Monday, November 22, 2010

Discipline, Punishment and the Terrible Two's

            People seem to have a big fear about the “terrible two’s”. I’m not exactly sure what the kerfuffle is all about, but it seems to be something along the lines of – your kids start expressing their individuality, and it’s executed with a lot of hyper-activity.
            I’m not sure if I’m just an overly optimistic sort of guy here, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that! It sounds like a wonderful challenge! I hear the same kinds of fears about the teenage years.
            “Beware!” these experienced parents tell me with an ominous sort of look in their eyes. I’m not sure if it’s because teens are finding individualism at the same time as a wild edge of adventure, and if they’ve had overly-restrictive authority figures it comes through as rebellion. Could be. But for me, having been a youth worker for many years in the past and having some absolutely fantastic times with teens, I’m actually looking forward to the teenage years quite a lot.
            Just as I’m looking forward to the two’s.
            I definitely see the spark of rebellion in Celia, but most of the time it’s just a cry for attention. When she does something she knows is wrong, the first thing I think about is whether she has any needs that aren’t being met.
            Usually, it comes at a time when both Michelle and I are quite busy with something else. In these moments, I see the acting out as a plea for attention. Rather than punishing her for these kinds of things, we have chosen to distract her. One time I heard her around the corner go from clattering and singing to utter silence.
            Pure silence from a two-year-old can be quite lovely when they’ve found some toy that fascinates them. I enjoy watching Celia quietly figure out shapes and toys in her own little world. But dead silence is also a warning bell – it could be that mischief is about to occur.
            Just in case, I popped my head around the corner to see what she was up to. There she was, pulling the hallway plant right out of its pot.
            “Aah! Celia! What are you doing!?” I raced over and grabbed the plant out of her hand. Celia had a mixed look of “guilty but curious” on her face.
            “You’ll kill the plant if you do that! We’ve got to make sure the roots stay in the soil, or it’ll die. That’s where it gets its food.” I pointed at the roots dangling in the open air. Celia watched them with pursed lips.
            “Now help me put it back in.”
            Celia put her hand on one of the leaves as I shoved the roots of the poor shrub into the soil. I then patted the soil to make it stick. When the plant looked semi-stable, albeit a lot less happy, I turned to Celia and said, “I know what time it is…”
            Celia looked at me with wide eyes.
            “It’s Tickle Time!” I scooped her up, tossed her onto the couch, and gave her all sorts of rib tickles as both of us cackled with glee. We rolled around and had a marvelous little laugh session before moving on to the next activity together.
            In these kinds of moments, I believe she’s acting out because she wants attention, mixed in with a deep curiosity for the world around her. My response mirrored that. I explained to her about the plant, the roots, the soil, and how the plant needs to stay in the soil. She was quite attentive, and I believe she learned about plants that day.
            I also gave her a role in “fixing” the damage she’d done. Yes, it was only holding the leaf, but I think even that little role she played gave her a sense of taking care of her own mess.
            Then, instead of forming some sort of punishment on top of all of that, I distracted her with a lot of positive attention. We had a grand old night, and at the end of it all, Celia knew that she was deeply loved and respected. She had made a mistake, but we all do that. She was curious. So why take that out on her?
            This is all great in theory, but I have to admit I didn’t keep to my own philosophy a few days ago. It was almost Celia’s bedtime, and Celia was sitting at the table with a bowl of grapes while Michelle and I were standing around in the kitchen chatting with a friend. The grape-bowl was a hand-made clay creation that a friend had made a few years ago.
            None of us were watching Celia, and she started walking through the kitchen with the bowl in her hand. She walked right past all of us and tossed the bowl into the garbage can. SMASH! I heard the tinkling of pieces as Celia stepped back and started to leave.
            In this moment, I admit I forgot my own philosophies and chastised her. “Celia! You broke the bowl!”
            I pulled it out of the garbage can.
            “Now it’s garbage forever!” I held it up to her big eyes so she could see the big chunk that had broken out of it.
            “We’ll never be able to use it again!”
            Celia looked dazed.
            “That’s it. You’ve shown us you don’t deserve your stories before bed tonight.”
            Instantly I knew I shouldn’t have said that.
            Michelle looked at me with raised eyebrows.
            Our goal is to teach her that there are consequences to her actions. It was the first consequence that came to my mind. But taking away her utterly critical bedtime story routine is probably not going to teach her about the value of the bowl. I see that in retrospect.
            Of course, Celia cried herself to sleep that night. I came downstairs and wondered what I could have done differently. Teaching responsibility without doling out punishments takes a lot more creativity and thoughtfulness.
            Now that time has passed, I know what I could have done. Again, just like with the plant, Celia was curious. Of course, she knows about being careful with bowls, and she knows about the purpose of garbage. But she’s exploring the great big world and trying new things, not trying to be malicious. I needed to figure out a consequence to her action that would somehow help her understand the seriousness of it.
            I should have told her to make another bowl.
            It’s not that far-out, actually. My mother works with clay, and even has a kiln in her studio. If I’d have gone with that tack, Celia would have gained a tremendous respect for where bowls come from. Plus, we’d then have another new bowl in our lives, to replace the one she broke.
            Instead, she probably walked away with a feeling like, “Daddy was being overly harsh with me the other night. I didn’t like him when he did that.” I may be wrong, but all of those negative thoughts are directed at me, not at learning the lesson I wanted to teach her. This is not a helpful way to educate her. I want her to learn about the world in positive ways, and feel like I’m a safe person for her to be around while she makes mistakes.
            As I write this, I’m realizing it’s not too late. It’s never too late. Today I’m going to talk to my mom about making a new bowl with Celia, and I’m going to remind my daughter about the whole experience. We’ll set up a date and make it happen.
            I suppose all of parenting is kind of like this. You never quite know what your kids will do, so you can never fully plan ahead. You can come up with some principles to help, but even so, it’s so easy to forget them.
            It’s helpful to take a step back at times, debrief with your spouse and figure out a creative way to teach the lesson while being positive. I’m a big believer in second-chances. It’s not over yet. We’ll redeem that bowl. Oh yes. It will be even better than the first one. And I’ll bet you anything that if Celia has made it, from start to finish, she’ll never even dream about putting it in the garbage.

1 comment:

  1. yup...the removal of the sacred bedtime story... we've done it too. And felt horrible about it too. And reinstated its sacredness.

    Yes it's true - "teaching responsibility without doling out punishments takes a lot more creativity and thoughtfulness" - I wish I had more energy for that every day!

    Thanks and Peace, Sandra