On discipline- they're smarter than you think

January 24, 2011

I've been really interested in learning about what's been dubbed 'gentle' discipline. And by 'gentle' that generally refers to no spanking, screaming, or angry time-outs. It's a pretty common misconception that without these 'standard' control tactics you'll have hooligan children who have NO RULES and RUN WILD! Fortunately, I am not that gullible and hopefully neither are you. 'Gentle' discipline doesn't mean no discipline, it just means... trying really hard not to be an asshole, and trying to be fair about it while still keeping some modicum of household order.

The majority of the gentle discipline techniques involve helping kids talk through their emotions, using problem-solving to avoid potential tantrum triggers, and controlling your own expectations. It sounds all well and good, right? For all intents and purposes I'm 100% pro gentle discipline– it's rational, respectful, and seems like common sense. BUT– (and here's the kicker)– so far zero of these techniques have had more than a passing success in actual practice with jude.

When he's is angry, or upset, or doing something he's not supposed to do the last thing he wants to do is listen. It doesn't matter how calmly I help him rationalize his feelings, what techniques I try to redirect his attention, or how many soothing words I use. He couldn't care less how much I try to validate his emotions.  In fact in the midst of a tantrum I'm not sure that he even hears me talking. Whether I yell NO! STOP! or calmly distract and redirect him the results are pretty similar, they're just about jack shit and the result is much screaming and sadness because no dude, you can't play with a bag of flour, you HAVE TO sit in your car seat, and you have to put your coat on to go outside.

Let me throw an everyday example out there to give you an idea of what I'm talking about: jude has discovered the ON/OFF button on the tv and gets a kick out of pressing the button over and over and over and over. And over. It's annoying and could potentially break the yelevision because oh my god he does it A LOT.  Here's how out it plays out- I can't hide the button or move the button out of his sight, it's right there in his little line of vision. If he notices it and gets that button-pushing itch I have about .25 seconds to grab something REALLY fun and try to distract him. He'll usually look at my presented item laugh in my face, and go back to the button. Is it really hurting anything for him to play with the button? No, not really. Many times I just let him push it until he loses interest, which only takes minute or two. That's actually my preferred tactic, because at that stage yelling, saying No!, and other kinds of remonstrations are completely useless. Trust me, I've tried. He's busy playing with the button– much too busy to listen to you! You might as well not even be there, invisible person! Occasionally if it's really causing a problem I'll physically remove him from the button and redirect him to a better toy, which incites much irrational toddler rage. I then talk to him about it, which he completely ignores, until he decides he feels better and forgets it ever happened. Whee!

For a while now as I've been learning about gentle discipline I've been wondering– when will this stuff finally help me? Is it an age thing? Is jude just too immature for most of these techniques to be relevant? (I think this is a huge part of it. So many of these ideas involve sitting down and talking through things in detail with your child. jude is A) not a huge talker B) not a huge listener C) still pretty little at only 17 months.) I know that not-listening is totally to-be-expected at this age of toddlerdom, so I'm not particularly worried about it. From a practical perspective the presented ideas make so much sense to me, but in action we're just not there yet.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm still practicing my gentle discipline techniques. I see their value, despite the fact that... well shit yo, not much is happening right now on the jude-side of things. What I've taken from gentle discipline that's been useful is that it isn't about controlling jude's behavior, it's about changing mine. From that perspective it's been pretty thought-provoking. It's made me think about how we view children's behaviors and what effects my own will have on him. Toddlers aren't "being bad" or "being good"– the jude isn't making trouble to make me angry, or ruin my day, or break the remote control, he's just exploring. Is it really that big a deal to let him pull out all the clean laundry and flop around on it? Is that worth a huge battle when it will take me 30 seconds to scoop it all back up when he's done? Just because it's inconvenient for me doesn't mean he's "being bad." Perspective and patience dudes, it's what I'm learning about.

The best parenting advice I've ever read wasn't on a blog or in a parenting book, it was in a dog training book called Smarter Than You Think. It said, "A good leader earns respect and trust by being consistent, fair, and compassionate." That's stuck with me all this time and applies to many things outside the realm of dogs. I've find myself thinking about it every time gentle parenting comes up and ask myself, "Am I being fair? Compassionate? Am I earning jude's respect?" Being the parent means being in charge and making tough decisions, but it also means working together towards a common goal with open communication and trust.

So uh, yeah. That. We're working on it. Even though one of the team appears to be selectively hearing-impaired but only in relation to contraband items like pointy forks and jars of vanilla extract. Toddlers, man. They're like tiny tyrants! All we can do is try to help the kingdom run as smoothly and calmly as possible.
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