“But why, mama? Why?!” said my three-year-old when I called him out for hitting his cousin who refused to give back his favorite Lightning Mcqueen toy. “He’s a bad boy, mama!” screamed my toddler.
This has been our situation lately. An endless cycle of power struggles and answering a thousand “whys” and “becauses.” One that I clearly wasn’t prepared for...
When I first brought my baby home from the hospital, I was convinced I’d mess it all up. Shock, excitement, and fear consumed me—but mostly fear. I was clueless. I was deathly afraid of not giving the proper care my newborn demanded. Nursing, bathing, soothing, and sleep training a fragile, little human being were uncharted territory for me, but I did it anyway with all the love and strength a sleep-deprived mama could muster.
Because I survived the challenges of the sleepless, boob- and back-breaking newborn stage, I felt smug thinking that I could conquer everything. Little did I know that those days were the easy part. The toughest is actually just slowly unraveling itself, hiding in the deep, dark corners of the tiny tyrant clinging to my leg, bawling his eyes out and throwing everything he could get his hands on to his cousin.
Damn. Why is it so difficult?
When we were growing up, discipline was synonymous with punishment. Call it Stockholm Syndrome or what, but to some extent, I think it worked for me and my sisters. We turned out okay and most of my mom’s friends would even compliment us for being gentle, well-behaved kids. I vowed then to raise my kid in the same way I was raised…but you know what they say about promises.
From the moment my kid officially graduated from being a baby to a toddler, I was determined to be just like my mother. Strict but sweet. Firm but kind. So when my strong-willed toddler finally put me to the test, I made sure to put my best “mom face” on and get to work.
It was dinner time at the in-laws (of course, the best place for a toddler tantrum). I asked my mini-me to sit down next to me so we can eat, but he refused and ran away from me while screaming his lungs out. I went after him and convinced him to take just a few bites, but the toddler wouldn’t budge and started kicking me.
All eyes were on me, so I was forced to “get to work.” I carried my kid away from the dining area, scolded him, and put him in time-out. The in-laws actually cheered me on and coaxed me to discipline my kid some more. I thought that would stop my toddler from crying. I thought that it would make him listen to me. I thought that it would empower me as a mom. But no. The angrier I sounded, the louder he cried. So I stopped and quietly took my kid to the room instead.
There, I cried along with my toddler. I was frustrated.
When my kid saw me crying, he cried even more, hugged me, then apologized profusely. He said he won’t do it again, and that I should stop crying because I was his best mom ever.
If that doesn’t crush you, I don’t know what will.
Determined to make things right, I did what any millennial mama would do: I googled. No seriously, I did.
Did you know that the word “discipline” originates from the Latin word “disciplina” which means “instruction?” It also derives from the root “discere” which means “to learn.” (Oh yes, the things you learn from Google.)
In other words, discipline is all about teaching children how to act appropriately and safely. The goal is to encourage good behavior in the child in order to raise an emotionally mature adult in the future. And I’m telling you, it is not a walk in the park.
Or maybe it is a walk in the park...Jurassic Park.
So what other techniques can parents use in order to plant the seeds of discipline in their children? Let me count the ways.
Yes, breathe! Sometimes parents lose it when they are under a lot of stress and might resort to shouting, just like I did. I was angry and stressed because everyone was watching me and how I would handle the toddler situation at my in-laws’ house. So the next time you feel out of control, take a step back and breathe. You’ll find a better alternative or solution to the toddler problem when your head is cooler and clearer.
Not all toddler screwups deserve attention. In cases like this, there are two things you must do: distract and divert. This works like magic on my kid! For instance, instead of reprimanding my toddler for throwing a tantrum at the grocery store, I redirect his attention to another activity like identifying the colors on the products or telling a story about things we can see in the store.
Model the right behavior. Children get more out of watching their parents than listening to what we say. So it’s important to always set a good example. If you always say “please” and “thank you” or if you’re calm under pressure, then your child will take the cue. But if your child sees you being disrespectful, then expect that he’ll do the same.
The toddler stage is the best age to teach children about causes and effects. For example, if he keeps shouting at his playmates, then you may have to remove some of his privileges (such as toys and staying at the park longer).
Consistency is key...and is something that my partner and I are still working on. For instance, I make sure never to give my kid any treats before mealtime. My partner, on the other hand, gives in occasionally because of the toddler’s “puppy eyes.” It’s important for parents and caregivers to be on the same page when it comes to family rules so it will grow as second nature to the kid. Stick to your guns. Setting limits and not following through on them will only send mixed signals to the child, potentially confusing him and pushing him to “test” the rules.
Disciplining isn’t just about correcting or punishing kids when they do something wrong. It’s also important to recognize and praise them when they behave well. By praising your child (such as when he cleans his own mess and keeps his toys in the proper box), you’ll teach him that good behavior will also earn him the attention he wants from you and would want to keep it up.
Don’t say anything like, "If you behave, I'll buy you the toy you want." It will only create a child whose good behavior comes with a price tag. Instead, give your child options. If your kid refuses to get dressed, ask him “Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one?”
You can’t discipline your child if you don’t know how to connect. That’s why it’s important to know your child first. Know your child’s needs and capabilities and try to get behind his eyes. Nothing beats spending quality time with your kid to strengthen your bond and relationship. This will then help you read your child’s behavior better and respond appropriately.
Disciplining a toddler is hard work. There are some days when I think I’ve mastered it all and some days when I just want to curl up like a fetus and go back to my mother’s womb. The burden of raising responsible, respectful, and mature children is just so heavy that I wish I could plug my mom’s mom brain into mine. My mom had always made parenting look easy and effortless, I feared I wouldn't measure up.
The only thing that consoles me now is the fact that disciplining my kid and learning how to become a better parent will happen in the same way my child learned how to walk--eventually. One step at a time, through trial and error.
Just like our little angels, there will be days when we’ll stumble and fall on the ground, and scream from the frustration. But then there will also be days when we can stand up on our own without any fuss. Days when we can run without breaking an ankle. If we’re lucky, lovely music might even play in the background, moving us to dance and sing.
And those days, those days, my friend, are proof that this is all going to be worth it. And yes, that we can do this after all. So hang in there, mom and dad. Your kids won’t be whining and screaming hyenas forever. Well, maybe they will be again once they become teenagers. But that’s another story...