“The next topic is on discipline,” I tell her, and she smirks like the Joker as she strips off her top and throws on a very motherly long sleeve thermal with polar bears imprinted on it. “No seriously,” I say, as she laughs at me. So it’s like that, huh?
For much of the last four years, we were both raising a pre-tween drama queen and it had taken its toll on the household. Our youngest, code-named Six, likes to push buttons and test her limits. I can only imagine when she’s a teen trying to find herself. I don’t know if I can survive it, or that our nuclear unit will outlast, outwit and outplay it. That’s because I’m a mid-lifer, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t found myself yet, so I can‘t imagine two of us going through it at the same time. One of us better get our act together.
One night I was reading comments on a slideshow of Facebook photographs posted by a friend who was out celebrating his 38th birthday with his wife. It was then I found the word to describe my parenting partner, also known as “She’s still my wife.” With each, “oh, what a beautiful couple,” and, “what a pair,” my shoulders sank from the weight of my jealousy. And then one photo with them and their daughters, “What a happy family!” This one got to me most: “You guys have a great partnership,” one wrote.
I finally replied with, “I wish I had that! My wife and I have a rivalry!” I’ve become like an old Henny Youngman punch line: take my wife, please! But probably a better description of our co-parenting is she says potato and I say it the other way.
I think I am the fun dad. My role is to make money and play. I invent games. I organize all the parties. I teach them to draw and how to surf while she teaches them math and plays school with them, even on weekends. (Like, WTF, Mom! My inner teen says every damn Saturday.) I tell her they better get into Harvard or she is wasting their time. She ignores me. She’s a teacher. She enjoys teaching her daughters.
My rival drives them to dance and the doctor’s. I take them out to eat, to the mall, or to swim with dolphins in Grassy Key. When they are teenagers in an ideal Disneyesque existence where both parents have a comic, if not cosmic, relationship with one another and their kids, I envision being the shoulder-to-cry-on dad. The one who teaches them about love relationships. About losing. About dealing with it. That’s how I see it. I’m not discipline dad.
But unfortunately I am wrong. I don’t like to discipline. I have to discipline. Kicking and screaming and yelling at Six every now and then. I have to do it.
“Every night it’s the same thing with you,” is a popular phrase between parent and child. The sanest way to deal with disruptive children—and they are all disruptive within varying degrees of anti-depressant dose requirements—is by watching Bill Cosby’s comedy routine “Himself.” My pre-tweens know it by heart. I used to recite “Chocolate Cake” to them from the time when they were two. It was so ingrained in their heads that they used to think that it was their mom whose face actually split open and turned into Medusa when she discovered that their father had fed them chocolate cake for breakfast. In the real world, however, it was their mother that fed them chocolate cake for breakfast. It’s a Brazilian thing. I was against it. But she still fed it to them anyway.
Potato. Potahto. Tomato. Tomahto. Let’s call the whole thing off.
Quick! True or False:
1. Children act disrespectfully or destructively because they’ve lost control of themselves.
2. Children have to learn to feel good about themselves in order to be successful.
3. Inappropriate behavior is usually caused by low self-esteem.
4. Kids need to see something as “fair” in order for them to take it seriously.
5. Children will learn to solve their own problems on their own if you let them.
My youngest’s behavior caused my family to be more isolated from activities with friends. When Six acted up, we deprived her and us of being with other people. We would give up going out as a family. Aa planned trip to the cinema…cancelled. The whole family was affected. Trips would get delayed or even nixed. Friends would lose out on play dates with Six. Her oldest sister, code-named MC, gave up a lot in response to Six’s fits and tantrums. Six was hyperactive and fighting authority like John Cougar. Only in this song, authority wasn’t always winning.
There are, and were, a lot of personal things affecting Six’s life that made her act out. Over time, and with the help of social worker James Lehman’s Total Transformation Program, I learned a thing or two about disciplining children.
Here’s a few Lehman lessons from the true or false above.
1. False. Children act disrespectful and destructive in order to gain control. It’s Defensiveness 101 and the “out of control” meme serves to avoid responsibility.
2. False. Feeling good is a process. You can’t wait for it and blame feeling bad on bad behavior.
3. False. Inappropriate behavior causes low self worth, not the other way around.
4. False. Oh, the injustice! Children of all ages see things as unfair. Six can’t pick up the cat: not fair. MC has to finish all her rice and beans: not fair. Six has to brush her teeth: get her a lawyer. A child sees things as unfair in order to justify not following the rules in the first place. When challenged, they focus on the unfairness of it all, rather than dealing with the facts or the negative behavior.
5. False. Children need to learn problem solving skills. Preferably from a parent who kind of knows what they are doing.
Discipline is not easy work. It’s easy for one parent to do all the heavy lifting. Over time, that could lead to violence, or a sense of hopelessness when a child’s behavior gets out of control. All parents have heard that certain behavioral phases will pass. From my view, the only one that passes is peeing and crapping in their pants and I’m not sure that is actually a behavior. Lehman says that parents have two choices when confronted with difficult children: continue parenting as if the child is the perfect Disney channel child they dreamed of, or develop the skills necessary to parent the child they actually live with. Along the way—and it is a long, long, long way—you develop a culture of accountability in your home where parental martyrdom, screaming matches, or over-negotiating become things of the past.
When discipline really works, children start to feel safer in their home and more secure in knowing that their parents—even as rivals—actually have some answers.
For me, Six is coming around as I come around. And disciplining kids is also dependent on the inner lives of the adults that mind them. I try not to overstep the rules of their mother. I try not to question her in front of the girls. We try to act in unison, as partners, so our daughters have parents, instead of two archrivals.