NPR recently aired a report on the United States’ need to shift its strategy in order to keep up with al-Qaeda’s constantly changing tactics. Suddenly I thought to myself, “Hey that’s just like me and my kids.” I mean this metaphorically, of course, even though there are moments when it feels as if they are plotting against me. But that’s another story. No, what I’m referring to is the shift in strategy I have to employ when it comes to disciplining the children as they get older.
Just when you think you’ve got the little buggers figured out, they adapt and move on without saying a word. This extends to correcting their lapses in behavior as well. What used to work when the kids were toddlers won’t when they are teens.
Although, being a 17-year-old in time out would probably be a tad humiliating.
Kids—being a wily bunch—are content to let us believe the punishments we dole out are still working perfectly fine. Meanwhile, they’re having a good chuckle over the two measly minutes they have to spend in the corner. A couple minutes? Cakewalk.
It might take a few go-rounds, but eventually I recognize the pattern—crime, punishment, wait five minutes, repeat.
“Didn’t you just get in trouble for this a few hours/minutes/seconds ago?” I’ll ask rhetorically, realizing it’s the same guilty face standing before me. This makes me wonder whether the repeat offender is on a course that includes setting fire to their school, or, like Britney Spears’ career, are my punishments fading into irrelevancy.
In the past I gauged this by the reactions incurred after the verdict was rendered. If this included weeping and ardent pleas for mercy from the kids, then I was on target. If, however, I’m asked to reiterate what I just said as they pick at a handrail, well then, it’s time to find something with a little more kick. The problem is knowing what that extra kick is. One has to have a reserve disciplinary action at the ready in the event “shock and awe” is countered with a shrug and “Meh.”
Such was the case with my stepdaughter Avery. There was a time when even the threat of taking away one of her precious Care Bears was enough of a deterrent to send her into a fit of hysteria on par with the survivors of a catastrophe in countries where beating your chest and flinging yourself upon the rubble under which their loved ones are buried is considered stoic. But over time, threats were ignored, and thus required action to maintain that line in the sand.
Confiscating one Care Bear led to two, then three, then four and so on until the next thing I knew, my closet was overtaken by an industrial-size garbage bag stuffed full of every species of damned Care Bear that ever roamed the toy aisles. This probably should’ve tipped me off that this strategy had lost its effectiveness, and that Avery had become hardened.
Rather than wailing at the sight of me as I walked away with another of her babies, Avery ignored me while adding another 30-pound plate to a bar bell in her room (or “the yard” as she started referring to it), and then pumping out 10 more reps. Kid’s got some really cut arms.
Clearly a change was in order, and after Avery’s next infraction I grounded her. She was mid-yawn when I explained this, and it took a moment before she realized something was different. Did he just say I was—? The tears that ensued washed away the gangland tat she had drawn on her cheek with an ink pen.
How do you like those apples, tough girl?
But the victory was short-lived. Avery soon readapted and over the course of all the groundings, she developed an immunity to this punishment as well. And really, that was the crux of the problem—Avery’s resilience. I should’ve know being born three months premature would lead to the ability to rebound from almost any hardship. Asthma, allergies, bike wrecks—the kid is indestructible in both body and spirit.
It’s as if she’s part girl, part toy punching clown—the ones that keep bouncing back despite the barrage of hits inflicted on its cheery face. In the event of a nuclear holocaust the only two things left alive will be cockroaches and a slightly singed but grinning Avery, standing in the middle of the smoking crater at ground zero.
In most instances this near imperiousness serves her well, but not when her mother and I are trying to correct her. The kid will literally smile right at you regardless of your harshest, meanest tone. It’s a reaction that can cause me to reach for the big red button labeled “launch,” a trigger I wanted to pound with both fists after her response to another week of no TV and video games.
“That’s okay. I’ll find something else to play with,” she replied in a voice that sounded like some sneering version of Disney’s Snow White.
Fire all missiles!
But here’s the problem: I was out of ammo. Avery was already banned from TV for doing something else earlier—I can’t recall what—and now I was piling on another week for her latest transgression. How would giving Avery a third week help her learn about the consequences of poor decisions when neither of us could even remember what that wrong decision was in the first place? To her, another seven days of no TV was simply a matter of circumstances to overcome, not a behavioral deterrent.
Still, Avery’s flippant attitude couldn’t go unaddressed; otherwise she’d be blowing me off on a regular basis and a full six years before the age when I expected her to. Hamstrung, I resorted to that default tactic employed by many parents when they feel they are out of options—I yelled at her. Granted, this technique proved effective in getting her attention for the moment, but in the end, yelling does little in the way of teaching kids anything about consequences beyond striving to avoid a parent’s wrath.
Discipline has now become a matter of trial and error, yielding nothing that proved to be effective. That’s when one of my wife’s friends suggested we make the kids write lines. It was parenting gold. Whenever the girls violated the house rules, they earned a one-way ticket to a Saturday morning spent writing and rewriting nifty anecdotal reminders like, “I will go to bed when instructed to do so because a lack of sleep can not only affect the quality of my schoolwork, but according to several reputable studies, it can also shorten my lifespan.”
Fifty, sixty, a hundred times, over and over until their once idle hands used by the devil in his workshop became one with the pens the girls were depleting of ink. In fact, the girls hated this exercise so much, simply holding a piece of paper and blue Bic in front of them was enough to yield immediate compliance. As an added bonus, my wife and I were granted an opportunity to stretch our creative legs, devising such lyrical prose as, “I will not pick up random pieces of busted balloons laying in the middle of the street and chew on them because in doing so, I run a better-than-average chance of accidentally swallowing said balloon fragments and suffering a slow, horrible slow death by suffocation.” (Yeah, this should give you some added insight into Avery’s train of thought at times.)
Yes, good ole’ sentence writing was proving to be the secret weapon for dealing with the kids’ bad behavior. It took away their Saturday play time, defined their wrong choices and reinforced the potential outcomes of these choices.
Not to mention their vocabulary and spelling scores at school were through the roof!
My wife and I were pleased. Order had been restored and, better still, the strategy seemed to be achieving its intent based on the Thanksgiving assignment that had Avery’s class listing what about their families they were grateful for.
In dark, #2 lead, Avery wrote about how she was thankful for her mother’s hugs and her sister’s willingness to play dolls all the time. And then there was me.
“I’m thankful for my Stepfather because when I do something bad he teaches me a lesson.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head, knowing full well how this probably sounded to Avery’s teacher. But hey, at least the kid’s got a grasp on the premise for why she’s being disciplined.
—Photo Rennett Stowe/Flickr