My 1½-year-old daughter, Ally, rips a toy necklace out of her sister Dina’s hands. Dina, who is 4½, screams, pushes Ally and tries to grab the necklace.
Ally starts bawling.
(Yes, these are same kids who look so happy in that picture on the right).
I pull them apart and look directly at my older daughter. “Dina, stop,” I tell her. “Do not push your sister. She doesn’t know any better—try to give her something else and see if she drops the necklace. Or share it with her.”
I say “No” to Ally as she holds on to the necklace, but she won’t give it up—at least not yet.
For both girls, there are rules related to their actions. In this case, I also feel a need to show Dina I understand that being an older sibling can be a challenge.
I doubt I’ve found a subject related to parenting that has led to more books or Web sites than how we discipline our kids and teach them what they can and can’t do.
There’s a good reason for that: Setting limits for kids can be a very tough job.
I recall moments before I became a dad when I saw an unruly child in a public place or a family gathering and thought: “When I have kids, they’ll never do that. No way. Why don’t the parents do something?”
I don’t say or even think that anymore. I’ve learned that the only way I’ll ever believe kids don’t misbehave once in a while is if I wipe out my memories. It’s a daily challenge for my wife, Nancy, and me to teach our girls that they live in a world–and, yes, a home–where people need to respect the rules.
We search for answers about how to discipline our kids, but perhaps the answer ultimately lies in the mirror, one longtime pediatrician tells me.
“When my kids were younger, I read just about everything that came out about discipline,” says Dr. Cheryl Hausman, pediatrician and medical director of the primary care center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “As I found my feet as a parent, I didn’t read these books as avidly,” Hausman continues. “My advice to parents is to read a broad variety of sources, but be wary of any source that claims to be the be-all and end-all. Besides, parents know when something is in sync with their own parenting style.”
Hausman, who sits on the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics, is saying something that sounds familiar. It should: Her thoughts echo the famous advice Dr. Benjamin Spock gave to parents more than 50 years ago: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
What parents need to trust, Hausman and others who have worked extensively with children tell me, is their ability to teach their children.
“Discipline comes from the Latin word ‘to teach,’ ” says Dr. George Cohen, a retired pediatrician in Rockville, Md., a consultant for the pediatrics academy’s Committee on Child and Family Health.
“If children can trust their parents as loving caregivers, they will be much more willing to accept what parents say they can and cannot do,” he says.
In my house, we try different things. Sometimes I’ll have to make things up on the spot, like when I try to swap a hat, a pillow or another toy for that purloined necklace. Or I might even provide an incentive to my older daughter if she shares with her sister.
Then, of course, there’s the challenge of trying to “teach” discipline when I’m stressed out, annoyed or tired–or when my children are.
I’ve learned through raising my young girls that there are countless sources out there to help my wife and me learn how to discipline our kids and stay cool while doing it—but no easy solutions. In particular, we have found the popular book 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 to be useful with its strategies of using counting and timeouts to address specific situations.
The key, though—however clichéd it may be—is not something I find in a book. It’s the everyday challenge of trying to make sure my wife, our childcare provider, Francie, and I are on the same page about what we expect from the girls–and how we respond to them.
Of course, there’s still a nagging question: What happens if our kids act out even more?
Well, to be honest, they’re going to do that once in a while–as long as they are kids. They’ll test us, misunderstand what we say, or, perhaps, teach us that we need to do a better job.
After all, learning how to respond peacefully when your little sister rips a necklace out of your grasp does not happen overnight.
In extreme cases, my wife and I might punish our older daughter with a timeout or by imposing restrictions on whether she can watch TV or engage in other activities.
For the most part, though, we just keep trying. After several attempts to convince Ally to swap the necklace for a toy, my efforts somehow work. I give the necklace to Dina and talk to her about finding another place for it. I tell her once more that she is not to push her sister, even if Ally rips a necklace out of her hands, and that she will face punishment if she does it again.
Dina nods and says she understands. Meanwhile, Ally grabs my keys off a table.
I tell her “No,” but she doesn’t relent. I’ll have to keep trying until she understands.
And, of course, put my car keys somewhere out of her reach.
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org