One of my least favorite parenting tasks is disciplining my kids. If it were up to me, my kids would just behave all the time, listen to what I say, and never, ever test the limits. But, alas, they are kids, and pushing boundaries is basically their job.
I think part of what makes discipline hard is that I’m a pretty quiet, non-confrontational kind of person, and when my kids are doing something they really shouldn’t be doing, I would just rather say, “Hey, can you stop that, please?” and move on with my life.
Sometimes that kind of thing works, but we all know that more than often, it just does not.
On the other hand, I have not wanted to swing the other way, using fear or shame to get them to behave. Yes, I absolutely lose my shit sometimes. I yell. I’ve said stuff that has hurt their feelings. I’ve PMSed my face off at them.
But there’s no name-calling, no putting down their basic character traits, no using violent language, and no physical punishments. That’s just not how I (or my husband) choose to do things.
Basically, my goal as a parent is to provide structure and discipline for my kids without being an asshole.
I’m no parenting or discipline expert — far from it — but I think I’m succeeding at balancing clear and effective discipline with empathy and kindness, at least to some extent, and at least some of the time. Here’s how:
Hold family meetings, as corny as it might sound.
It’s so important that kids know what’s expected of them. That way, when consequences are leveled at them, they know where you’re coming from, even if they pretty much hate you while it’s happening. So, we have family meetings pretty often. It’s totally Leave It to Beaver corniness around here. Everyone gets a turn to talk. My kids get to collaborate on the rules as much as possible (it makes them feel less powerless). Then we write them up and put our John Hancocks at the bottom.
Give clear, reasonable consequences.
Screen time is my kids’ currency of choice. So they know that if they screw up, that will be the first privilege to be taken away. They pretty much never want to lose screen time (addicts, I tell you), and they know I will absolutely take it away if necessary. And believe me, eliminating an hour here or there for poor behavior is a drop in the bucket considering how much screen time they get anyway.
Issue warnings and countdowns.
We do a countdown thing with my kids that seems to work: “You have to stop after I count to 10.” We also give them warnings: “I’ll give you two chances to do XYZ…” Yes, I end up sounding a lot like my mother — which I swore would never happen — but this is the kind of thing that just works. And if done simply and without too much yelling on your part, it is a token of kindness. You’re giving your kids time to blow off steam and push your buttons, but you’re showing them there are clear limits to that.
Deliver punishments without yelling your head off.
This is, hands down, the hardest part of it all. How do you do all this without losing your cool? Kids pick up on how you say stuff even more than what you say — and when you’re pissed off as hell, they absorb it, and that’s where the shame factor can easily slip in. We all know how incredibly difficult it is to keep it together when our kids act out. But it’s perhaps our biggest job as parents is not to transfer too much of our anger onto our kids. How do you do this? Well, that’s a complicated one, but basically self-care, emotional regulation, meditation, or locking yourself in the bathroom with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s — whatever works for you.
Give crazy praise when things go well.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember when we’re in the daily grind of parenthood, but if your kids have a couple of good, well-behaved days, tell them so. You might not realize how much your approval means to them. They need you to point out the good stuff too, not just the times they mess up.
Give crazy praise for getting through the hard stuff.
After I take away a privilege from my kid (the nice way of saying “punish them”), and after they’ve kicked and screamed or stormed out of the room, I make sure to praise them for getting through something that was obviously tough for them. I might say something like, “It’s not easy when things don’t go your away, when the grown-ups in your life have to do stuff that seems unfair or totally not what you wanted. But you got through it. You did it. And I think that’s pretty cool.”
These are not hard and fast rules, not at all. Every child is different, every family is different, and what works for me may not work for you at all. Most of us are far from perfect parents. I know I’m definitely kind of making it all up as I go along — including the discipline aspect.
But however I do it, I try to keep my main goal in mind: I want to raise good people, without screwing them up too much in the process.
I think that’s what we all want in the end. I’m not sure there are that many parents out there who love disciplining their kids or feel that they’re doing it right all the time, but I think if we all keep our eyes on the prize and remember our kids learn by example, our kids will turn out fine in the end.
Bottom line: If our kids are being assholes, let’s try our damnedest not to be assholes ourselves.