By Laura Bickle
"Paige, that's enough. You know the rules. No markers in the living room. Back to the table or I will take them away. Now."
As I'm saying this, I am slightly bewildered. Is that really me talking? Rules, threats and an icy tone. This is not how I thought I would sound as a mom.
When you dream of becoming a parent, you anticipate the first smile, the first step. No one looks forward to the first time out. Like most parents, I didn't give much thought to discipline when I started having kids. Beyond "no hitting," it was all pretty vague. I figured patience and rationality were all I needed. But once you experience a raging, uncontrollable toddler in the grocery-store parking lot, you know that both can be in short supply.
It's a strange thing to find yourself charged with controlling another human being's behaviour. Just as it takes time for kids to learn to control their temper, stop hitting or say thank you, it takes parents time to hit their stride discipline-wise - if we ever really do.
Many of my early ventures into the arena of discipline were fraught with mishaps. After 2½-year-old Paige intentionally shattered a plate on the kitchen floor, I gathered up her favourite toys and told her she would not have them back until she apologized. In my frenzy, I grabbed the closest receptacle I could find: a garbage bag. The next morning, her treasured plaid purse (from Santa, no less) and various other playthings inadvertently went out with the trash.
And then there was a particularly heated tantrum revolving around the end of Paige's favourite TV show ("Honey, I can't make The Doodlebops come on again!"). I tried the give-her-space tactic: I took her to her room and told her she could come out when she had calmed down. She proceeded to trash her room with the ferocity and thoroughness of a metal band in a four-star hotel, until I heard a crash and a scream. She had tripped and smacked her head on a duck-shaped stepstool. When my husband, Brett, came home that night, he was greeted with "Mommy put me in my room and I hurt my head on the duck."
In fact, Brett jokes that during the time I was at home with Paige and her younger sister, Zoe, he could tell what kind of day it had been by the number of toys I had stashed in the pantry. Kids can press buttons that you never knew you or your partner had. It was a little shocking to hear Brett say, under his breath, "Damn you, Paige," after she threw her toothbrush at him for the third time. But I'm sure it was equally surprising for him when I slammed the bedroom door and flopped on the bed in tears during a particularly heated battle over getting dressed.
But that said, we've also shared a fair bit of laughter over the absurdity of it all. I mean, how do you hear your partner say, "Honey, get your feet out of your sister's crackers," without cracking up?
Since I'm an editor at a parenting magazine, you'd think discipline decisions might come more easily. In fact, I'm so inundated by well-argued points of view, it can be hard to settle on my own. But there's some advice that I always come back to, and it isn't from a parenting guru, but from Brett: "They may be experts, but they're not experts at raising our kids." Sometimes you just have to trust your gut and your relationship with your child. Though I know consistency is key, I also know that occasionally breaking the rules - like allowing Paige to eat her cereal in front of the TV or letting a missing "thank you" go when she's had a hard day - is part of the give-and-take of family life. Sometimes, it's just easier, and that's OK.
Brett and I have spent many a night after the girls have gone to bed commiserating on our latest discipline quandary. Often what we struggle with is finding the balance between one of our prime goals as parents - instilling trust and kindness in the girls - and just getting them to do what we need them to do. And that seems to be a dilemma for our generation of parents. We're way beyond the "children should be seen and not heard" era. However, I can't help but feel like a Pollyanna when I take the warm and fuzzy approach: "I know you're upset, but you don't throw toys at your baby sister. Say sorry and give her a hug." I'm also fearful of eroding my relationship with my kids or knocking their self-esteem by punishing with a heavy hand.
While I've learned that no one strategy garners the same result every time, I have had some breakthroughs, not necessarily with my kids' behaviour, but with my own. One day, during a long tantrum where a dollhouse, a glass of water and a slew of books sailed over the banister, I took a deep breath, looked at Paige and laughed. "Not funny, Mommy." And it wasn't. But the laughter just came out. And she calmed down, I think more quickly than if I had taken her toys or given her a time out.
Now I don't think laughing at your kid is sound advice, but it was an honest, spontaneous reaction. And what it taught me is that my response affects my child's response. So I started experimenting. And here's the thing: Often no reaction is the best reaction, at least with Paige. As our second child, fearless but laid-back Zoe, dives headlong into toddlerhood, I've got the feeling that Brett and I are in for a whole new round of nighttime brainstorming sessions. And I sense our conclusions will differ from the ones we came to with her older sister.
Unfortunately, getting comfortable with disciplining your child doesn't necessarily translate into well-behaved kids (the neighbours who witnessed my daughter strip to her underwear in the car the other day will attest to that). But it at least helps you make discipline decisions more confidently. Just don't decide to stash contraband toys in garbage bags. Trust me.