Recently I was leaving the schoolyard with my six-year-old daughter when we were overtaken by a mother trying to get her second-grade daughter and four-year-old son out of the park. The boy was underwhelmed with the mom's action plan and, as retaliation, clocked the mom in the back of her head with his aluminum water bottle. She winced — the blow was audible, then kept moving with only a question marking the moment,"You wanted to stop at the cookie place?"
They kept walking.
No! I screamed in my head. No! That is not an acceptable way for him to give you feedback! He does not get to cast his vote by beaning you!
I turned to my daughter. "Sophie," I said, kneeling down to catch her eye."If you ever hit me — or anyone else — in the head…I will end you. Are we clear?"
This is a conversation Sophie and I have had over the years when we've witnessed someone in her age range doing something unacceptable that goes unremarked on by their caregiver or parent. The list includes: throwing fistfuls of rice in an adult's face, spitting mouthfuls of food in public, screaming like banshees, and hitting strangers. None of this by anyone under the age of four, mind you. None of this from children with developmental disabilities. These were all neuro-typical children who had never gotten any feedback that there are things we just don't do.
I have sat in enough restaurants watching unfettered children run past servers balancing scalding bowls of soup to know that our generation seems to be discipline handicapped. From sleep training to tantrums we are a generation of parents who have a conflicted relationship with boundaries and feedback of all kinds.
Recently I was talking with Susan Peirce Thompson, a Ph.D. in brain and cognitive science, about raising her three daughters. She mentioned that the one who doesn't like to go to bed used to come downstairs and ask scientific questions after her bedtime, hoping to lure her like-minded mother into more conversation."I would just say, 'I'm not going to answer that now.' Short, simple. Because that's just behavioral psychology. Don't reward any behavior you don't want to see again."
You mean, like by buying it a cookie???
I completely understand not wanting to deal. As parents today, increasingly in dual-income homes, we are stretched thin. And typically those moments that they test the boundaries are exactly when we, too, are so tired we just want to keep things moving. But, unfortunately, that is the exact moment you have to harness a little extra will to impose a Think Time, or whatever your preferred method is. And that might mean on the sidewalk, or in the grocery store, or standing outside Frozen on Ice while the show starts. There were nights I was bone tired and just wanted to have a nice evening with Sophie, but she would test me and my first thought was, "Dammit, I do not want to do this now." But I also knew if I didn't let her know that defying me was not okay it would lead to greater problems down the road.
Because, make no mistake, left unchecked bad behavior rolls right along. One minute you have a toddler punching her mother until she gets quieted with an ice cream — and the next you have a Real Housewife. Undisciplined toddlers become obnoxious children who grow into spoiled teenagers and entitled adults. And at some point on your life's journey you have met one of each of these. And I bet you wished that somebody had put that person in their place.
Our generation is hampered because, after much therapy, we are deeply aware that our children are cognizant, conscious humans in a way previous generations weren't aware. Children were treated like pets or — worse — release-valves for their parents' stresses and fears, then expected to magically transform into healthy, functional adults. Which is why we're the most overweight, addicted, medicated generation in history.
We are trying to break that cycle.
But discipline is part of creating an integrated functional adult — it doesn't make you the bad guy. Children aren't damaged by discipline, they're damaged by cruelty. And it's not cruel to marry a behavior choice a child makes with a suitable consequence. I put Sophie in Think Time when she refuses to sit in the slippery tub when I have asked her to repeatedly, or not gotten out 10 minutes past when I said it was time, or deliberately not helped clean up a mess she made.
I admit it — in our overly permissive culture I am strict. Because I learned the hard way looking after other people's children on foot in New York City that the only way to keep them safe was to ensure that they unquestioningly followed my instructions when we left the apartment. What I quickly realized was that if I was clear about what I expected in the first few days I never had issues again. Shoes were put on promptly, intersections were avoided, voices were lowered on buses. All to the greater point that once those things are sorted you can focus on having fun. My daughter is beautifully behaved in restaurants so in the privacy of our home we have spectacular burping contests.
And that's the paradox of discipline. It's as true in my work as my parenting. Creativity actually flourishes within boundaries. Whether it's the border of a canvas, the confines of a commission or the structure of an assignment. Once an artist knows what the structure is they can let their imagination soar. The same is true of children. They crave boundaries. They repeat unwanted behavior, like tantrums and violence, because they're escalating it, waiting for someone to care enough to tell them no.
They might not react with gratitude in the moment, of course, but, in the long term, kids who know that there are clear rules feel more secure. And Dr. Brene Brown has documented this all the way up through college.
So the next time your child does something you never want to see again let them know exactly that. Get down on their level, make eye contact, and, without raising your voice, firmly say, "I don't ever want to see you do that again, do you understand?" Then ask them to repeat it back to you in their own words to make sure they've actually understood. You'll be doing them a favor in the long run, I promise.
And if you can't do it for yourself, then do it for me. I so don't want to spend my sixties dodging beer bottles from put-out twentysomethings.
In her ongoing column for redbookmag.com, bestselling co-author of the Nanny Diaries, Nicola Kraus, takes on parenting, working and her deep-seated belief that coffee should be provided free-of-charge to all moms by the government.
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