Crime and Punishment: The Age-old Parenting Dilemma

We’re facing the age-old parenting dilemma – how do you effectively punish your children? How do you strike that balance between teaching them boundaries, respect and the difference between right and wrong, but at the same time, not make your home a no-fun zone where you are the dictator?  Theoretically, we know what we’re supposed to do.  You’ve got to be firm and consistent.  Be loving and nurturing.  We’ve been taught to count bad behavior – we’ve read 123 Magic – we’ve actually got the book and the DVD.  But philosophical guidance does you no good when you are toe-to-toe with a three-year-old, and you are unwilling to let him win.  It is the execution of these principles in the real world that is the hardest.

So the trend in our home is Brogan is pretty consistently disobedient.  He is in trouble just about every night for one or more (or all) of the following:  talking back, not listening, playing with his food, not getting ready for bath, splashing the bathwater, pushing his brother, taking his brother’s toys, crying, whining, screaming, not picking up his toys, not wanting to go to bed, and the list goes on.  Typical three-year-old antics.  So what do we do about it?  We’ve tried counting to three leading to a time-out.  The problem with this is that you can’t always do a time-out.  If we’re in the car, it’s not feasible.  If we’ve just gotten in the bath (and it’s just me and him and Beckett), it’s not feasible.  If we just sat down for dinner, it’s not feasible (we’ve tried sending him to time-out during dinner, and this is a sure fire way to ensure he will not eat his dinner).  So what are the other options?  Taking things away! Brilliant!  So we do this – we take his guitars, the stuffed animals on his bed, his tractor Youtube videos, doing fun things (park, pool) etc., etc.  This bothers him more than time-out, so we feel like we’re making progress, except… the behavior doesn’t change.  Ever.  We keep going through the same routine, and he keeps misbehaving.  He knows he’s doing it.  He shows remorse.  But it’s almost like he’s unable to stop the behavior pattern.  And so here is my dilemma – are we setting him up for failure when we know he can’t behave?  Is it wrong to say, “if you’re a good boy and pick up your toys, we can go to the pool” if, based on past behavior, I’m pretty certain he can’t complete the task at hand?  Obviously there are those things that are never acceptable (hitting, for example), but are there some things that we need to let go of?  Or do we ride him hard until one day (he may be 16), it just clicks and he listens?  One of my biggest fears as a parent is contributing to the “wossification of America” by raising an entitled child who has been babied, has had excuses made for him and sheltered from natural consequences all his life.  But I also don’t want to make all fun experiences contingent on him, at three, being obedient.  How do you remain consistent without punishing for every indiscretion?

I know there is no right answer.  It’s a shame you can’t just reason with them.  Sit them down and say, “Hey, here’s the deal. If you do what I say and don’t throw a fit, don’t whine and don’t hit, you won’t have to go straight to bed. You can keep your stuffed animals and we’ll even go to the pool tomorrow!” and their response be “Thank you mommy for explaining it! That makes perfect sense! Of course I’ll be good!” Oh, if it were only that easy.  But it’s not.  So as parents, without a rulebook, or a handbook, or an instruction manual, we must figure out what in the heck will work for our kids – hoping that we find this magic potion before they’re grown and we’ve screwed them up.  And the unfortunate fact is that we may never get it right.  In the end, they are unique individuals with personalities; each with a different set of circumstances and needs.  I guess all we can do is try our best to solve the riddle, to break the code, to guess the winning numbers.  So I’m hopeful, yet realistic, about the prospect of getting this right.  But I’m hoping the odds are in my favor.

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Why I No Longer Speak in Absolutes

I think I was a much better parent before I had kids.  Back then, my kids would never talk back and they would always do as they were told.  I would never lose my temper and I would always stand my ground.  I had the whole thing figured out.  I saw the parents with screaming kids and thought there is no way any child of mine will ever act like that! (As if I would have a magic look that would stop a hysterical 2-year-old in his tracks!) Boy was I wrong about it all.  Turns out I have gone back on most everything I said I would never do. Turns out you really don’t know how you’ll react in a given situation until you are actually in it.  I’ve realized that I unfairly judged parents who were just doing their best to get by. Turns out I ended up being the parent of a 2 ½ year old with a binky… and it was me who bought the screaming kid a toy to get him to be quiet… and it was me who had a baby sleep in my bed for 2 months because it was easier than listening to him cry.  Oh yeah, I did all the things I said I’d never do.

So I’ve decided to give up using these absolutes in raising my boys.  Luckily, I’ve learned I don’t know it all.  I don’t know now what will be best for them then, so why even hold myself to a standard I can’t keep.  It’s unfair.  I think when you make statements about what you’ll never do, sometimes your actions become more about keeping your word than doing what is best in the real situation. Well, I don’t need the added stress.  So even though I’d like to think the boys will not have TVs in their rooms, I won’t say never.  And while I think milk with dinner is best, I won’t say always.  I won’t pass judgment on parents of older kids when I witness them doing something that the parent I am today does not agree with.  I will hope and pray that my boys make smart decisions, stay out of trouble and do well in school.  And while I’ll do all that I can to raise them to do the right things, I cannot, at this point, say that they actually will.  This mindset should not be confused with an easy-way out-approach to parenting.  It’s not.  Quite the opposite, I would argue.  I think it’s more difficult to watch your children exert their independence and be their own little people; with little personalities that you could not have accounted for – and to learn that you are not totally in control.  It’s not to say I won’t have standards, but I just know that today, without all the context of tomorrow, I am ill-equipped to say what I will or will not do. I think it’s foolish of anyone to think they know.

The only thing I feel comfortable assuring is that I will always love my kids – that will never change.  But it won’t be dependent on them doing (or not doing) anything.  It will be unconditional.  I will love them for the unique little beings that they are, despite the fact that they will have, undoubtedly, broken all of my rules.

Me and the boys