Monday, March 29, 2010

The Subtle Art of Disciplining

Be clear: back in my day, mumbling under one’s breath and slamming doors and talking back to the ‘rents was an indictable offense punishable by lots of shrill screaming and an extended stay in your bedroom sans TV, radio or any form of human contact.

Let’s just say that when it came to kids disrespecting authority, my mom, Bettye, didn’t play. She and my dad raised my brother and me without the benefit of parent coaches, without a parade of childrearing segments on morning news shows and without a subscription to best-selling parenting magazines. What she knew and what she practiced and what worked for her was one simple philosophy: children were to be seen, not heard, and their opinions on most subjects—no matter how much they made sense—definitely weren’t welcome. Keeping my mouth shut and doing as I was told was the only option. For me, it was about self-preservation—survival.

But I promised myself that when I had children of my own, I would use different tactics to get them to obey me—tactics that didn’t involve verbal or mental intimidation. My goal: to have my children respect rather than fear me. Rather than holler and scream like a banshee when they did something wrong, I would praise them when they did something right. “You’re the adult and therefore, smarter than them,” I’d tell myself. “Use your Mighty Isis smart powers to get them to bend to your will.”

At least that’s what all the parenting books said I should do.

None of them warned, though, of the visceral reaction I’d have when my 10-year-old, refused to yield to my pressure to show her little sister some mercy and muttered under her breath or when my 7-year-old, ticked that she didn’t get her way (again), stomped off, leaving slammed doors in her wake.

This! This is what throws me off. Because, though I’m no punk when it comes to disciplining my kids, I feel like the discipline techniques I use should earn me a little respect, right? That my kids should appreciate my new-school parenting techniques which demand good behavior, all the while instilling confidence. I mean, if one of my girls is, say, running through the living room when I’ve just told her not to, I’m not yelling and sending her to her room; I’m using my grown-up logic to help her understand the consequences of running through a room full of glass, breakables and sharp objects and imploring her to learn the value of self-control—a teachable moment that ultimately makes her feel good about herself when she makes a better choice all on her own later on down the line.

The saving grace is that, though my tweens have plenty of their “can’t get right” moments behind our closed doors, they do show deference and respect to their elders outside of our home. In fact, my girls give family elders, teachers, coaches, even teenage babysitters (if you remove their 17-year-old brother out of that group!) all the respect any one child can muster. I can’t help but to think that it’s because we’ve taught them not only to think logically about the consequences they’d face if they refused to follow the rules of the grown-ups in charge—loss of recess if they act up in class, less play time on the soccer field if they don’t listen to their coach—but we have also made it clear that getting into trouble over such things is not an option. After all, Mommy would be sorely disappointed with reports of bad behavior. And the mere idea of making their mother disappointed affects my girls more than any tirade ever could.

I try my best to remind myself of such things when the muttering and the door slamming and the “that’s not fair” outbursts invade our otherwise peaceful house. My girls are, ultimately, good girls. At least this is what their teachers and their coaches and their babysitters and other adults charged with their care outside of my presence tell me.

For this, at least, I’m grateful.

For tips, confidence-building tools and stories about how moms are helping their tweens navigate those sweat-inducing “moments,” check out

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  1. LOL. Its always like that. Us moms see their little devil horns on more than a few occasions and everyone else would swear up and down that they were angel 100% of the time. Sigh... motherhood the beautiful =).

  2. I keep asking my mom how in heck she instilled the fear of disappointing mommy in us kids. She can't answer. My girls are ultimately great girls and teachers, coaches, etc. tell us how wonderful they are constantly, but (always a but, right?) at home they are a tad disrespectful. I'm sad to say that I think we have unknowingly fostered that by our "team-style" when they first came home from Ethiopia. Hmmmm. Sure wish I could channel Claire Huxtable's calm demeanor!!!!

  3. I feel the surefire test that we've got this parenting thing down is our children behave when we are not around. They make us proud don't they.

  4. as much as I hate to say it fear breeds respect... Its really true. my kids - we do the logically thought process and all that good jazz but when I find them disrespectful its only the idea of pushin mommy past her point that they shape completely up and fly right. Most of the time I've been able to "pull the flatly calm Claire huxtable even tone -don't push me" and get the job done - but some days...

  5. Sounds like you're doing a good job with your kids. I hope to be like that when mine gets older

  6. That's it, parenting isn't for sissies, is it? Sounds like you're raising a couple of pretty good girls though. I am the same way with my boys, but I will definitely call them on it if I feel they are disrespecting me. That usually brings them up short if I just say "That's disrespectful, you need to apologize".

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  8. I told my hyperactive 3-year-old daughter to calm down the other day and do you know what she said?!?! "You calm down, Mommy."

    Everything in my world went red. I almost had to pull the car over. She did get a stern response - and those lovely golden eyes did not work on me.

    My daughter is me - 35 years ago - fiercely independent, defiant, rebellious and too smart for her own good right now. And its going to take all the strength, determination and prayers of the ancestors for me to keep on keeping on.

    Thank God she saves her worst behavior for me. For like your girls, my daughter gets rave behavior reviews from all the other adults in her life.

    So I feel you. Really I do. Thanks for the encouragement.


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