There I stood in a face-off with a 2 ½-year-old staring me down like a gunslinger. We were late, and my wife had given me simple instructions: Get our daughter's shoes on. "I'm counting on you," she said.
A few minutes later I was engaged in a battle of wills with a little girl who had made her stand clear - "No way!" Reasoning with her didn't work. My voice wavered awkwardly between authoritative demands and timorous cajoling. She smelled weakness, and I crumbled, falling back on the only trick I knew: "Amelie," I told her. "If you don't put these shoes on right now, so help me, I'll ... call your mother in here!"
Right then I knew I was a doomed disciplinarian.
What is discipline, exactly? According to child-rearing expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., it's the ability to control our wishes and impulses. That sounds right, but teaching it to a person whose sole purpose in life is to test boundaries and push limits? That's something else.
Learning how to discipline a toddler - to set ground rules and get an ounce of obethence in return - is grueling. It requires incredible stamina and patience, and the ability to say the same thing over and over again without your brain rotting. Most parenting skills seem to come factory-installed: love, compassion, generosity, the ability to make them laugh so hard that little bits of pretzels shoot from their noses. But not discipline. That's a learned skill, maybe even an art form.
I went through a period with Amelie when I tried the oP good cop/bad cop approach. My wife balked when I kept taking the good cop role for myself. I tried being a softy, then a tough guy. Then I sunk to Amelie's level. She didn't like something I told her and flicked her hand my way while saying, "Mean!" "No, you're mean," I said. We went back and forth until my wife stepped in: "Do you really think you can win that one?" she asked.
That's what got me thinking: Maybe the secret to teaching discipline really starts with self-discipline. Could it be that if you want your child to do a little growing up, you have to do some first?
Discipline, it seems to me, is like the marathon I ran last year: It wasn't all that enjoyable, there were moments when I desperately wanted to quit, and it felt like it would never end. Yet, I pressed on out of sheer will power and determination. I stayed focused, believed in myself, and never doubted I could conquer those 26.2 miles. Most of all, I never called out to my wife to save me. That sounds like a definition of discipline that will work.
Brian Thompson is a columnist for The St. Augustine Record (FL). He lives in St. Augustine with his wife and their daughter, Amelie.
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