It’s Worth The Time
The true meaning of child discipline is collaboration.
When most people think of the Terrible Twos, they think of spanking, time outs, and later, grounding. Parents often yell at their children, swat them, take things away from them, remove privileges and criticize them. And they think that is what we call discipline. When I saw a parent yelling at his child in Costco, I think that is anything but discipline, and I see that parent as being undisciplined himself.
Punishment seems like a quick and effective means of getting control over a child. But as a son, father, and observer, I’ve only seen unwanted results from punishment. The first is obedience. The second is rebellion. And the last unwanted result is sadness. I’ve never seen anything good come from punishing kids.
It’s important to make a distinction between punishment and setting limits or, restraint. Rather than punish my kids, I just set limits. I set boundaries on where they can go and what they can do around the house. I give them choices. I collaborate with them to help them solve their problems. I give them the help they ask for and later, they push my hand away to say, “I got this”. Sweet music to my ears.
I have found that the emotional trauma of punishment does not foster self-discipline. True discipline is about setting limits and collaborating with kids to solve the problems that give rise to challenging behavior.
Children have impulses. They have an impulse to see the world, to prod it and learn how the world works. They don’t know the rules. They are born with no expectations. They lack the discipline to manage their emotions. They lack the discipline to use the toilet until they are potty trained. Their developing toddler brains don’t understand the word, “no”. They have meltdowns because they don’t know how to manage their emotions, not because they’re mounting a protest against their parents.
When a toddler is having a meltdown, the impulse often carried out by most parents is to swat the kid in the butt and send him to his room. Or they threaten the kid to stop crying or “I’ll give you something to cry about”. When a toddler is having a meltdown, the parent usually interprets this as “I’m losing control of my kid”. The reality is that the parent never had control of his kid, to begin with. He has some influence, but no control. And I don’t want control of my kids. I just want some influence so that I can show them the way to a happy life.
Long ago, I learned how to talk my kids through their meltdowns. This is a very different thing than what most parents do. 81% of parents still think it’s appropriate to hit their kids. As a parent and an adult, I learned that anger is a choice for an adult, but not so much for kids. Kids have very little power, and when they discover the word “no” and how to use it, they are learning how to test their power. They learn how to say no from their parents or caregivers.
I’ve learned to talk with my kids by saying things like, “I see that you’re angry. I want you to know that just because you’re angry, that doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too.” During a meltdown, I learned to be calm, to sit at eye level with my child and talk with her. And, like Mel Gibson in the opening scene of Lethal Weapon, I just keep talking until my kid forgets what she was so angry about. I talk until the storm passes.
When a kid has a meltdown, it’s like an electrical storm in their brains. They don’t know how to control it. They learn how to control it from us, the parents. So when they’re angry, I model calm, empathy and support. I don’t take anything they say or do as a personal affront to me. I forgive them for they know not what they do.
It’s worth the time for me to do this. I have the time to do this. I can see later down the road, why it’s worth the time to talk with my kids when they’re upset. I make no threats, no ultimatums, and I speak in a calm, reassuring tone. When I talk with my kids this way, I learn why they were upset and then I start to work with them on how to soothe them. I teach them how to soothe themselves. I want them to know how to do this when they are 13.
As I sit there on the floor, facing a child filled with rage, her face bright red, tears streaming down her face, I let her know that I don’t have to be angry, too. I let her know that she can always ask for a hug. I am mindful that the more I talk with her, the more energy is required to maintain the anger. I’ve even told my child that anger is very energy-intensive and that she will go to sleep early with her energy spent on so much anger. I let her know that if she wants to stay up later, she must let go of her anger. I let her know that I’m here for her, no matter what.
I speak to my kids like little adults when it comes to vocabulary. I speak plainly. I use big words like “intensive” because I know that they will pick up these words. I use no profanity. I try to make myself as clear as possible. I engage them in conversation because I know that in order for them to hear me, to talk with me, they must soothe themselves. They must learn how to set aside their anger to hear what I’m saying.
I’m very patient with my kids because I know that eventually, they will learn how to do what I do. I model calm and restraint because kids are the world’s greatest imitators. If I smile, they smile, if I’m spiteful, they’re spiteful.
I would rather take the time to walk and talk them through their upsets than to short circuit their feelings with threats of punishment. I believe in letting them have that anger, feel it, know it, then learn how to let it pass, to see the other side, without my intervention other than to talk with them. Then there will be no prohibition on anger, but then they will learn that displays of anger will not get them what they wanted in the first place. I want them to know that they can still get a hug.
I’ve found that this idea of talking my kids through their anger works with adults, too. I don’t encounter anger in adults very often, but when I do, I have learned to be calm, stoic, and just keep talking. They’re the ones having a bad day, not me. My job is to talk them through it. My job is to err on the side of peace because I really want to live in peace. My job is to let them feel that anger, let it pass, then have a conversation about it. I’ve been lucky not to have to deal with someone who is violent against me.
I believe that at all times, the universe is a reflection of how I am thinking and feeling. If I’m angry, the universe is angry. If I’m sad, then the universe sends me sadness. If I can pause for a moment, to let the feeling pass, the universe seems to pause for me, it seems to give me the time I need to process my experience. If I ask for more time, I usually get it. And when I make a decision that tends to bring about peace, I usually get peace, too. It seems like I’m collaborating with the universe.
That’s why I think it’s worth the time to develop self-discipline. A life of peace is why I think it’s worth the time to talk my kids through their upsets. I collaborate with my kids to help them solve the problems they encounter as they grow up. Talking my kids through their upsets is a form of collaboration.
And when I’m at peace with myself, the people around me, like the universe, reflect peace back to me.