Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Game of Discipline

I feared a lot of things before and after my daughter was born.  That she would get kidnapped, be bullied in school, choke on food, or never want to be seen with me in public.  Not once did I ever think she'd be the bad kid until this weekend.

We were eating dinner at my parents' house when she took apart her sippy cup and  held the top out to her side.  Dangling it above the floor, she made eye contact with everyone around the table.  We stared her down with eyes that said "Don't you dare," and waited to see if she would make the right decision on her own.  As expected her hand popped open and it fell to the floor.  My husband told her "No" and other assorted things to make her know she did wrong.  She slumped in her seat and peaked at us from behind her wispy bangs.  A few minutes later she wanted my cup.  I told her "No",  and she promptly grabbed her fork and threw it on the floor. 

This wasn't the "I'm-going-to-throw-this-so-my-parents-can-retrieve-it-like-lap-dogs" game which I've learned to not play.  This was pure acting out, which reshuffles the cards and subsequent roles.  I'd still consider this a game as each player has a role and considers his and her moves with precision.  It resembles an old west stand off, with onlookers waiting to see who draws first.

I push her chair away from the table, tell her she is being a bad girl, and to apologize.  She looks down, senses something isn't right, but gets distracted trying to unbuckle her high chair belt with incessant cries of "I stuck."  We all agree to ignore her which leads to abnormal behavior at the table.  My father trying to control his quivering lip with more food, my mother putting on her best "I'm-in-charge-and-mad-at-you" face, my husband playing with his phone, looking heartbroken that his little angel is now turning into a demon, and me trying to finish my dinner and ignore the carb-tastic bread and butter in front of me which would make all of this frustration go away. 

I decide to get her out of her chair and instruct her to pick up the fork and sippy cup top from the floor.  My method of getting in her face and repeating myself in a calm and collective way worked a few months ago.  We had some standoffs but I ultimately won.  But now she is learning how to express her anger and this tug of war just got more interesting as I'm losing my grip.

She picks up the sippy cup top and hands it to me.  I feel victorious for a moment.  Then she throws herself on the floor and refuses to pick up the fork.  I'm tired and can't help but look at how she lies on her tummy with her legs kicking the floor.  I think for a moment how her good form may make swim lessons easy and then remember I should be focusing on my next move.

My brain is compartmentalized when it comes to getting things done, like a colorful pie chart.  One section for work, one for chores, one for my writing, one for exercise, one for time with my husband, and one for play time with my daughter.   Add in another and now I have one for discipline, in turn making everything else smaller in terms of time and energy.  The trouble with this new part is that its an uncomfortable shade of gray amidst bold, certain, colors.  While I can easily make concrete decisions about doing my laundry, what needs to be done at work, and what show to watch with my husband, black and white do not paint a clear and vivid picture of decision making with a toddler.  One decision may not shed enough light on the matter and another may wash out anything else left to consider.

Should I make her stand up, hold her arms and force her to pick up the fork?   Should I try my best to repeat myself and if she still doesn't do it, let it go for another day?  She is still just 19 months old and I'm not all set on a "time out" chair or punishment system.  I'm not convinced she understands that though she does have an idea when she is doing something wrong.  We have to learn how to show love, have patience,  when to discipline, what that should look like for our daughter and when to let go and try again tomorrow.  It must be trial and error, just like everything else we've done. Some instances may be black, some white, and some various, ambiguous, shades of gray.

I try again to have her pick up the fork but she runs behind my husband's chair and so begins her favorite game of peek-a-boo.  Everyone does their best to ignore her but the act doesn't last long. Laughs are poorly muffled and my daughter chuckles with delight.  My maternal authority deflates as I look around at three adults who have been so easily broken.  I shove a piece of buttered bread in my mouth and reluctantly pick up the fork.


  1. I just love the way you tell a story. You sound so much like me when it comes to the things our toddlers get away with. But i love how you make it all funny. I feel your pain. But it's the laughing that gets us through it. ;)

  2. It is a game, but the name of the game is not discipline. The toddler is simply playing a game. The toddler is not being vindictive or spiteful. I am not sure what "acting out" even means to them at that age. The idea of "acting out" at this age is a label placed upon situations when we become frustrated as parents. "She threw the cup" or "He is near that socket again smiling at me" - he must be acting out. It is extremely unlikely that this behavior will manifest itself into something worse in the years to come. Even if she picks up the fork she still does not fully comprehend her action in doing so. If the toddler wants to throw things and play a game then redirect their attention with a ball. Turning the incident into a side show only exacerbates the situation and turns an innocent game (to the child) into a nuclear melt down. Unless the toddler is lighting matches or throwing knives there is no true reason to end the game. The laughter from the table is proof positive of the fact that most people realize the incident described above for what it is - innocent and funny. Save the discipline for when it really counts - smoking, drinking, sneaking out and especially cheating at candyland.