Before I had kids I was unsure about a lot of things. I didn’t understand breastfeeding or schedules and had no idea how to bathe a newborn, but there was one thing I knew I would be great at: discipline.
I had plenty of practice watching other people do it all wrong. I knew exactly how to handle the kid running through the restaurant or the little girl screaming on the ground in the grocery store. Lots of things about parenting would be hard, but discipline was not going to be one of them.
Then David threw his first tantrum at eight months old.
I knew I should stay calm, and I knew I needed to stick to my guns, but what else? Should I punish him? How do you punish an 8-month old?
I thought it’d get easier as he got older, but it’s only become more complicated, nuanced, and confusing. Does he understand what I’m saying? Does he understand cause and effect? Does he remember rules? Consequences? How do I set him up for success? Is every little infraction worth the battle?
[I can’t wait until he’s a teenager. This is going to be so much easier when he’s a teenager…]
And what about the days when it never ends? What about the days when he has a tantrum with his morning diaper change, when I wipe him down after breakfast, when I have the audacity to move his truck two inches to the left? And then he doesn’t nap. And then he screams through our afternoon walk, and cries for Elmo during dinner, and kicks while I try to put his pajamas on? It’s much easier to just give in.
David is a strong-willed kid. Since he was just three months old he’s left us wringing our hands and uncertain of what to do. (However, he’s also energetic, inquisitive, and brave — qualities we want to nurture, not squelch.) I considered listing some of his most ridiculous tantrums, the times when his manipulations are so quick they stop us in our tracks. Like that one time he hit me, so I held his hand, and before I could say, “David, we do not hit Mommy,” he hit me with his other hand. So I held the other hand, too, an he looked me square in the face and head-butted me.
But I do have to just tell one more story because this is quintessentially David…David used to bang his head on the floor when he didn’t get his way. When I told his doctor about it he told me that, usually, kids will actually hit a surface that hurts and stop doing it on their own. So I explained that David would actually test out surfaces by lightly tapping his head on them before going at it. For example, one time he hit his head on our hardwood floor and since that hurt, he moved to the carpet where he could hit his head harder and really put on a show.
Wanna know what my doctor said? He chuckled, leaned back in his chair and said, “Well I’ve never heard of that before! You better watch out, sounds like you have a smart one on your hands.”
We have a hundred stories like that, stories where he out-smarts and thinks faster than us. But there’s no reason to make him out to be a villain because this isn’t really David’s problem. Sure, he’s strong-willed, but he’s also two, and he’s acting like a two-year old. He’s learning limits and testing out the world and in the process he’s testing us, too. We’re the parents, though, we’re the ones who are tasked with setting limits. If there’s a discipline problem in our house, it’s our problem, not our kid’s.
Now that David is two and he understands nearly everything we say, Tom and I think about discipline all the time. What’s our strategy? What works? What doesn’t? What punishment should be used for what disobedience? What’s too much? What’s too little? How do we make sure we get our point across without berating him? And what about all those times when he’s tired, sick, hungry, or teething?
Here’s a list of things we’ve tried in the past 26 months:
- Time out
- Ignoring him
- Popping his hand
- Removing him from the situation
- Restraining him
- Talking to him/using reason
- Giving chances
- Counting to three
- Giving him his way
To be honest, he hasn’t really responded to any of it. We asked our doctor for advice, and he helped us understand where David is developmentally and gave us some age-appropriate resources. The most helpful thing he said, though, was reminding us that:
- Discipline is very personal, and ultimately (within reason, of course) discipline is up to my spouse and me,
- The most important thing is to stay calm and be consistent, and
- Remember that I am the adult in the situation. David could act like a toddler; I shouldn’t.
We’ve talked a lot about this, we’ve prayed about it, we’ve gritted out teeth and screamed into pillows. We’ve just started to talk to other parents that we trust and respect, and we’ve checked a few books out of the library to see what the experts have to say. Tom and I also both had parents who were good models of discipline. They were loving and strict. We knew that if we disobeyed, there would be consequences.
Even though we admit we’d like for this to be easier, we’re kind of glad this is something we have to grapple with. Instead of just coming up with strategies on a whim, it’s good to have to really think this through. We’re still working on our “plan”, and we’ll continue to change and adjust, but here are some of our starting points.
- No matter what, we want our kids to know that Tom and I are a united front. Even if we disagree in the moment, I’ll yield to Tom and we’ll deal with our disagreement later when the kids aren’t present.
- We want to model our parenting after the example we see in Christ. We want our discipline to come from a place of love and humility, not impatience, exhaustion, fear, pride, or ambivalence.
- We acknowledge that our kids are sinners. We can’t eliminate their sinful nature, but we can remind them that they are in need of a Savior.
- We can teach our kids to say “please” and “thank you”, but we want to go beyond that. We want our children to be generous, thankful, respectful, and honest.
- Parents aren’t perfect, either, and we want our kids to know that. We’re sinners, dependent on the loving, saving grace of Jesus Christ. We hope our kids will learn about the love their Heavenly Father has for them by modeling repentance, forgiveness, and grace as we interact with each other and with them.
- Remember this? When we baptized David we stood up and publicly dedicated him to God, in humble reliance upon divine grace. Daily discipline and correction is part of that, part of setting before him a godly example, and bringing him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
Discipline isn’t something we take lightly, but we also know we have a lot to learn.We like to think it’d be easier if David was easier, but the truth is that it’s not easy for any parent if they actually care about their child.
That’s why parenting is so hard, because you have this little person who you love beyond reason, and are completely responsible for, but you don’t have all the answers. Every day I get out-smarted by my two-year old. Sometimes it’s because I’m tired and wrung out, sometimes it’s because I want to take the easy route, and sometimes it’s because I have no idea what I’m doing.
But we parents, we’re not alone. We have each other, people who are in it so thick that it’s hard to see a way out, and those who have come before us and lived to tell about it.
More importantly, we have a Savior who cares about us, and meets us in our times of need. There are days when David is refusing to sleep and is screaming for a tractor, no not that tractor, THAT TRACTOR! And I drape myself over his crib in exhaustion and desperation and pray for a small measure of patience; Jesus answers that prayer abundantly. Knowing, remembering and relying on that will bless our children more than anything we can read in any parenting book. I don’t know everything, but that is one thing I know for sure.
Parents, tell me your experiences. Can you relate? What resources should we check into? Where do you draw information and encouragement? What helped you get through this?
[Even though it looks like it, David isn’t throwing a tantrum in this photo. I was taking photos of Mary Virginia and he brought me his blanket and asked me to “make David dinosaur.” I wasn’t exactly sure how to do that, and nothing I tried was what he wanted. This photo is more like a documentation of our first time playing pretend together. Memories!]
Don’t forget the importance of prayer (which I think you know!). You won’t always know what to do. You will have days that end in tantrums and tears (you and David both). Pray pray pray. God will help reveal to you what David needs. God knows David’s heart better than anyone and can help you and Tom speak to what his little heart needs. After you have prayed ask for Godly counsel from friends you trust (maybe even someone who’s removed by a stage or two with their kids and can provide wisdom). It’s ok to give up and give in sometimes (grace!) and then we start over again the next day with hope. Cling to Jesus and don’t lose hope! I know this sounds a little dramatic but discipline is hard, it is important, and you are not alone 🙂
Oh gosh! This was a great post but now I’m slightly terrified for the days when discipline must begin in earnest! It’s admirable the ways you’re striving to discipline while pointing to our Savior.
Discipline was definitely the first thing that really ovewhelmed me as a parent. Still does!
I wrote a paper on it within the book of Proverbs for seminary and I’ll just give you a few highlights.
Basically, the reason discipline is hard is b/c it is a wisdom issue … no black and whites. So, the list you and Tom have is awesome and excellent guidelines for yourselves. But … it doesn’t practically tell you how act in a specific situation. That’s wisdom!
And you are right! The Lord is good. He answers prayer.
So basically Proverbs speaks about multiple levels of discipline.
1. Pro-active teaching in righteousness. – I LOVED THIS ONE! I had never thought about how so often we react. If they are ever sweet and calm for a minute, we can proactively teach them about holiness, goodness. Etc. You definitely hit on this in #4.
2. Pre-emptive warning. – This is basically a listing of actions and consequences before you are even in a danger zone. Also, I had never really thought about this. Here’s an example. We went to a bday party on Sat and I know that my daughter always wants to open all the bday girl’s presents to “help her.” Before we got there, in the car, we talked about how it was this girl’s party, what that meant, how should act as a nice friend, and what consequences would occur if she disobeyed. So, as David gets older, you can think forward to temptations and triggers and set him and yourself up.
3. Rebuke – Light correction. “No.” “That was unkind.” Etc.
4. Rod – Usually means physical punishment. The goal is to keep them from walking towards their own destruction.
5. Civil authorities – At some point, if a child continues in his own way he will get in some kind of trouble, and it is no longer within your jusidiction to punish. Ex. If you child loves to fight, and he is never shown the futility of that … eventually he grows up, fights, and gets arrested.
One of the goals of all this is to avoid the civil authority thing. The other goal, obviously is to glorify the Lord in what you do.
Anyway, the whole thing about wisdom, is to consider each child and each situation and use within your set of tools whatever works and is right. Children really do respond differently.
And so, I will pray for y’all to have wisdom and you can pray for us as well, because its hard.
As a sidenote: Lately, I really LOVE it when I see kids, who’s parents I really respect, acting out and having tantrums, b/c it makes me realize that it is really normal! Isn’t that terrible?!?
no advice….you ask God and He will give you what you need…and then He will totally surprise you! All I know is that I call children “sanctification packages” …they are used to develop so much character in us as their parents 🙂 Cheers to you and Tom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Look forward to what God will give you….and do through you because of Jesus!
I totally relate to everything you have said, especially the list of questions you asked yourself like, “How much does he understand? Does he remember rules?” etc. I have no advice because everything I would say you already covered. I can just provide more affirmation that we experience the same things too.
Oh, I can relate. It’s so tough, isn’t it? L was (is?) also strong-willed and has the same positive attributes that David does- very sharp, inquisitive, energetic, etc… We experimented a lot. What seems to work best for her is time out, because she is VERY social and doesn’t like being alone (for some kids, this is not punishment at all). We’ve also used the 1,2,3 strategy. She knows if we get to 3, she’ll get time out (or some other consequence related to the behavior- loss of a toy, dinner’s done, whatever)… and that works well. We’re now at a point where we can name the consequence, tell her what she needs to do by the time we get to 3 and she’ll do it by 2. There are still rough days and meltdowns, but 3 1/2 has been SO much better than 2, for us! Hang in there! You two are awesome parents. God gave you David because he knew you could handle it and shape him into an incredible young man.
Laura, we actually just started 1,2,3 and it’s working great! Except last time he was in timeout he just played in his room 🙂
I actually think of you often because David wakes up from his naps angry, and a while ago (when L was 2) you posted that she did the same thing. Every now and then I wonder, “Is something wrong?? Should he be this grumpy after naps?” And I remember that you said L would wake up screaming. Sets my mind at ease!
Love this post girl and I love how you & your hubby are at oneness. It’s so important to be backed up by each other. Especially by something that can be as confusing as the right way to correct your child. You guys got this 🙂
My child sounds just like your child. I love your post so much. I am bad about getting in the ‘heat’ of the moment and not turning to God for support. Thank you so much for reminding me that going to Him should be the first thing I do.
Oh my gosh… your doctor!! “Haven’t heard of that before…” We don’t wanna hear that! He should just make something up to give you a little comfort when you need it 😉
I think you are an amazing mom! There is no right answer for discipline… all you can do is your best. And you’re doing it! I fear that it won’t get easier until they move out of the house… but you do learn more and more what action works best for their personalities!
I am with you. Boys are a different beast. And you never know what will work in terms of getting through to them. Both my boys started tantrums early, but disciplining them made no sense since they couldn’t even understand the punishment. It wasn’t until they were much older and realized that they would be removed from the situation completely, and left out that it started to sink in. Now with my boys at 2 and 4 it is much easier. Now I am just waiting to see how my daughter tantrums. haha!