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!]