In the parenting world, there is no topic that cannot be turned into a debate. No matter what you do, you’re doing something somebody else would never do, and some people just love to tell you that in the jerkiest possible way. It starts before the baby is even born. Pregnancy for most women is nine months of eat-this-don’t-eat-that, you’re-gaining-too-much-weight-you’re-not-gaining-enough-weight, coffee-chocolate-shellfish-deli-meat-wine-and-everything-else-you-love-are-off-limits, should-you-be-wearing-those-shoes, natural-birth-is-the-way-to-go-c-sections-are-a-tool-of-the-devil. Once your little angel makes his or her debut, it ramps up. Breast milk or formula? Co-sleeping or a crib? Signing, flash cards, and multilingual storytime or a laid-back, wait-and-see approach to baby’s developing brain? Baby becomes a toddler, and everyone’s got an opinion on schedules and activities and schools. Get over those hurdles, and it’s all about what you let your kids wear, and if they own a phone or handheld video game system or not, and if you swear in front of them, and whether they’re in hockey or music or nothing at all. It never ends.
One of the hottest, most divisive aspects of parenting that I’ve encountered is discipline. Entire libraries of books have been written about how to discipline your children. The internet is clogged with blog posts and how-to guides. Everyone has an opinion, even people who havn’t been children since before colour TV, and have never had little ones of their own. Your grandmother, your four-doors-down neighbour and the lady in line behind you at Walmart all feel entitled to tell you what you’re doing wrong, and sometimes even suggest alternatives based on the six minutes they’ve spent observing you and your kids through their judgement goggles, one day in a lifetime of days. (Judgement goggles are somewhat like beer goggles, but they do the opposite of making everything look awesome.) Discipline tactics, and sometimes lack thereof, are blamed for everything from shoplifting to school shootings.
Based on years of reading and listening (sometimes involuntarily, while trying to quell my urge to throat punch the tub-thumper), I’m doing alot of things wrong. Let’s start with the things I used to do wrong ….
I didn’t use time-outs. Time-outs are still lauded as a miraculous behaviour modifier by so many people. They are the first line of defence against brattiness for most parents of toddlers. But they simply didn’t work for either Fiona or Bridget. Fiona, when given a time-out, would fidget her way through it and spend the whole time asking if she could run around now. Now, can I? How ’bout now? She wasn’t thinking about what she’d done wrong and how she could do things differently, she was thinking about liberation. I dropped time-outs rather quickly after a few tries. I tried them on Bridget, two years later. Bridget would continuously kick or hit whatever was closest to her (usually the wall), while howling her rage at the world. The. Whole. Five. Minutes. Try listening to that. She was the one who needed to be punished, not the whole house. So, I dropped time-outs for the second time.
I spanked. This is the lollapalooza of discipline tactics. Nobody is neutral when it comes to physical discipline. Some people claim that spanking kids turns them into bullies. They say spanking is hypocritical. If you tell your kids not to hit other kids, then you hit them, what does that tell them? Others call it abuse. Google “spanking”, and many of the images will show a hulking, angry grown-up wailing hell out of a tiny, terrified-but-somehow-still-adorable child. There is also a small slice of people who seem to think spankings are the correct response to everything from thumb-sucking to breaking things (whether it was an accident or not). They say things like “when I was young, I’d have gotten my ass smacked for that, and hard, too” or “if the teacher strapped me at school and my parents found out, I’d get spanked again at home”. Like Jasper Beardly, they are certain the world would be a better place if there were more “paddlins”. I don’t fit into either category. Swatting a kid’s backside is not abuse, and – in my opinion – it is an insult to survivors of child abuse to equate the two. Toddlers have all the mobility of a monkey, but zero ability to be reasoned with. Sometimes, a physical consequence is the only thing that gets through to him or her. You can talk at your two-year-old til your voice is gone, but they won’t understand that they can’t yank fistfuls of hair out of your scalp, gouge the baby’s eye out, jam a fork into an electrical outlet, or run out into traffic. A click on the fingers or an open hand on their backside, though, will get the message across. However, I didn’t do it often, and when I did, it was typically a last resort in dealing with a very serious infraction. Not all children need to be spanked – depending on their nature, a simple change of tone or facial expression is enough. Now that my girls are old enough to speak and understand English, I don’t need to punish them physically, and I don’t.
I’m still breaking rules, though. I’m yelling. According to its detractors, yelling at your kids is ineffective. Some say it dulls their response to your voice. Others say it makes kids hypersensitive, and prone to innappropriate emotional responses. I’m still yelling. Because I’m only human, and raising kids can be downright exasperating – it can feel like the highest-stakes exercise in futility you’ll ever encounter. Plus, I don’t go from zero to yell. Yelling is usually preceded by a couple of nice requests, a well-modulated order and a “didn’t I just tell you to do X – why aren’t you listening”. Who wouldn’t yell after all that? And you know what? When I yell, it works. Every time. Sometimes, I feel bad about yelling. Most of the time, though, I feel like that’s the option they’ve left me with after I gave them plenty of chances.
Discipline experts (self-appointed, all) worship at the altar of consistancy. All the rules apply all the time, and there is no wiggle room. I’m not consistant. Some days, I’m on my game (or maybe just in a bad mood), and I see and respond to every little misdemeanor. Other days, I’m relaxed about it, and the offence has to be fairly serious to get my attention. I ask myself if this is a hill to die on, and it’s usually not. Then, there are the days when I’m just not up to being the law in this here town, and I see and hear no evil. I let it slide, promising myself that I will talk to them about it later, when I have more energy or less to do. Again, I’m only human.
I’m not a “yes parent”, either. I say “no” alot. Some days, I feel like I need a “no” button, similar to the Staples “that was easy” button. There are alot of people who believe that negativity should be replaced by positivity all the time. Instead of saying “no”, I should offer alternative options. I have only one life to work with, and kids ask for alot. If I have to offer and follow through with an alternate object or activity every time I want to say “no”, I’ll run out of life before I finish with the requests I’ve already received. Sometimes, the answer is “no”, and that’s that. They will encounter “no” again and again throughout their lives, and there won’t always be another option. They need to get used to this. Positive parenting advocates also say that I should reward good things instead of punishing bad things. I do reward the good that I see, with praise and sometimes a treat. But the bad things are still there. So, what then? I’m not going to let bad things slide while I wait for a good thing to reward. Depending on the day, it can be a while before anything reward-worthy pops up – and, while you wait, you start to suspect that your child’s odd hairstyle is a result of attempting to hide his or her horns.
You shouldn’t bribe kids, either, apparently. It makes them expect something for everything they do, and it teaches them they don’t have to be good just for goodness’ sake. Oh, and it probably also ruins their teeth and lowers their chance of getting a good job when they grow up. Or something like that. Whatever. I bribe the girls shamelessly. If you’ll sit-patiently-in-whatever-waiting-room / clean-up-whatever-filth-I’m-focused-on-right-now / pick-all-the-weeds-in-the-garden / be-quiet-while-I’m-on-the-phone-for-the-next-hour, you can have ice cream / a new book next time we’re at Chapters / a trip to the park / an extra bedtime story. I bribed them with a milkshake to be brave during their booster shots, and they still talk about those milkshakes and how badass (my word, not theirs) they were to not even flinch when the needle punctured their skin. Not everything I want them to do leads to a bribe – I like to pull one out only when I really need it – but it sure sweetens the pot for them, and it gets the result I want. Would you do something boring or awful for the reward of feeling good about having done something boring or awful? Do you go to work for nothing but the pleasure of making your boss smile? Probably not. Why should children?
I guess what I’m saying is that you should go with your gut. There are alot of loud voices out there, shouting their wares. There are alot of Judgy McJudgersons getting their knickers in a twist over things that actually aren’t any of their business. There are alot of phonies using Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram to make the rest of us feel inadequate. But there’s only one mother / father of your children: you. Do what works. Ryan and I have broken, and are breaking, alot of “rules” – and, somehow, our children are turning out to be sensitive, caring, curious, intelligent, generally obedient darlings anyway. I’ll bet yours are, too. The kids are alright, in spite of our best efforts.