Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dying Art of Discipline

Discipline seems to have a strict negative connotation but if you look it up in the dictionary, you'll find this: activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill. When you think about it, we discipline our children to teach them a lesson intended to improve their understanding of a concept or behavior. We want them to comprehend why hitting is wrong, why running into the street is dangerous, why stealing is punishable, why name calling hurts, and why the baby cries if knocked over. We strive to answer why in the hopes that if the underlying reason is understood, the negative behavior will cease.

All fine and good in theory, but when dealing with toddler shenannigans, all theories go out the window. With toddlers, understanding is possible as long as they are not tired, hungry, thirsty, bored, excited, busy, sick, hot, cold, hurt, mad, upset, or teething. So that leaves maybe a half an hour per day. With toddlers it's important to act quickly (especially in a risky situation) and explain later. Toddlers don't require long, drawn out explanations; something short and to-the-point is sufficient. I think the problem lies in the fact that some parents simply act and don't explain, thereby leaving the toddler to guess why his/her behavior was wrong. As parents, we often assume that certain concepts are just known, when in fact, a toddler really does need to be briefed. Another part of the problem exists when parents do the opposite; they spend too much time belaboring the point when the toddler is in the middle of meltdown.

I was in Walmart this afternoon with my kids (ages 2 and 1/2 and 6 months) when I noticed a mother and her daughter (toddler age) arguing. The daughter wanted a toy and the mother had originally said "no" but was now going back on her word. She told her daughter she could choose between three toys but the daughter wanted something else and was whining that she had to have it. The mother then added another toy to the selection but it was not the one her daughter wanted. This continued and the whining turning to crying and the crying turned to screaming and the screaming escalated to all-out shrieking. The mother started to plead with her daughter, explaining that everyone was watching and she shouldn't be drawing attention to herself like that. I left the store before I could find out how the movie ended up I'm guessing it wasn't pretty.

Karma has a funny way of humbling me. I had been so thankful that my toddler wasn't the one acting out in Walmart but ended up kicking myself because it was he who began tantruming at our next stop, CVS. My son lives and breathes cars so naturally, as we passed a few cars in the toy aisle, he asked if he could have one. I had actually planned on buying him something small anyway, as a reward for doing so well with potty training, but I said, "We'll see how you behave in the store." Boy can my son behave if there is a Matchbox car involved! As we headed to check out, I asked him which car he wanted. He hemmed and hawed for a bit, examining each one, and then decided on a shiny black sports car with a spoiler. A second later, he shook his head, put that one back, and grabbed a red and blue race car with a 49 on the side. Still feeling dissatisfied, he put that back and picked up a red pick up truck. Finally my son turned to me and said, "None of them. I don't like any of them." I told him that was OK and that we'd find a car he liked another day at another store. Seeming content with that idea, we walked to the front of the store.

Then all hell broke loose.

My indecisive toddler started yelling, "I want a car! I want a car!" I reminded him that he was given the option of picking a car but that he didn't like any of them. Did he want any of those cars? No. Did he want something simply for the sake of having something? Yes. In my book, that's not a good enough reason. He was told he'd pick out something at a different store and I was sticking to it. There is no mandatory purchasing rule at every store we enter. I knew a tantrum was inevitable so I left my cart in the middle of the aisle, picked up my toddler and left the store. Sure enough, he screamed for most of the ride home. When we got home and he had calmed down, I took a few minutes to explain to him that when I make a decision about something, it's final. If I tell him he can't have a toy, he can't have it. Crying won't change my mind. And if I tell him he can have a toy, he needs to pick one out and put it in the cart. If he doesn't like anything there, that's fine; we'll go somewhere else another day. He doesn't get to stand there for two hours pulling each and every car off the shelf. And he certainly doesn't need to buy something just for buying's sake. Had I tried to explain all of this while in CVS during his whining fit, I would have failed miserably. He was in no shape to hear it at the time. But he did need to understand (after he had settled down), why he left the store with no car. Hopefully next time he'll be able to pick something out in a timely fashion and be satisfied with it. I'd add that he ought to be thankful that he's even getting something in the first place but that might be asking a little too much from a 2-year-old... ;)

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