Ty Phillips shares his simple, practical wisdom for keeping your kids on the right path.
The need to correct our children when they go wrong can, at times, feel more like a punishment for us than it is for them.
Disciplining your child is hard. I think it is safe to assume that the emotionally healthy parent struggles to find balance between anger and teaching and never enjoys the process of discipline. We want to see the smile, the glimmer in the eye, and we want to hear giggles and laughs. The need to correct our children when they go wrong can, at times, feel more like a punishment for us than it is for them.
We raise our voices, we say no, we take items away or we leave an area that was intended to be a fun outing in the hopes that we instill the fact that actions have consequences. Sadly, these lessons leave us staring into the eyes of a crying child—a child who seems to be suffering and languishing away in torment because we wouldn’t let her throw stones, tree bark, or toys at the shiny new BMW that is parked near the swing set.
Young children are still in that stage where cause and effect do not yet meet in their minds and what seems harmless to them can cause undue stress and consequences for us. So as we drag them, kicking and screaming, away from the mess they are making and try to explain in words they understand, we are often left feeling terrible … because they don’t.
I have heard far too often from parents who think the solution is to just “Beat their little asses!” or fall back on the old reliable phrase that many of us grew up with, “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
I have recently been dealing with this stage myself with my toddler. With my oldest children are nearing college, I had almost forgotten the struggle of a three-year-old (nearing 30 in her own mind) who thinks the world revolves around her. I have heard far too often from parents who think the solution is to just “Beat their little asses!” or fall back on the old reliable phrase that many of us grew up with, “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
So how, as modern parents do we deal? How do we engage with our misbehaving tots in a way that expresses what they are doing without it being directed by our lack of patience or our anger? How do we encourage the truth of cause and effect without turning to authoritarian ideas like “Spare the rod spoil the child,” or taking the other permissive extreme of just letting them do whatever they want and we just follow along cleaning up mess after mess without instilling a sense of consequences and responsibility?
1. Explain Don’t Explode
One of the hardest things to do when we are at the end of our rope with our toddler-turned-terrorist is to sit down and calmly explain in words they will understand, why what they are doing is not acceptable. When we are upset, flying off of the handle may seem reasonable. Yet, this reaction from us will be mirrored by them as what it means to be an adult. What is acceptable behavior from mom and dad must be okay. We sit in confusion when we see them doing the very same thing.
Okay, so the toilet is filled to overflowing with pee and My Little Pony toys, and yes, we will have to fish them out and probably take a shower afterwards, but what good will it add to the situation if we lose our cool and create a memory in a child who doesn’t fully understand why this is wrong; that mom or dad just hit me or swore at me or told me I was stupid or worthless.
Of course, not every situation will be easy to explain, but an attempt is better than an emotional scar.
Take a breath, and take a break. Pick up your little pirate and walk into another room. Barring the fact that the toilet is spilling into the adjacent rooms and dripping into the basement, we can deal with this in a few minutes. Right now, what is important is explaining why this isn’t okay. Reinforce the idea that the toilet is where dirty things go and when My Little Pony is covered in pee, it will be sad and we also won’t have a place to use the potty. Of course, not every situation will be easy to explain, but an attempt is better than an emotional scar.
2. Trust vs. Fear
I see all too often that parents want to be their child’s best friend instead of their child’s best parent. Parents with no rules and no boundaries are not showing a sign of trust but rather showing a lack of concern. This will never lead to the bond and security we are hoping for. While it is okay to be our child’s friend, we need to be their parent, first and foremost.
We need to be able to convey to our children that just because something is wrong and we are upset, our love for them remains steadfast and ever-present.
We need to be able to convey to our children that just because something is wrong and we are upset, our love for them remains steadfast and ever-present. We also need to remember that instilling fear creates walls instead of healthy boundaries. We want our children to be able to trust us and talk to us because we offer support and guidance as well as structure and direction. Fear does not offer this.
When our children fear us, they will end up deceiving us. Going around something you fear is much easier than going through that object. My oldest children tell me things that make me cringe, and there are certain things that a dad doesn’t want to hear. They also know that I will be honest with them. I tell them when I don’t agree and why I don’t agree and I give them explanations and advice—even the dad look that lets them know they crossed a line and I don’t approve. But I also offer them love and security within the same conversation.
They know they can walk away without questioning my support and faith in them and with a chunk of advice they know they need to chew on. They don’t always listen, much like I didn’t when I was their age, but they also know that when the truth of what I said bites them in the butt, they can come tell me I was right and that they are hurting.
3. Instruct by Action
The response, “because I said so,” is never an acceptable answer. This is a fall back for the unprepared. When it comes to instructing our children, we do so primarily in how we behave. The majority of human communication is done non-verbally. As a parent, knowing this about non-verbal communication, don’t say things, do the right things! We need to teach our children not only how to act but how to interact.
Is there a mess? That isn’t the end of the world. I find my children are most readily willing to engage the lesson when I am down on the floor with them, helping and explaining how to resolve the situation.
We tell our kids not to swear, to respect each other, to behave and then we turn around and use an expletive-laden sentence on the phone, degrade our spouses, and refuse to cooperate with our own peers. What is likely the end result that our children will learn? We are likely to face the mirror of our own actions when we live the motto of “do as I say, not as I do.” If we want our children to model patience, kindness and forgiveness, they need to see this lived out in our lives first.
If you tell your child not to fight with his sister he may respond, “Why, you fight with mom all the time.”
If you tell your child not to fight with his sister he may respond, “Why, you fight with mom all the time.” We will always be at fault for what we don’t do yet ask of them. Teaching with hypocrisy is not an effective tool. It stems from a desire to control instead of teach.
Teaching also means that we are not afraid to say we were wrong. It means to apologize to our children. Being a parent doesn’t mean always being right, but rather being open to what is right. It means trial and error and using our own mistakes as they happen, as teaching tools for our children. We have to look back at our own foolishness and even the foolishness we still exhibit, and be willing to be honest about it.
In the end, our children need love. They didn’t ask for this life, and so it is up to us to help them feel whole in it.