from the start that discipline is about teaching the child right from wrong, not about expressing our personal anguish in a situation - much less about punishment.
And this is where I was stumbling. Increasingly, I was expressing my personal outrage in a situation - disbelief that this child hadn’t got the message yet, or frustration that I was being put out, or feeling disrespected. Not a pretty picture, but an honest one!
And what’s worse yet, is that i realised that I was so fixated on them Getting! Things! Right! That I had become blind to the context in which disciplining was being done. It’s good to deal with things in the moment and not let them linger, but I realised that I was doing more harm than good.
One simple thing has changed much of this (in addition to me trying to be generally more gracious - it’s much easier when you’re not learning to parent in the middle of a pandemic!): going private. Taking yourself and the little perp out of the room - and most importantly, out of the company of other people - to have a talk about something they’ve done wrong is such a great moderator of discipline.
- I have to inconvenience myself, stop what I'm doing and take time out with them. So the first question I have is, is it worth it? If the child has been naughty enough to need more than a quick reminder, then it is. That’s the way it is, and their discipline is more important than what I’m doing right now. But if however they’ve gone wrong just needs a gentle word, then I don’t need to let myself get carried away either. It’s a check on my emotions.
- Of course, it’s not always possible to drop everything and find somewhere private to talk. That’s where the “we’ll talk about this when we get home” comes in. You’re not saying it doesn’t matter, but life can continue while you find a place to deal with it evenly - and with the added bonus of giving everyone time to cool down.
- Talking to them one-on-one is a reminder to the child that the rules they’re taught are not for other people’s benefit. What’s true at home - don’t climb on the furniture, don’t play with doors, whatever it may be - you’re not disciplining them for it because of who you’re with at that time, but instead these rules and your expectations are consistent. They know where they stand.
- If you berate your child publicly for something they’ve done wrong - been careless with their words or actions, or whatever - then they’re not thinking about the lesson you’re giving them. They’re thinking about what everyone else is thinking. Scorn? Anger? Disdain? They’re thinking about their embarrassment. Not only do they not get what you’re telling them, they just get a whole lot of hurt instead.
- On the flip side, having a word in quiet gives the child a second chance to get it right. No one else is privy to the conversation you’ve just had, so they’re not in a place to keep an account of wrongdoing. The slate is clean and life moves forward.
When Brook and I were looking around schools for our eldest son this year, one of the headteachers we met talked about an approach they use that pretty much sealed the deal of making the school our top choice: “loud praise, quiet critique”. Encouraging my child to set a good example: good. Knowing that good actions lead to positive self-esteem: good. Not holding up their actions to embarrass them in front of others: also good. Not letting them be defined in the eyes of those around them as ‘naughty’: very good.
So as I’ve come to terms with the fact that kiddos - even those as perfect as mine - can get things wrong, I’m encouraged that I’m getting better at dealing with it. Disciplining them is a lot less shouty and flustered since I’ve started making it about them and not me, and definitely not about anyone else.