Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rambling thoughts on toddler discipline

We spend very little time with other children le Petit's age, beyond the anonymous interaction we have with other children at the park. As a result (and since le Petit is my first child, and even if he weren't, memory of such things is unreliable) I have no idea if he is more cooperative and easygoing, or on the contrary more stubborn and tantrum-prone, than most kids at age-two-going-on-three. I'm not even sure such comparisons are useful, frankly, which doesn't keep me from indulging in them or on occasion convincing myself one way or the other. I'm quite sure that his behavior is globally age-appropriate. Sometimes he makes me proud. Sometimes he makes me MAD. He's almost three: sounds about right.

A more important question is how to keep myself sane while ensuring as best I can that he'll grow up to be a respectful, functioning member of society, who doesn't scream in public without reason or knock cans off of supermarket shelves. Or cheat, or lie, or push people out of line, or burn cars, or forget to pay his taxes: you know, the universal goal of parenting.

A discipline strategy, in short. (Oh, how I hate that term.) My husband and I have discussed it, not exactly endlessly but enough. Luckily, our parenting style -- a sort of an ad-hoc, seat-of-our-pants thing -- is roughly in line. We both agree on the same limits, although we have slightly different ways of setting them. We believe in consistency, but aren't unreasonably wedded to it. We have agreed not to use corporal punishment.

For me, there was never any question on the last point. Although I was spanked as a child and don't have any traumatic memories of it (administered with all the solemn ceremony of a ruling of a court of justice, it was still rarely as effective as my mother's cold shoulder), I was always absolutely sure I didn't want to spank my own children. From what I understand, before we had kids, my husband, to the extent he'd ever thought about it, was not opposed to at least using the threat of spanking. It seemed to him like an obvious, and harmless, way of asserting parental authority. I convinced him that enforcing one's superior parental wisdom by purposefully inflicting pain was an untenable contradiction at best, and harmful to children at worst.

But every modern parent knows that. Right? Certainly true in the circle of American moms that I know in real life and read and follow on-line. But I found out today (in this article in le Parisien) that 87% of French parents spank their children, and that this is actually slightly higher than the percentage of French grandparents (84%) who spanked their children when they were young. Spanking, it seems, is on the rise in France. 95% of both parents and grandparents consider spanking "part of French tradition," and set it apart from other more violent forms of corporal punishment.

I was shocked. Not that I'm an anti-spanking crusader or anything (I'll say it again: "I turned out all right"). I'd simply assumed that most people had evolved beyond it, that it was outdated and ridiculous, kind of like force-feeding your children cod-liver oil or sending them to bed without supper.

So much for my familiarity with French culture. I guess, when it comes to parenting, I only know how things work in my own home. So how have we, personally, evolved into the modern parents that we are? How does discipline work chez Petit?

My husband is sort of the enforcer. Or the "bad cop," if you prefer. He tends to yell more than I do (usually a booming "Oh!" that has about a fifty-fifty chance of stopping le Petit in his tracks), although when I am pushed beyond my threshold of tolerance for something, oh man can I yell, too. He is fair and often flexible, but does not tolerate much pushback. His word is law. Usually.

I am the "good cop." I am the one who tries to explain, who gives three or more often scoffed-at chances to comply. I'll try and distract before I resort to enforcing. I'll let something slide if I judge it not worth the effort to fight. I'm also the one who has tried nonviolent communication strategies with le Petit, and successfully so. And once I've figured out how to uphold a limit, I stick to it, gaining in confidence as I figure things out.

Then there's how this all works in real life, which is never quite so simple. To illustrate, a few examples from Wednesday, my weekly day off, spent at home with le Petit:

As my husband leaves for work, le Petit, still in his socks, tries to escape through the open door and run off down the hallway. I have no energy to indulge in this, so I grab him by the shoulders, pull him inside, and explain that we will be going back out in good time. He promptly throws a yelling-throwing-himself-to-the-floor-screaming-wailing fit. I sigh, go about tidying the apartment, explaining wearily in a calm voice that his tantrum makes no difference to me. To no avail.

My husband waits five minutes behind the door, which he then opens unexpectedly. "Oh!" he yells, "That's enough!" He closes the door again and leaves. Le Petit ceases his tantrum and goes off to play with his toys.

Later, we go to the park. Le Petit tires of playing on the playground equipment, and runs off to follow some older kids into the thickets of the surrounding flower bed. I say, "You need to stay where Mommy can see you. I'll give you to the count of three to come back out, or we're leaving the park right now." He appears on the count of three. Last Wednesday, the same threat resulted in leaving the park abruptly, albeit without protest, after I had to go back behind the bushes to retrieve him. I consider both outcomes a victory. I explain to le Petit that it is about safety. I have no idea if it strengthens my cause.

I promise le Petit in the morning that we could go to visit the lion fountain in front of Saint Sulpice (with which he's suddenly, inexplicably obsessed) after lunch if he would cooperate throughout the day. I reminded him of this when we needed to change his diaper, eat lunch, put on shoes, get in the stroller, anything that got any resistance. It worked.

Standing on a street corner across from Saint Sulpice, we had a difference of opinion about the direction to follow. Le Petit wanted to circle around the church. I wanted to go into the Origins boutique, the only place in Paris I can get my shampoo. I explained what I wanted, and what I understood he wanted. "How's this: we'll go into the shop, Mommy will buy her shampoo, and then we'll walk around the church. I just need you to be patient for a moment." He agreed, and we walked hand-in-hand into the store. Score one for nonviolent communication.

In the late afternoon, we meet up with my husband and go together to Parc Monceau. After a good long time at the playground, it's time to go home. We warn le Petit, give him three last climbs up the slide, and then pick him up and carry him, protesting, away. He's unhappy. We have no time or energy to negotiate. And honestly? It's time to leave. Nonviolent communication, you say?

As we're preparing dinner, le Petit sits in his high chair, helping my husband shell peas. He's eating more than he's putting in the bowl. I don't care: he's eating fresh vegetables, people! But my husband is irritated, even more so when le Petit stops shelling altogether, grabs the bowl, and starts greedily shoving raw peas into his mouth. He prevents him. Le Petit goes into Full-blown Tantrum Number Two of the day, and this time the "Oh!" of my husband is no help.

On a whim, I carry him into his room and sit inside on the floor in front of the closed door. As le Petit screams and tries to climb over me, I wait and say quietly, "Mommy wants to help you, but I can't until you calm down and tell me what's the matter." Eventually he does calm down, and climbs into my lap, but the frustration is still bubbling to the surface. "I want to help you." He says nothing. "You want to leave this room." He nods (I think).

"We will go together back into the living room. But what's going to happen when we get there?" I know him well enough to know the peas won't have been forgotten in the interim. "You want peas. Daddy doesn't want you to eat all the peas. How about if we ask Daddy if you can have a small bowl of peas all for yourself?"

"Je veux des peas s'il te plaît," le Petit begins to rehearse.

"Yes, that's what you'll say to Daddy. OK, let's go together." Calm is restored, a compromise is reached, and I am pretty damn proud of myself.

Fast-forward to bath time, the last hurdle of the day (for me, at least, since my husband handles the bedtime routine). Le Petit has thrown his cups out of the bathtub, spilling water all over the floor. He is either trying to climb out of the tub or perch precariously on the edge. I take the cups away, and I prevent him from climbing, but the last straw comes when he refuses to let me brush his teeth. That's when words that are among the most embarrassing that I've uttered since I became a parent came out of my mouth:

"Stop it right now or I'm calling your father."

Really? Am I that pathetic? Apparently. Because of course, my husband came promptly with a gruff "What is this all about?" and le Petit let him brush his teeth without a word.

The only thing I've figured out is that when I'm resourceful, creative and empathetic, while at the same time remaining firm and determined, discipline goes relatively smoothly. When I'm not there, it all goes south. Of course, when I'm not in my game is usually when le Petit most needs me.

It's a work in progress.


TB said...

I've got an almost-5-year-old, and let me just say that the 3-year-old year was the roughest so far. You are doing FINE. More than fine! :-) Just hang in there. I know all kids are different, but it seems like a lot of kids have a terrible-threes instead of a terrible-twos. My daughter certainly did: she went from a sunny, mostly compliant child (for whom I didn't even need to babyproof the house) to a maniac who would SHRIEK at the top of her lungs for no reason at all and who would run away from me all the time in public, among other charming habits. It was a trying time. Happy to say that it passed, and 5-year-olds are *almost* reasonable, lol. (Actually, she's a VERY well-behaved kid, I'm spoiled rotten to have her. Like you, I use a combo of listening/reflecting and giving clear limits, although I also love bribes, aka "positive reinforcement", and despite their being frowned upon by the likes of Alfie Kohn, I have found them to be absolutely the only thing that works in certain cases.)

Sorry for the long comment.

caramama said...

OMG, Pariesienne! All I can say is a big DITTO to this:
"The only thing I've figured out is that when I'm resourceful, creative and empathetic, while at the same time remaining firm and determined, discipline goes relatively smoothly. When I'm not there, it all goes south. Of course, when I'm not in my game is usually when le Petit most needs me."

You pretty much described how I parent. And although my hubby disaplines differently than me, it's not the same as yours. I'll have to figure out how to describe his parenting some day.

I think you are doing a great job. It can be hard, especially when one does not have the energy to be creative and patient and all that. But sounds to me like you are on the right path.

And the getting your father bit? I think sometimes we unintentionally channel our parents and things just pop out of our mouths because we heard them as children. I've done some similar. Whoops. ;-)