Discipline-July letter to my niece

Dearest Margaret,

July kicks off with my favorite holiday-the Fourth of July-a day that celebrates independence. But less we forget, it was also a day of defiance and open rebellion against authority. Independence, defiance, open rebellion. To a parent those words might describe a four-year old girl demanding to buckle her car seat, a thirteen-year old boy challenging curfew or a nineteen-year old home from college questioning house rules. And like the young colonies who fought the larger, stronger and more able British Empire, children sporadically struggle against their faster, taller and more capable parents. Hopefully, unlike the British who got worn down by years of fighting and wanted to rid themselves of the colonies, you will not grow frustrated and angry with your growing children but rather bring patience and reason to dealing with their occasional insubordination.

Turning patience and reason into action and implementing them into every day family life is the tricky bit. Our family was not a democracy, Dan and I were in charge, but we didn’t want a dictatorship. I wanted independent, capable and loving kids with a no-drama, no-trauma daily home life. I am more than put off by yelling, fighting and meanness; I’m disheartened, demoralized, and discouraged. To quell defiance and cheekiness, I concentrated on natural consequences as a way of disciplining rather than punishment. And to gain cooperation, I focused on good communication rather than edicts.

My experience with disciplining by natural consequences began with some wise and timely words from our first pediatrician. When I complained about three-year-old Patrick’s intense stubbornness regarding wearing his winter coat, our doctor told me that true discipline is the natural consequences of our actions. No coat on a cold day-he will get cold. The uncomfortableness of getting cold is the discipline, not my badgering or threatening him with punishment. In addition, our doctor reminded me that (for now) I was stronger, bigger and smarter than my kids and to use those traits to my advantage. To pick my battles and most importantly, Win! I didn’t have to be loud or physical to be firm. I didn’t have to argue with them after I explained the rule or behavioral expectation. And finally, the pediatrician reminded me that you get a cold from germs not by being in the cold.

When four-year-old Mary Kate, who loved the grocery, continued to grab things off the shelves or take things out of the cart based on her likes and dislikes, I warned her to stop or we would leave the store with nothing. A moment later, she was whining and reaching for candy in the check-out line. I told MK we were leaving, pushed the full to the brim cart up to the manager’s kiosk, and explained that my daughter misbehaved and that we had to leave the store. I apologized that all the food would need to be returned to the shelves, then picked her up and walked out. MK’s face showed surprise and regret. She was sad and cried on the drive home.  The message to behave and to listen was sent and received. She never misbehaved in the grocery again.

Exuberant, energetic Meg, in grammar school often got the unwanted consequence of our ‘Do Not Ask in Front of Others’ rule. When inviting kids over or asking to go to a friend’s house, if you asked me in front of the friend the only answer you received was a resounding, “No”.  I understood the excitement of hatching a plan, but I was not going to be caught off guard or forced to decide without thought to our schedule, the activity and the kids involved. This rule eliminated the nagging and badgering that children often do to their parents to get their way. We had only a few of these family rules with direct and easily understood repercussions, they were a good compliment to disciplining with natural consequences.

Kids want rules. They like to know the boundaries and will push until they find them. Punishment, if we gave it, fit the misbehavior. I never thought sending little kids to their room made sense. I didn’t want them to play in their room which seemed like a reward nor did I want them to associate their bedroom and sleeping with getting in trouble. Rather I would sit the offender on the bottom stair for a minute or two with nothing to do but hear the activity in the house which they were missing because of their transgression. When they got older, I might assign a household chore such as straightening up the basement playroom or sweeping the garage. And once they were tall enough to look me in the eye, I believed it best to use my words to express my displeasure with their actions and if punishment was needed limit access to something they valued such as taking away a cell phone every evening for a week.

We focused on good communication and adapted as the kids grew. By the time Mary Kate was in pre-school my catchphrase was, “use your words”. The hope was the kids would articulate their needs, wants, and frustrations with words rather than screams, tantrums or fists. I wanted to give my children, or any child who came to our house, the power of words. I rarely acknowledged or reacted to whining or tantrums. Even with they struggled to express themselves I tried not to be a mind-reader, one who guessed at their thoughts or answered for them in conversation.

Being well-understood is fundamental to success and happiness, whether in a family, a classroom or in society. As they grew older, when I heard mumbling and monosyllabic grunts, I demanded that they ‘articulate and enunciate’. I would not abide the monosyllabic middle schooler morphing into an eye-rolling, moody teenager. Not on my watch. Not in my house. I was careful not to pester or cajole-the nagging or sycophant mother is annoying. Rather I worked to create a convivial home with an open-door policy for their friends and lots of their favorite foods served in a cheerful atmosphere. And we used humor, especially your uncle’s sense of humor to push the grumpy, sullen, or non-communicative out of the kids.

We role-played the communication manners we expected including telephone manners(Hello, state your name), declining an invitation(politely and succinctly) or introducing yourself to adults(a handshake while looking them in the eye and stating your name). These were a few battles we were determined to win.

Finally, I kept the excellent advice I received at when my kids were little from a mom in her late 60s. She said “Don’t let anyone scare you about the teenage years. If you loved them when they were little, you are going to adore them when they are older.” So True!!

Much love each and every day,

Aunt Aggie


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