Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Discipline: a novel

I'm not a fan of most parenting books- the few I've looked up online or heard other people talk about usually offend me or make me roll my eyes. I’ve found I prefer to use other people’s experiences, combined with JP and my collective common sense and knowledge of our child, to guide us down this path of raising a human being. So because I've found other people's stories so helpful, I've wanted to share our current (but ever evolving) approach to discipline with Landon. I haven't yet because as it turns out, it's really hard to put something like that down on paper. I usually draft beautifully eloquent blog posts in my head when I can't sleep, and then I turn them into much less eloquent blocks of writing later. In this case, I couldn't even get through the post in my head. Plus, I very much don't want to come off as preachy or as sounding like we have it all figured out. I believe we have found something that works well for our particular son at this particular age. That is all. So in order to keep this post less than 1,000 pages long, I’m going to write the rest of this without all the equivocating that is probably running through my head, but please read it like it’s there.

I guess I should start by explaining that we use time-outs. No physical or corporal punishment and no sticker charts or incentives (though we temporarily and unsuccessfully used incentives for potty training, but I consider potty training to be a developmental thing and not a discipline thing anyway). When he was younger, like around 18 months, time-out involved us sitting with him away from whatever sparked the tantrum. Around age 2, he sat in a corner of our living room right next to the kitchen. He was a few feet from me, but through an archway, so it was a separation. Also around that time Landon discovered he could move his body out of time-out, so we resorted to putting his kitchen table booster chair on the floor and using the little straps to buckle him in. That worked wonderfully for nearly a year- he’d even proudly tell his Gigi that “that’s my time-out chair for when I don’t behave.” It kept him in the mini corner and kept us from having to hold him there, which never went well. At around 2 1/2 we started sending him to his room. We don’t have baby gates or special knobs on his door, so he could leave when he was ready to come downstairs and apologize. That has worked really, really well, but probably wouldn’t have at any time younger than 2 1/2.

the chair (we took off the tray)

We chose time-outs because I don’t really like corporal punishment ever, but definitely and absolutely don’t like it at this young exploring/limit-testing age. I believe in discipline, but I don’t like the idea of punishment that involves pain when so often his misbehavior is based on tiredness or a level of frustration that I can’t help but sympathize with. The reason we don’t use incentive charts for behavior is because I believe Landon should behave because he’s supposed to behave. He doesn't get dessert because he ate a nice dinner or a toy because he was good on errands, he does those things because that's how he’s supposed to act. If he doesn't, he goes to his room. That sounds harsh, but the very few times we did the "if you do X, you get Y," it introduced a whole world of haggling and after about a day I got sick of it. We do always try to explain why he's supposed to do X, and we revisit our rules if X isn't working with our routine, but at the end of the day it sometimes comes down to "because we're your parents and we said so" and he can go to his room until he comes around.

We don't have a time requirement for the time-out. If it's minor and he's not upset, it's a few minutes, usually to give us time to calm down or clean up or whatever, and then we go up to talk to him and walk back down with him. If he's upset, then it's until he calms down. After a few minutes, one of us will go up to try to talk to him, to remind him that he can come back down as soon as he's ready to stop crying and apologize, and we'll keep doing that every 5-10 minutes until he gets a hold of himself. It very, very rarely takes that long. And we always talk to him once he comes down- he has to remember why he was sent up, why whatever he was doing wasn’t okay (which gets at him understanding the reason behind our rules), and how he can fix it (like by doing what we asked him to do before he jutted out his chin and decided he wasn't taking orders from anybody). We do hugs, say I love you, and continue on with our day. He never has any lingering resentment and usually quite openly announces to whoever is around that "I had to go to timeout because I wasn't behaving.” I'm definitely not someone who thinks disciplining my children risks crushing their delicate spirit. Landon's spirit is fine, and his world makes more sense when there are repercussions for things he knows are wrong.

Okay, so here are our basic principles:

(1) We are in charge, always, and we try to make decisions with our whole family in mind. No one parent is in charge of discipline- if Landon is acting up, that parent needs to deal with it, and then that parent is the one who talks to Landon afterward and springs him from his room. We both love him and we both want him to be safe and happy, and occasionally that requires sticking him in a timeout chair or tossing him in his room until he calms down. For a while I was the easy one. Partially because I was pregnant, but I can admit it was also partially because it is SO MUCH EASIER to ignore things - the early tremors of defiance before an outright tantrum. And you just can't. Within a month I noticed that Landon was significantly better behaved for JP than for me and I knew I had to suck it up and start being stricter. It seems counter-intuitive, but Landon is a million times better behaved and is honestly happier when we are very strict with him. It's part of my toddler chaos theory described in #5. Also, as part of this, we try not to push it or set him up to fail. If it's the end of a long day, we're not going to take him to a restaurant. But at the same time, if we're traveling and that's just the way things had to work out, we absolutely still expect him to behave while we're there.

(2) Our toddler is not in charge of the family and does not get to dictate what the family is doing or the environment in which the family is doing it. This is shown by example in #4, but basically I think Landon is allowed to be mad if he's mad. I get mad sometimes too. But like me, Landon is not allowed to express it in a way that interrupts or affects the people around him. He can object and we'll talk about it and figure out a way to do what he wants too. But if he wants to scream about an injustice done to him, he has to do that in his room (or in the car if we're in public, but if the screaming began when we were actually in a restaurant he's also going to be punished for it when we get home, which will be as soon as the other parent can pay the check). He can't continue on with his day until he calms down and either does what we asked him to do or apologizes if whatever led to the screaming involved disobeying a parent or hurting someone or something.

(3) Kids can learn to behave at an early age; they do understand you, and they can remember things you've told them in the past. This was SO hard for me. I remember many times of JP putting Landon in time-out when he was around 18 months and I’d hiss at him that he's too young, he doesn't understand, he can't be blamed! JP, who has never read anything about children except what I've forced him to, always said, yes he does. And even if he doesn't, he's learning. We're not hurting him, we're just making him sit for a minute in a corner because he wouldn't say please (or whatever). In the end, I think JP was right, and I was partially using him to make me feel better for my misbehaving child because I could yell at him and not Landon. I was also big on saying, "he doesn't know that's the rule!" and JP kept saying, yes he does (and once again, even if he doesn't, he's certainly learning it). Now that Landon is so verbal and so obviously understands everything we say (too much of what we say really), this is no longer much of a problem, but I think it was important we started young. Looking back, when Landon spent like 3 months resisting “please” and constantly turning it into a huge battle to the point where I’d try to give him things before he requested them just so I wouldn’t have to make him say it, I think it was all one big test to see if he really always had to do it. Once I cracked down and didn’t allow exceptions, the issue went away in less than a week. Sometimes they make things so hard on you (and them) but establishing your world order is important and “please” was going to be part of ours if it killed us all. (That was over a year and a half ago and I’m glad to say he always says it now.)

(4) Screaming, hitting, kicking, throwing are absolutely unacceptable ALWAYS, no matter how tired, sick, etc. the child may be. I’m always thinking of reasons for why Landon is misbehaving that seem like they should mitigate punishment. No. That was a road to nowhere. I may understand that the reason he has a meltdown over the soap being the wrong color when he washes his hands before dinner is because he woke up early and didn't have a nap, but that doesn't mean it's okay to scream instead of washing his hands. It does mean that my child isn't possessed by evil spirits, which is a relief, but it doesn't stop him from being sent to his room until the screaming stops (which is usually pretty fast, particularly when we're eating something he really likes). That's also why, as I said before, we don't focus on making him stop screaming- if he's mad, he can be mad, but he cannot do it in the kitchen where the rest of the family is trying to talk and eat dinner. When he has decided he has expended enough energy protesting the soap situation, he can come back down and try washing his hands again. He also has to apologize for not behaving and yelling, and then we all move on and enjoy dinner together. If he comes down but is still grumpy and refuses to wash his hands or apologize, it's straight back up to his room.

(5) The rules are enforced always, no exceptions for public places, parties, etc. Exceptions = chaos, and chaos for a toddler = tantrums. I thought I was being nice by trying to ignore the occasional bad behavior in public or at a birthday party because surely he didn't want it interrupted and if I ignored it he would stop doing it, but no. As it turns out, not being punished is also very upsetting because it means the same action can produce different results. This is chaos and toddlers do not thrive in chaos. If I'm out with Landon and Claire by myself and really can't deal with a situation as it develops (like the grocery store), we leave as quickly as we can, occasionally resulting to temporary bribery to stop any loud acting out, and then it is time-out immediately when he gets home, even if he's reformed before we get there. That's hard to do, but I've found it works better in the long run. We talk about it as we go up the stairs, about how "remember at HEB when you yelled at mommy because you wanted a snack, and mommy explained we were eating dinner soon, but you yelled again? You weren't behaving, so that's why you're going up to your room." The punishment is definitely less effective, and he doesn't have to stay in his room long, but I think it's important to still do it.

Those are the principles, the rules have grown as he's gotten older, but include things like eating with good manners, no whining, do as your told (by your parents and teachers), no hurting other people or animals, say please and thank-you, obey higher standards of behavior for restaurants and public places, clean up your toys when you're done with them and clean up everything before bed, use "excuse me" and don't interrupt when other people are talking (really only grown-ups), etc.

Discipline is hard and it's exhausting, but at least for us, we have reaped enormous benefits from sticking with it. I read once that children need two things more than anything else: unconditional love and clear boundaries. That has really shaped our parenting, and I think enforcing firm boundaries is part of loving your child. Landon is extraordinarily well behaved- every teacher he's had comments on it. I think about 50% of that is just him and we can take no credit for it. I think the other 50% comes from us and what we do to work with his personality. When he gets mad he'll scream and cry, but he's never physical and has never thrown anything. If he did or he had a harder time calming down, I'm sure we'd have a different way of dealing with it than letting him extinguish his own rage up in his room (which usually takes 5-10 minutes and involves him sitting on his bed yelling, he doesn't even try to leave, which of course he could do if he needed to).

Over 18 months of trial and error have brought us here, to a system that works when consistently enforced, and to a kid who is full of smiles. We do lots of other things, like complimenting him when he's being good or helpful, and talking him through what we're going to be doing that day and why. I was going to say that we don’t need to discipline him much, because it doesn’t seem like it, but I’ve been paying attention over the last few days and it turns out he goes to his room about once a day. I’d never have guessed that. I think because it’s dealt with quickly, he recovers quickly, and we all move on quickly- it’s like a blip on an otherwise idyllic radar screen. So that's where we are now. We’ll see how it goes as he gets older and as Claire starts discovering she can push boundaries too. I've discovered parenting is just one big learning process for both parent and child, and as soon as you have something figured out, it changes!

a happy, fully accessorized Landon

P.S. I added these two more things regarding discipline in a separate post after I wrote this one.


  1. I found this really interesting, and I'm curious how it works with day care- do you communicate with them to try to make sure they're following the same discipline system, or do you let them do it their way and that's just part of learning that different environments operate slightly differently? (Or is he so well-behaved that there are no discipline incidents in day care?)

  2. Ooh excellent question! I think we've learned a lot from our daycare about child development generally and even about Landon specifically. He is extremely well behaved at daycare. I think that's part of the 50% of him that we have nothing to do with. He's just a super mellow kid who likes to follow directions and isn't physically aggressive At All.

    As for the discipline systems, I'd say they operate separately but consistently with each other. None of our rules conflict with the rules at daycare, they're just a little broader and more specific to our house or being out in public (neither of which would apply at daycare anyway, so it's not confusing). The daycare teachers talk a lot about being "safe" with their bodies and the bodies of their classmates. His teachers emphasize that they work to avoid having to discipline at all, by keeping the kids busy and active and being extremely vigilant and interceding at the beginning of conflicts. They have a "Safe Place" - a big refrigerator box all the kids decorated where a kid can go if s/he is upset or having a tantrum (they can also sit in a teacher's lap to calm down, their choice, Landon likes the box). That's actually what gave us the idea to use Landon's room - it's his Safe Place. They can be mad and calm down and come out and join everyone else when they're ready. They also teach the kids what to do when a classmate hurts them or takes a toy (say "I don't like that [whoever]" and tell the teacher) and things like that. I've seen the teachers pull aside a kid who is acting out to talk about "controlling their body" or "resting their body" and re-explaining what it is they need to be doing. They also try to emphasize what that child's behavior felt like for the kid they affected, and we try to do that for Landon too.

    So while we didn't sit down together to work out a discipline system with them (though we might have if Landon was a kid who frequently acted out in class or had some bullying tendencies, etc., and I believe the teachers have had those kinds of conferences with other parents in order to help establish a consistent message and plan to work with him/her), we've gotten ideas from what works for them and I think our approaches have worked well together.

  3. I think you will be forever grateful that you laid out these rules for yourselves (you and JP) regarding discipline. My husband and I have followed pretty much the same course as you throughout our three kids' lives. Some people thought we were too strict, but we have rarely had a discipline problem. Now that they are teens and tweens, we are frequently complimented on how polite and easy to talk to (with adults) they all are (Please and Thank You have always been a MUST with us). In fact, last year when we were on a plane, my twelve year-old son was given extra cookies by the flight attendant because she was so impressed with his manners. It was funny. He kept saying thank you and she kept giving more cookies!

  4. I think you are doing a fantastic job. One of the biggest things my mom said to me was, "you are a different parent to each child you have" and I think that is so true. What works for one, might not work for another.

    These kids. They just keep changing it up on us!

  5. Great post, and I 100% agree with you and take a very similar approach. I think a key part of this kind of discipline is that nobody holds a grudge -- you dole out the discipline, and then it's done and you go on with your day. Sometimes it can be hard to stop being mad when he's been particularly obnoxious, but it pays off -- especially when I'm the one who's unreasonably grumpy, and after I apologize and give him a hug, he immediately forgives me. I think it also makes discipline a lot easier to take for the kid when they know you still love them and as soon they're done with their punishment, everything goes back to normal.

    I like the idea of a "safe place" rather than a time-out. We stopped doing time-outs at some point -- not consciously, and I don't remember when, but I also don't remember the last time K got a time-out. But maybe that's because he's been so mellow lately. The only times he generally has a meltdown are when he's really tired, and that's our own fault and the only solution is to get him to sleep as soon as possible. If/when it starts happening again, maybe we'll try the "safe place" (his room would probably be a good idea). When I first read that you send Landon to his room, I thought, "That wouldn't work with K, he likes being in his room," but if it's meant to be a place for him to calm down rather than a punishment it could work well.

  6. Oh, one more thing, which I bet you do too -- positive reinforcement, also known as "catch them being good." I'll often say things to K like, "I remember when you used to eat with your hands and wipe your hands on your pants. Now you have good table manners, and you always use your fork and napkin." (Getting him to use napkins, for some reason, took a lot of work.) I think getting these messages consistently gives him some incentive to continue behaving well, because he sees that we notice and appreciate it.

  7. Hi CM! We do do a lot of positive reinforcement- that comes very easy for me (discipline doesn't- I can't stop looking at it from an adult perspective and finding reasons why he's acting the way he is, when really, black and white works SO much better for him at this age) and it works so well. I love finding what he's doing right :)

    The Safe Place thing is funny to me. I kind of resisted it on two opposite ends- (1) it seemed like if he's in trouble it shouldn't really be a place that he likes so much, but (2) I also didn't want his room/sleep space to be a place that he associated with something negative like punishment. But I was wrong on both counts (once again, thinking like an adult and not a 3-year-old). It is punishment enough because he is separated from us and whatever it was he wanted or whatever set him off, but it also hasn't "ruined" his room for him. Plus, it is great for JP and me (and Landon, really) because sometimes by the time you sent him upstairs you're a little worked up yourself!

  8. Wonderful post. Totally agree with you! We had zero luck with timeout with P (she thought it was a fun game and would tolerate being put back there a zillion times), but she's fortunately coming out of that newly-3 annoying meltdown mode.

    What helps for me is to remember that discipline is teaching, not punishment. And that sometimes Mommy needs a time out, too, before she can deal with things, so that she can be calm about it.

    The consistency is the big, big thing for us - when we are tired and she is tired it is SO HARD.

  9. Oh - I love this. My mom always said to me when I was a kid - children don't need their parents to be a friend; they need them to be a parent and she swore that what kids craved/needed the most was structure, discipline, and consistency.

    I thought she was kind of harsh growing up, but now that I'm adult I realize how much better prepared I am for so many things in life. Life isn't always fair, things don't always go your way, there's nothing you are entitled to, no short cuts...I could go on and on.

    I also love that you don't reward your kids for expected/acceptable behavior. We should all learn to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing!

  10. Thank you for the detailed post! Much of this is what I heard in the little mommy-and-me class we did (that basically preached positive parenting/logical consequences/etc...) but we haven't really started using any of it yet. I love the "safe place" idea and I think I may have to start using that soon.
    I agree with Ana...growing up I was so jealous of my friends that had "cool moms" who were lax and friends with all their friends. But now I am so thankful that my mom was strict with me through high school.

  11. LL I'm so glad for your post. Liam and I have often talked about how we will discipline Z and these seems like a lot of great ideas. Not that I'm looking forward to doling out discipline, but it's pretty much a fact of life.

  12. LL thanks for sharing this! We'll definitely have to take a look back at this later.

  13. Landon sounds like such a great kid! And I think you are probably pretty close to right on - it's 50% who he is and 50% how he is parented.

    Your discipline system sounds a lot like mine - I call it a modified 1-2-3 Magic system (not sure if you're familiar with it but there is both a book and video). I use the That's 1, That's 2 and when you get to 3, it's off to their room for a time out. But when I get the kid out I always sit first and talk to them about WHY they were sent to their room and what they need to do to "fix" whatever it is that happened.

    I started that with my oldest daughter because she has special needs and I wanted her to always knows why she was being sent to time out. Then I just kept it up when my youngest came along. Technically that's against the 1-2-3- Magic approach because they say when the time out is up it's over and no one talks about it. I started using this when the Blue Jay was abour 2 or 3 and now both my girls are teens and I still use it. It just doesn't lead to that many time outs any more - at least not for the youngest, she knows I will follow through so getting to 2 is usually enough to remedy the situation. When she does end up in her room, she really needs to be there anyway and she knows it.

    One interesting thing I found about different kids - with the Blue Jay when her time was up I would go in, sit and talk to her and we would move on. With the Kit Kat (when she was little) if I ever went to talk to her and let her out, she would freak on me. So I would walk out and close the door again. Eventually we both learned, I left her there until she called out and told me she was ready to come out. Then I would wait a minute, go in, sit down and talk with her and move on. It meant she spent significnalty more time in time out than she had to (or maybe I should say than I would have given her) but she needed that extra time to calm down and regulate herself. Once we both learned that, it worked well.

    You are so lucky that you and JP are so much onside. My husband tries to use 1-2-3 but without the follow through and so he ends up just yelling at them. They learned early on that Dad rarely follows through. They equally learned that I will and they respond much better to me.

    Although the Blue Jay (with her challenges) is still a special case, she spends much more time in her room in her sister even though she is chronologically the oldest. But I am so glad I started this approach when they were very young - they say you can't use time outs with teens because they simply won't accpet it, the one exception being if you started it young and have always used it.

    You called your post a "novel". Apparently, so is my comment. Bottom line, FWIW, I think you guys are doing a great job.

  14. As a mom of older kids (17 and 13), I think a) you're doing a great job, AND b) you will find that since you're being a little "stricter" here in the toddler days, that for the most part*, you'll find that you have to discipline less and less. When children know that "rules are rules and Mommy and Daddy make the rules" from Day One, then it becomes easier to enforce the rules.

    (*normal disclaimer about changing, growing, blah blah blah)

  15. I don't have kids of my own, but from the times I've worked with young children I can wholeheartedly agree that kids do best when they have firm, clear limits and consistent consequences--you're actually doing them a favor by being strict. I'd say keep up the good work!

  16. I haven't read all the comments, but I do want to say that I always enjoy your pragmatic approach to things. I don't want to be one of those finger wagging, oh just wait, kind of people, but I would love it if you would revisit this topic in 5 years or so. I'd really be interested in seeing how your approach evolves over time. My girls are 10 and 8. I used to believe in the 50/50, but I think it's more 85/15 - with them being 85% in control of how they behave. We have a very similar approach to discipline. It works great with our younger daughter who mostly chooses to behave because she wants to. Our older one, I like to call the activist. I think her bull headedness and willingness to break the rules, may lead her to really change the world. It's a bear to live with. We've tried just about every approach ranging from very lenient to stricter than all get out. In the end recognizing that she may just rather have the consequences rather than behave, because she wants to see what will happen, has been and eye opener. Luckily as a more mature and confident 5th grader now, she's mostly concluded that actually her life is easier and more pleasant if she takes a less combative path. Our job is to be consistent. Good luck. It sure is interesting to watch their personalities emerge. Best to you and your family.

  17. Thanks so much for posting this! I love that you and JP take the time to explain both the rules and why he can't do some things or has to do other things. This is VERY similar to the discipline approach that my dad used with me. While the rest of my family is pro-corporal punishment, my dad always believed (like JP) that I DID understand the rules and he could explain why a time-out or having a toy taken away was a direct result of poor behavior.

    Most of my family would argue with him that you can't reason with a toddler, and so spanking is the only option. He always responded with a question, "Is your toddler not smart enough to understand simple sentences, or are you not smart enough to reason with a toddler?" Even if the reason came down to, "I'm the parent."

    I have always appreciated that my dad treated me as a person with a mind capable of understanding basic logic from the very beginning. I believe that it encouraged me to think through all situations rationally and to look for the consequences in every action.

  18. As parents you two are doing a commendable and very right job, people should take something out of this post and implement in their lives too.