Stumbling through discipline

I was planning a different post for today, until I read this article on Babble: Why it’s good to scream at your kids. Perhaps you read it too? You have to admit, the title is catchy. What mother wouldn’t want some validation for all the yelling?

The article was particularly timely because my husband and I are currently facing some discipline trials of our own. Our oldest son just turned 4. How come nobody told me about 4? The attitude, the boldness, the maturity of his challenges over our authority, they seemed to appear overnight. And we’re left a little dumbfounded and unprepared. We didn’t see this coming.

A few nights ago I was flying solo at dinner time. It’s never easy to get dinner on the table for two impatient and cranky boys exhausted from their day, even with help. Top that with two fussy and picky eaters and you have the recipe for dinner time disasters. This night no exception. I was tired too, and when my oldest refused to eat his pizza (yes, I went for easy and kid-friendly to make life easy) for no good reason other than “I won’t” I totally lost my cool. I yelled enough and banged my hand on the table. And I startled him. Frankly, I startled myself. I totally blew my stack. And, of course, he cried and looked at me in shock. I felt like a complete schmuck. But as inappropriate as it was and contrary to how I normally would choose to parent, it did get his attention. He decided to eat his dinner and cooperate for the balance of our meal.

So I was intrigued by the argument presented in this article. The author says:

There is no anger like that between a child and her parents — and maybe there is no more useful tool.

It’s true isn’t it? Our children bring out both the best and the worst in us. The thing is, they always seem to bring out the worst precisely when we really need to be our best. And that’s my biggest struggle. Discipline is important, it’s about teaching our children right from wrong, instilling values and helping them learn to control their wants and desires in appropriate ways. It provides an important foundation for self-control later in life. I want to get it right.

But I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers. What works for some children, won’t necessarily work for others. Already  I notice that our youngest will need a completely different approach than our oldest. Their personalities are different, so it stands to reason that they will respond to varying styles. Even though I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers, I feel these days as if I am floundering for any answers. I’m just not sure what to do. I want to be firm, but understanding. I want to instill a recognition of  authority. I want to be accepted as the adult and respected. I don’t want to temper his spirit.

Sarah of sarahcasm discussed this recently in her post entitled Parenting and Empowerment: Raising a Person. She wrote:

There are expectations placed on children and young people to respect their elders. But, do we respect them? Are they free to expect from us what we expect of them?….My son needs to be empowered to assert himself and make decisions – and he deserves to have his preferences respected. If I don’t allow him to do that, who will?

As much as I want to agree that we should respect them, empower them to assert themselves and make decisions, I’m torn. I’m torn because I had a healthy fear of my parents and it motivated my every decision. I was afraid they would be disappointed, I was afraid of punishment when I did wrong, my actions were mostly always to please and instill pride. I wanted to be good, at least in some part because I feared  retribution for my actions. That’s not to say I was perfect, I did my fair share of rebelling. But it was moderate, and controlled and probably healthy.

So I nodded my head when I read this in the Babble article:

I imagine what my own mother (a real teacher) would have said if she’d found me even using Play-doh anywhere near her carpets. I can still feel the fear, not because my mother’s anger was abusive, just because it was justified.

Because it was justified.

That’s the part I struggle with. My tendency is to relate to my son as if he were a friend or a peer. I feel uncomfortable being firm with him. I forget it’s my job to set boundaries. Boundaries that include speaking respectfully, taking care of one’s own property and the property of others, being kind and gentle always, and living by the rules we set in our home.

When I say no it’s for a reason. I don’t need to justify my reasons to him, only to me. I can do that, mostly, as long as I keep my eye on the big picture and remember the kind of person I’m trying to raise.

This post is part of Bigger Picture Moments, a series where bloggers step back from the hectic, mind boggling pace of the day, pace of life, and take in the hugeness that is life and the small moments adding up to one Bigger Picture.

I also invite you to head over to Here Where I Have Landed, where I’m delighted to be a guest blogger today. My post is part of Justine’s Perspectives series and is all about the joy and challenges of life with two boys.

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36 thoughts on “Stumbling through discipline

  1. C (Kid Things) says:

    My 4 year old is everywhere. And when I try to discipline him, he laughs at me. It seems the louder I scream, the funnier it is. Which, of course, aggravates me further. Yet when my husband even so much as looks at him wrong, he runs off like his heart's been broken. Obviously, I need to find a new way (along with more patience).

  2. Amber says:

    I think it's possible to treat your children respectfully, and also to set boundaries and give guidance. I fall miserably short most of the time, but I still think it's possible.

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks for linking to my post, Christine. As for being torn – I get that.Don't get me wrong. We have boundaries. We have well-defined boundaries and he respects our boundaries for the most part (as much as a 2yo does). We respect each other. I respect that if he's tired, I let him sleep – regardless of time of day (for example).I feel the need to equip our son with the tools to live – boundaries and all, but there is always a reason. Actually, I always tell him the reason when I say no. "No, because…" Nine times out of ten, it's met with "ok, mommy" It's habit. My mom did the same.I agree that there is not right and wrong – only effective and ineffective for you and your family

  4. Nano says:

    Thank you for this post! I am a (relatively) new mom raising 8 1/2 month old boy/girl twins. I find them already testing boundaries and wondering how to deal with their constant need to grab and explore. I know they're trying to explore their world and understand the different things they find right now, but when they grab at my laptop, panic grips me and I wonder how do I at this young age make them understand the no, be respectful of their wonder, and have them respect me that I know what's best for them? Thank you for articulating a big worry of mine as my children age. I will definately be referencing this in the future!

  5. Heidi says:

    This is such a clear and accurate look at the conflicts that arise with parenting. I struggle with the all the time. I don't yell all the time, but I can be a yeller– I come by it honestly, my mom and my grandma were both yellers, and it has mellowed with each generation. But. That doesn't make it easier for me when I reach my tipping point– I feel guilty, less of a mother, detrimental to their well-being. I like how the article you reference discusses justified yelling. I think our culture has reached a point in the philosophy of parenting where there is a huge imbalance– I read Lenore Skenazy's blog often– http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/, and I enjoy her perspective on raising children. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Maggie S says:

    Brilliantly well said.

  7. TKW says:

    I definitely want my kids to have a healthy fear of me, because at times, that fear was the only thing that kept me in line.Miss M. missed the terrible twos and the hideous threes, but she is smack in the middle of the Defiant Fours. I am not enjoying this year, not at all.

  8. Evonne says:

    No one warned me about 4 either. Parenting is not always easy. What works for one kid may not work for another, but sometimes I really wish there was a handbook!

  9. becca says:

    This was a fantastic, thought provoking post. One that I need to sit on a bit and come back to comment further. I struggle with so much of what you raised here constantly. How to be consistently firm yet still be trusted and adored. I hate the idea of being feared yet I know I need to be respected to the point of snapping to attention when I raise my voice. This is all VERY difficult for me… but I know I need to do a better job at much of it so that I can set the boundaries that I know need to be set.Thanks Christine…

  10. Wendy says:

    I really enjoyed this article…I remember having a healthy respect for my parents anger. I remember the yelling on occasion, and it worked. It got our attention and stoped the behaviour.Everyone talks about the terrible twos, but what about the three's & four's???The two's were a breeze with our oldest girl compared to the 3's & now 4's. I am using the 1-2-3 Majic book approach, it seems to be working for now. My youngest girl 15 months is a complete opposite from my oldest. She has a temper like no other already. I know we are going to have to take a different approach with her, it will just be finding out what it is.They sure can bring out the best and worst…when it is the worst, I give myself a time out in another room and try to keep the yelling to a minimum. It does not always work though, there have been tears on both sides after voices have been raised. The kids just have to know you are doing this because you love them.

  11. Justine says:

    This is so tough, Christine. I grew up in a parents know best and you never question them household. It was discipline by fear and while it worked, I also remember how I felt and I can’t say I’m a fan of subjecting my daughter to that. And so now, even with a 20-month-old who’s beginning to push her boundaries and looking for a reaction, I try to be firm but gentle at first, and if that doesn’t work, I just go with the firm and punish her by leaving her by herself. She gets upset, and I think she gets why she’s being disciplined but I also try to explain to her the consequences of her actions. This scenario is of course the ideal one, but there are times when my knee-jerk reaction is to be harsh the way my parents were with me. And perhaps because it’s the only reaction with which I’m familiar, I have to make a conscious effort to unlearn it. But I also know now that while my parents’ methods were coarse, I did learn from them and turned out alright, so while it’s not a method I prefer, if the basis of the discipline is to teach and not to hurt or lash out, it can’t be THAT wrong, can it?Thanks again for your guest post over at my site today. So happy to have you!

  12. Krista House (@kristahouse) says:

    I hear ya on the discipline… I have a few friends that yell at there kids constantly and it seems that after a certain point the kids start to tune out the yelling. Then it just becomes "noise". I try to keep that in mind and try to reserve the "yelling" for more dangerous situations, like when my son takes off in a parking lot! It really works because he is just dumbfounded when I do raise my voice. That being said, I'm not perfect and have broken my own set of rules and have yelled over silly little things. Ahh parenting, forever a work in process.

  13. Jill says:

    Thank you for your honest and well written post. This is something I think about a lot. I think we're often so confused about discipline versus punishment, giving children respect and freedom versus a free for all. I think often we worry that if they aren't motivated by fear, we aren't doing our jobs. But I have this dream of seeing how the world could change if an entire generation of children was raised to do what's right because it's right rather than because they fear what will happen if they don't. I'm not sure how to get there – not with an entire generation, but just with my own children – but I keep setting my sights on that goal and I keep wondering and I keep trying…and failing…and trying again. Maybe that's our journey.

  14. IASoupMama says:

    I think the best thing about discipline and raising kids to be self-sufficient and productive members of society is that if we screw up today, we get the chance to wake up tomorrow and try again. My mom was a screamer — yelled about everything all the time. She had some other issues, but for self-preservation, I knew never to step across her line — the consequences were ugly and hurtful. So I didn't. But my dad? All it took was a sigh of disappointment from him to crush me. He never yelled and was rarely ever upset by anything we could do, but if he was — I was devastated. I hope to parent somewhere in between, I think. I don't want my kids to really fear me — because I still don't and won't fully trust my mother. My nature is less volatile than hers, so hopefully that will work in my favor.That being said, each of my children responds differently to discipline — you barely had to mention "time out" to my son (just 5) and he'd snap back in line. My daughter (2.75), on the other hand, is generally good enough that she doesn't need time-outs, so when she does something that warrants one, she is a disaster because we haven't "practiced" them enough with her. I'm sort of dreading her 3 and 4 because she's been such an easy 2…

  15. Allison @ Alli 'n Son says:

    I'm struggling with this too. I know deep down that my son craves boundaries, rules and limits, but it's much harder to impose them than I ever though. We had one terrible week, and I decided then and there that I was not going to let him rule the house. He needs limits to grow up as a well adjusted young man. He's responded very well to the new rules and is actually a happier boy because of it. And I'm a happier mom, which makes everyone happier.

  16. Allison @ Alli 'n Son says:

    I'm struggling with this too. I know deep down that my son craves boundaries, rules and limits, but it's much harder to impose them than I ever though. We had one terrible week, and I decided then and there that I was not going to let him rule the house. He needs limits to grow up as a well adjusted young man. He's responded very well to the new rules and is actually a happier boy because of it. And I'm a happier mom, which makes everyone happier.

  17. Allison @ Alli 'n Son says:

    I'm struggling with this too. I know deep down that my son craves boundaries, rules and limits, but it's much harder to impose them than I ever though. We had one terrible week, and I decided then and there that I was not going to let him rule the house. He needs limits to grow up as a well adjusted young man. He's responded very well to the new rules and is actually a happier boy because of it. And I'm a happier mom, which makes everyone happier.

  18. Allison @ Alli 'n Son says:

    I'm struggling with this too. I know deep down that my son craves boundaries, rules and limits, but it's much harder to impose them than I ever though. We had one terrible week, and I decided then and there that I was not going to let him rule the house. He needs limits to grow up as a well adjusted young man. He's responded very well to the new rules and is actually a happier boy because of it. And I'm a happier mom, which makes everyone happier.

  19. Corinne says:

    It's hard to know what's going to be effective and what isn't – because ultimately we have to wait and see after we try it, does that make sense? And I remember that fear of my parents, and like I think it was Justine who said it, I don't like the feeling. I still feel it, and I'm an adult. I'm afraid to tell my parents things, afraid of what they'll think of my decisions, and that's something I still worry about. Pleasing others instead of doing what's right for me. Which I guess leads back to disciplining my kids, because I'm afraid of what people will think about how I do it, if it's not harsh enough or gentle enough. But really, we're the only ones who need to be concerned about it. Really well written, Christine.

  20. Nicki says:

    Fantastic post, Christine! Two words come to my mind – and four was a long time ago – justified and consistent. If your anger is justified and your discipline is consistent, you will be fine.

  21. Aging Mommy says:

    I think it is so very true that our children bring out both the best and the worst in us. I had never considered myself to be the combustible sort until I had my daughter and there are times I surprise myself by how angry I can become and how I then have to control that anger, which I do most of the time but sometimes I lose the plot. I think that children both need and also very much want boundaries and when they push all our buttons they are testing us out, to see where the boundaries lie and despite all the tears at getting a negative response they are at the same time I believe relieved and reassured by knowing there are limits. Just as when we are in the pool and my daughter, every single day, will let go of the noodle she is supporting herself on to check that we are watching and will come to the rescue, so that if there is ever a need she knows she will be safe. After the test she plays perfectly happily and never slips off, but always we have the daily test.

  22. Jack says:

    I never had trouble setting boundaries for my children. At times I have felt badly when they are upset, but they need that discipline because they aren't born with it.Their mother sometimes gets upset because they have a different response to me than her. It is two-fold.1) I have a relatively deep voice that comes out as a semi rumble when I try to whisper. So if I should yell it is really loud and impossible to miss.2) They spend more time with her than with me so it has become easier to tune her out a bit.But all that being said, I think that is important to show kids that you are human. It is ok to yell and lose it occasionally.The questions rise when all they ever see/hear is yelling and anger.

  23. evaevolving says:

    Oh wow, Christine. I think this must be the crux of parenting, right here in your column: how to discipline appropriately. Thank you for your links to the Babble and Sarahcasm posts of this topic – very valuable food for thought.I grew up with a mother who yelled a lot. Even more when my brother and sister were born. And that definitely left an impression on me. I don't want to be that kind of mom. But I do think there are times that call for yelling. So maybe the key is using it sparingly, only when it is really warranted. And then the yelling doesn't lose its effectiveness either.

  24. Maria @BOREDmommy says:

    I struggle with this daily, because of course, what works with one child might not work with the other, and the age differences only complicates things. Yelling sucks for everyone involved, and it definitely takes a toll. The best days in my home are when everyone respects each other, and deals with things rationally and calmly – how often does this happen? I'm not keeping track – how depressing would that be?

  25. sarah says:

    This is a really thought-provoking post. The line between setting boundaries/expectations and creating "fear" is a fuzzy one & one that makes me very uncomfortable. I was also raised with a "healthy fear" of disappointing my parents & as an almost 39-year old woman, I still struggle with making authentic decisions that will both fulfill me AND make my parents proud/accepting of me. I don't want my child growing up with that burden over his head. I am a yeller who is trying not to yell any more unless a situation is one which puts him in physical danger & I need to get him out of the situation, fast. I am reading the book "Playful Parenting" & it's helping a lot, even though I've just started it–it shifts my mindset. I hate the look of fear on my 4 y/o's face when I yell in anger–I never want to be the one who makes my kids' face look that way.

  26. Rudri says:

    This is a struggle I face with my four year old. Sometimes my husband and I treat her like an adult, forgetting that she is only a child. I yell too and hear myself, knowing it isn't the best approach. I am tired and just want her to cooperate gracefully at least once a day – when nothing else works, I rely on my screaming voice. It's a habit I need to break. Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

  27. rebecca @ altared spaces says:

    This is well articulated. Raising 4 year olds IS tough because they begin to reason, not just say "no". It's my belief, however, that the better the job is done at 4 the easier the teenage years are.I think parenting has shaped me more than anything else I've ever done and you've articulated the reason: I have to dig deep when I least feel able. I have to be kind when I want to explode. I'm not opposed to explosions, but I don't think repeated battles serve anyone. I think it's best to stand as the model I'd like my kids to look toward when thinking about what an adult is. I know plenty of adults who act pretty childish. Let me tell you it's tempting when someone whines at me.This is why it's so important to become the bigger person, looking at THE BIGGER PICTURE. How will I wish I had acted when I reflect on this moment? Can't say I got a lot of those to match: reflected me and real me in the beginning, but my ratio increased as the age of my children did.

  28. ShannonL says:

    Lots to think about, Christine! The balance of being firm, kind, respectful and maybe a little bit scary is so tricky! Really well-written (as always)!

  29. cj Schlottman says:

    "As much as I want to agree that we should respect them, empower them to assert themselves and make decisions, I'm torn. I'm torn because I had a healthy fear of my parents and it motivated my every decision. I was afraid they would be disappointed, I was afraid of punishment when I did wrong, my actions were mostly always to please and instill pride. I wanted to be good, at least in some part because I feared retribution for my actions. That's not to say I was perfect, I did my fair share of rebelling. But it was moderate, and controlled and probably healthy."Wow! You took the words right out of my mouth! I'm much older, all of my kids are grown, three with kids of their own, and I so remember the struggles when they were small. I didn't want my kids to be afraid of me like I feared my mother, but it was necessary that they have a little fear in their terroristic little minds. Otherwise, there would have been utter chaos. We had plenty of that as it was. I think that, in a way, I tried too hard to be fair, to be seen as the benevolent dictator. Their teen years were hell!Stay the course, my dear. You sound like a wonderful (and human) parent. I will send good energy your way………..((Hugs))…………cj

  30. michelle says:

    This is such an intriquing post. And sometimes I think it is ok to raise your voice. to be firm. (which I struggle with. I am much more likely to cave than to be a firm discipliner).It should be "justified" like you said….but I also had a healthy fear of my parents which kept me out of a lot of trouble.Often I find myself raising my voice, not when I am justified, but when I have lost my patience and am at my witts end. There is a big difference. This post gave me lots to think on and was brave to put out there. Thanks.

  31. Young Mom says:

    I've been thinking about discipline in the last year, because my approach has changed so much in the last year. I've written about it quite a bit, but I think the biggest change for me was to realize that my children are people just like me, and I need to repect them just as much as I would any person.

  32. cristina says:

    great post. I am too a yeller although I have been trying to keep it in check. it's hard, yelling comes so easily. But I have noticed that the more yelling I do the less it works. I agree that children need to be treated with respect AND they also need boundaries AND a healthy dose of fear. Not fear for their lives or fear for their safety, that would be abusive.. but a healthy fear means they know what the consequences are and those consequences matter to them. I think as a parent you can give them all that… just not always an easy task. we moms can be so hard on ourselves. all of you that have posted seem to be very caring parents, otherwise you wouldn't be struggling. it shows you care and that's what children need.

  33. Melissa says:

    Oh discipline is a struggle because it constantly changes as your child grows and matures. It's also an area where everyone else seems to have an opinion, a voice, a way to do it better! I think it's important, at least it is to me and my husband, to remember that our children are not our peers or friends. You had a healthy respect (and fear) of your parents because they never (I'm guessing they are near the age of mine when I say that) treated you as a friend, you were their child. We need to parent and set boundaries because it makes children feel safe and it give them a safe and nurturing environment to rebel in, to learn how to but up against the system in safe and effective ways. Thanks for linking up this wee.

  34. Capital Mom says:

    Sometimes a raised voice as emphasis and gets thier attention like nothing else will. But I do want to be respectful of them because I want them to be respectful of me.

  35. Kelly says:

    I sometimes yell at my kids. It is usually when I've lost control and they are pushing and prodding at me. Yesterday I said out loud in the car, "You guys. I am really frustrated. I need you to be quiet for a minute." And they kept yelling and whining until I yelled out "I SAID BE QUIET!" Lo and behold, 47 seconds of pure golden bliss! WORTH IT.

  36. Cathy says:

    Ah, yes. I have always called 4 the "age of independence." It's magical and it's frustrating.As for the whole, "your kid needs to feel empowered" I cannot disagree more! They can do that when they are in college and out of my house. I now have a teenager and I NEED that fear to keep him in line. And yes, I "respect" my children, but let's not forget one thing – I'm the boss. Family is NOT a democracy. Okay – I'm opinionated!

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