This past weekend, Lily, who had been walking around the house with her baby doll in her arms, suddenly moved toward the green plastic chair we use for “time outs” and sat the doll on it, holding its arms firmly as she counted out the baby’s period of punishment. (Admittedly, after reaching 10, the numerical mishmash that came out of her mouth may well have been Avagadro’s Number or pi, but you get the idea.)
So … that’s a weird, highly unnerving thing to watch. This “modeling behavior” thing is taking some time to get used to.
Particularly in regard to discipline, which, as I knew it would be, has proven challenging for me. For one thing, I’ve grown quite comfortable over the years in my cushy role as good cop; Joe is far more likely to be tenacious in any given situation, and he won’t back down from a confrontation (whereas I will silently sprint away to the nearest rabbit hole), if that’s what the situation calls for. And this natural dichotomy makes us a formidable team. In most circumstances (dealing with rental truck companies, airlines, etc.), the threat of Joe’s self-assured, righteous demands for personal justice, paired with my quiet resignation and politeness, get us what we need/want, if not, at the very least, compensation of some sort.
But all that kind of goes out the window in parenting – or it should. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to shake the old, familiar roles. I’m always tempted to go easy on Lily, let her off the hook, scoop her back up in my arms to stop her from crying; but I’m slowly learning not to do this, and I’m taking some really good cues from Joe, who, as a former camp counselor, has much more experience with disciplining kids than I do.
He taught me, for instance, that when Lily is throwing a fit and won’t lie down her crib, you say, “When you calm down and stop crying, I’ll come back. But I’m not going to just stand here and let you scream at me.” And you leave the room. Yes, you may have to poke your head in and remind her a couple more times what the terms of this deal are, but generally, she gets it, and it works. She eventually decides to calm down, and then she’s willing to be covered in blankets and sung to. Huzzah!
And while I already knew that pretty much nothing is more important than following through on what you say, Joe reminds me to stay strong on this point, too. When I say we’re doing something for “the last time,” or that we have to go in a few minutes, I have to force myself to stick to it. Yes, Lily may get hysterical – but I keep reminding myself that she has to learn to take what we say seriously, and that starts now. (As a reformed “good cop,” I’ll confess that I still bend on the “last time” thing occasionally, but I’m trying to not let it get out of hand.)
Why is this all so hard when it makes so much sense? Because the reality of seeing your child suffering or upset always threatens to upend all your powers of reason. I don’t want Lily to be that kid at Costco who, while sitting in a shopping cart, screamed and pointed at various things until his parent, who was engaged in conversation with another adult, tossed each thing into the basket. I thought, while watching this, “That kid is going to be a person I don’t want to know or deal with.” And God forbid I unleash another self-absorbed person onto the world.
Joe and I used to chuckle when we got reports of Lily’s first time-outs at daycare. They began around the time that Lily turned one, and we both scoffed at how Lily wouldn’t understand that they were even a punishment, nor would she connect it to her behavior. But truth be told, since we started to use time-outs at home a few months ago, it was nice to have the practice, and the idea behind it, already established in Lily’s mind. She had, of course, come to comprehend what time-outs are about.
And now, each time I’m done counting out her time-out, I open my arms to receive her and tell her that I love her, but she can’t kick me while on the changing table, push another child – insert toddler offense here. This is my nod toward my good cop past. I want to make sure she knows that even if she misbehaves and makes us angry for a moment, we still love her.
I think this is important because although Lily’s very young, I get the sense – from her stooped posture, weakened voice, and submissive manner – that she often feels quite guilty after receiving a punishment.
Advanced sense of guilt exhibited by a toddler? That’s my kid, all right.