Okay, be honest. Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself unsuccessfully trying to rationalize your choice of punishment on a 5-year-old. (I’m not the only one, right?) Or found yourself on the loud end of a shouting match with an irate 8-year-old. Or wound up in a “Yes, I will!” , “No, you won’t!” back and forth with a 10-year-old.
People have been asking me to write about discipline since the first Insight From an Ordinary Dad column, but up until this point I’ve stayed far away from that subject. Mainly because I think every kid is different and every parent is different and effective discipline is about learning how to best relate to your child.
But also I’ve never wanted to broach the subject because I’m still trying to figure out how to discipline my own kids.
Which is why I read a book I stumbled upon called Gentle Discipline by Sarah Ockwell Smith. I’m all ears when it comes to parenting advice. Like I’ve shared with you before, my boys know exactly how to push my buttons and as hard as I try it takes complete focus to not lose my cool in the moment. Then I lament about it later and feel like a failure.
I’ve got one child who loves to backtalk and one who still whines and cries to get what he wants. And somehow I end up getting caught up in an argument and feeling like a child myself.
But thanks to Sarah Ockwell Smith, I’ve come to realize the root issue here is control. When a kid tries to punk out their parent (these are my words, not hers), or whine to wear a parent down, or push a parent’s buttons just to see an adult flip out like a toddler, it’s really their way of controlling the situation. I’ve heard that once before. Maybe it was Love & Logic, or Focus on the Family, or some parenting blog I read, but ever since I heard that “control” theory again, I’ve been on a mission to take the power back.
It’s been a slow, stealthy operation capitalizing on the element of surprise. First, I disconnected my “buttons” so they could no longer be pushed as easily. Then, I responded in quiet, confident tones which left the yeller with no one to yell back at. Which left him utterly confused. And you know what? He quieted down too.
The fancy word for that is “de-escalation.”
Smith says when kids make parents momentarily lose their minds the kid scores that as a victory. But the real victory comes when the adult keeps a level head—which in my case means fighting every instinct inside me that wants to blow up like the red Angry Bird—and does not respond to the child in the exact same manner the child was just acting.
Think of the times you’ve heard a parent scream “DON’T YOU YELL AT ME!” to a kid who shouts during a meltdown…You know, like in Walmart for example. (Am I right?)
But my favorite thing Smith said was in chapter 14. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? Well, Smith says it applies to parenting too. She says that if we do well 80 percent of the time, we should not worry so much about the 20 percent when we blow it and just try again the next day. Because in the end, the kids will remember the 80, not the 20.
Which reminded me of the time I heard Dr. Ray Guarendi tell a conference room full of parents we should cut ourselves some slack because at the end of the day we are all better parents than we think we are.
I hope Sarah and Dr. Ray are right. I really want to believe they are.
So I did a really bold thing. I apologized to my kids. Well first, I talked with my wife and we came up with a game plan together. But then we all four sat down and had a “come to Jesus moment,” as my wife calls it. I explained that I wanted us all four to speak more respectfully to each other. And I explained that things were going to change in our house and I apologized for not taking control earlier, but now that they are 8 and 10, things have got to change. Starting now. (Because Smith says it’s never too late for parents to regain control, and that ultimately kids want their parents to maintain control and that’s why kids thrive when clear boundaries are set.)
Kelly and I initiated two basic household rules: take care of your business (meaning: morning routine, homework after school, night routine, etc.) and have a respectful attitude. That’s it. Easy, right?
Then, in a moment of sheer brilliance, my wife unveiled the new era of discipline in the May household and in one fell swoop threw out the old, worn out, ineffective consequences and initiated new, much more productive scenarios. No more sending them to their rooms. Now we give them a chance to restore order by doing chores for retribution; that way we get some benefit from their consequences.
So now when our boys backtalk, whine, or speak disrespectfully, they get to fold the towels.
Backtalk Mom? You get to vacuum the living room.
Forget to put the Wii remotes away? You get to wipe down the table.
And I can tell you this. Our house looks better. And it’s much more peaceful around here lately.
If only we had thought of this five years ago.