Discipline: When “the small stuff” has enormous consequences

While picking up around the house a few days ago, I finally grabbed at a ripped-off piece of pink Pull-up that was on the living room floor – the detritus of a recent battle with Lily.

On this particular occasion, Lily had a poop-filled Pull-up on, yet she was ardently resisting being changed. (She’s pretty much got the whole peeing-in-the-toilet thing down, but for some reason, we’re really, really struggling to get the #2 piece of the puzzle in place.) We tried to reason with her, but in the end, she fought and kicked while Joe forcibly changed her; and as soon as she was back on the floor, she yanked at the Pull-up, trying to take it off while insisting that she wanted her poopy diaper back on, and, in a rage, tried to hit one of us – I don’t even remember who. (Again, all sense goes out the window when kids get worked up. I mean, really. What’s the appeal of putting a poop-filled diaper back ON, exactly?)

Joe swept her up and took her up to her room, which is where Lily’s “time outs” occur. The screaming escalated; Joe removed an item from her room each time Lily opened her door to try to leave (a new and effective method coined by Joe); and eventually, she yelled and cried herself out and became calm, if a bit whiny, once more, and apologized. (Though, maddeningly, at this stage, we always ask her, “Do you know what you’re sorry for?” and inevitably, she’ll be struck dumb or say, quite earnestly, “No.” Her rages and tantrums take her so far away from their point of origin that she completely forgets what they’re even about.)

A similar huge-tantrum scenario played out a few nights ago, when Lily, after requesting something specific for dinner, complained and whined about not wanting to eat it the minute we sat down to eat (that time, I took her up to her room); and last night, yet another battle over a seemingly microscopic matter resulted in Lily screaming in her room.


Though I completely understand the necessity of drawing the line with your child, and disciplining him/her, I dread and despise these showdowns. Plus, recent articles, like LZ Granderson’s much-forwarded “Permissive Parents: Curb Your Brats” op-ed from CNN.com, and Lori Gottlieb’s “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” piece in The Atlantic, have caused me to obsess on the topic even more than usual.

I find myself particularly ill-equipped to discipline a child because I’m one of those wincing, peacekeeping middle children who think that the number of things that are really worth doing battle for is remarkably small. (And while I understand, in looking at the big picture, that raising a disciplined, thoughtful child is definitely worthwhile, the fact that the showdowns involve things like, well, what kind of cup Lily wants at a given moment, make the individual battles feel ludicrously overdramatic.)

I’m also someone who, when heated arguments are happening around me, feels nervous and stressed out by them, even when I’m not involved. My heart pounds, and I often get teary. It’s like I’m the poster child for the tired, desperate phrase, “Can’t we all just get along?” Which means that many times, when Joe is doing the disciplining, I’m tensely listening in a nearby room, torn between yelling myself or sweeping up Lily in my arms until she calms down.

And while there’s no way to tell whether Lily’s recent spate of tantrums is due to having a new baby in the house, or whether its simply par for the course when you have a 3 year old, I’ve begun to think that the reason second-born children are traditionally diplomats is that even as babies, they’re exposed, from the get-go, to the disciplining of an older sibling that’s inevitably happening around him/her.

But even so, Lily has to know that Joe and I stand together, and that neither of us will put up with whining, disrespect, rude behavior, or hitting. So I regularly have to fight my own natural, cowardly tendencies to compromise and/or give in in the interest of maintaining the peace. I try to stiffen my backbone, and I tell myself that the peace I long for so much has more of a fighting chance to exist in our lives for the effort we invest in discipline now.

Yet LZ Granderson, for instance, talks about having a “look” that instantly snaps your child into line – a look I’ll likely never have (and somehow, I don’t think teary-eyed pleas will have the same effect). So I’m having to find alternative ways of conveying to Lily that the consequences of not listening – which we’re emphasizing more and more – will be severe (in her world), and will be followed through on consistently.

And Gottlieb’s article, while rational, well-reasoned, and affecting, made me want to bang my head against a wall, too. For after spending three years as a parent now, I realize, on a visceral level, what lengths you’re tempted to go to to ensure, or inspire, happiness in your child. Yes, the examples Gottlieb draws on are extreme, and thus seem like easy calls. But already, since reading the article, I’ve mulled over precisely how much unhappiness a child needs to experience while listening to Lily scream in her room. Where do we draw that arbitrary line between supporting our kids and making sure they occasionally suffer sadness, disappointment, and failure?

As with most high-stakes parenting issues, there’s no clear, sensible answer, of course, which is precisely what makes it all so terrifying.

2 thoughts on “Discipline: When “the small stuff” has enormous consequences

  1. Sandra F says:

    Oh, Mimi had the most dramatic melt-down yesterday with me carrying her hitting and screaming and clawing all the way down our block. Plus, I had the dog in tow. I felt like such the cliche’. She continued to howl and beat her head against the wall inside for another 20 minutes.
    Why? Uh, I told her not to run into traffic on the street.

  2. Kalley C says:

    I too feel your turmoil as I am also a middle child. The need to keep the peace is so strong, that there are times that I cringe when I have to discipline my daughter.

    That line that we have to draw in the sand is a delicate one. We know that its necessary for their wellbeing, but we also know that being firm for something small will cause our children to be unhappy.

    I love how there are so many parenting books that tell you how to do it the “right” way, but all in all honesty, there is no right way. Disciplining depends on the parents personality and the child’s personality.

    Since one size does not fit all, most of the time it just feels like we’re trekking through muddy waters without a map

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