The Exquisite Paradox of Disciplining a Child

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disciplining a child blog post by michael 1952

There is nothing in my experience capable of giving me that gut twisting mix of fear and despair more than the thought that I’m not being a good mother. Those of you out there with children know what I mean. When our kids act up at school, or don’t do as well as they can on tests, or get into fights with their friends, if we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize that core of terror that we’ll be judged harshly for our own failures, exhibited through our children’s behavior.

Maybe that’s one reason we get so angry at them. We expect so much of these little mirrors of ourselves, and they reflect back to us the reality of our shortcomings in such accurate detail. It’s scary. My son is becoming so much like me that I often don’t know if I should hug him or hit him. Fortunately for us both, I’m not the hitting type, because it’s shocking to me the depth of the well of fury I dip into on a regular basis.

In my household, we’re about to take the leap into double digits. We’re just weeks away from the transition into what I know will be a slippery slope to adolescence, hormones, driving tests, safe sex, drugs, alcohol… oh, it’s all waiting out there, ready to embroil us in the mud and muck of young adulthood. I’m not just scared. I’m totally freaked out.

I can see the rebellious young man in my little boy. He is filled with confidence and a swaggering bravado that is fueled as much by the characters he sees on those infernal Disney tween shows as his own inner sense of strength and resilience. At the tender age of 9 (yes, I’m still saying it), he’s already lived a full life, complete with delightful adventures and shattering losses, and they have produced in him a complex and richly layered personality.

But his personal experience notwithstanding, this is a time, as I understand it, of relentless pushback and testing. Kids at his age are doing their job, testing the boundaries of their identities and the limits of what they can get away with in every area of their lives.

Oh, did I mention that boundaries are not my strong suit? Never have been. Neither are discipline, structure or housecleaning. That’s not to say I can’t be very accomplished in these areas when I want to, but it can take an extraordinary effort. So yes, I am sometimes less than consistent in enforcing these very same things in my son…

Aaah, as you sow, so shall you reap. It’s more true than I ever imagined. Children are like this little incubator of all your bad habits. They learn EVERYTHING. Don’t for a second think that they aren’t paying attention. They are. And they will come back at you with all of your worst qualities in a heartbeat, feeling completely justified in everything they say and do, because they learned it from YOU.

Here’s where it gets particularly complicated for me. On the one hand, I am teaching my son the core values of respect and manners. On the other hand, I want him to learn to trust his gut, to be on guard for injustice, dishonesty and personal violation, and to stand up for himself when he feels that his sovereignty is being threatened. I wish it were true, that all of the grownups in positions of authority over him would be kind and fair and consistent, that they wouldn’t be taking out their personal frustrations on him, or expressing their resentment at their own sense of powerlessness or unrealized dreams that his little badass attitude contradicts. But he will run into all kinds of adults as he makes his way through his years.

You know the kind of beat down you get from someone who can’t stand the fact that you are happy and filled with boundless love and exhilaration? The kind of cruelty that comes from someone who is thinking, you little shit, if I couldn’t get that feeling, I’m certainly not going to sit by and watch you enjoying yourself like that. Well, the world is filled with people exerting their power to inflict these punishing cruelties, large and small, some as subtle as a withering glance instead of a nod of approval. I, as a parent, have the awful task of teaching my son that at his age, it’s not OK to tell those people where to go, especially if one ends up being one of his teachers, or someone he encounters who is wearing a uniform of authority, in which case he’s going to have to swallow his objections and just do as he’s told.

Although there are cases of out and out abuse, and even more situations that exist in a kind of gray area, I know it’s not that way most of the time, and I have to teach him to show respect, even if he doesn’t like it. And yeah, he does have a smart mouth on him. Too smart for his own good sometimes. If I think about how angry I can get with him, and mind you, I love him to pieces, then I know that he’s going to piss off the people he’s talking back to who don’t have the same kind of emotional attachment to him than I do… and I’m not sure I can protect him from the kinds of consequences he’ll face from them!

I’m not interested in teaching my child to be docile and passive, and I certainly don’t want to break his spirit. But I am invested in him surviving into adulthood, so I’m also realistic. My son’s dad was African American, and he’s a little caramel colored boy. I understand the deeply ingrained effects of the kind of quiet racism that’s been in the news lately, and while I wouldn’t use it as a reason to excuse any bad behavior on my son’s part, I don’t rule it out as a factor in how he’s perceived by adults in his life.

When I was around his age, I used to attend Hebrew school. There was one particularly sadistic rabbi who taught the Hebrew language class. Any time a child did anything in the least disruptive, he made them stand in front of the class, whereupon he proceeded to grill them, in excruciating detail, about what their parents might do to them if he called them up. “Would they punish you? Would they yell at you? Would they stick your head in the toilet bowl?” I hated that guy, and I hated how he made kids cry with his cruel, frightening litanies. So when I got summoned to the front of the room for giggling with my girlfriend about the way a Hebrew word sounded as an English word, I was defiant.

“Would you like it if I called your parents?”
“I don’t care.”
“What will they do to you if I call them?”
“Nothing.”
“OK, you can go call your mother to pick you up right now.”
“OK, I will.”

I did call my mother, and she did come and pick me up. I felt so vindicated. Until the next morning, after my parents had discussed it, and they insisted that I write a letter of apology to the rabbi. I remember feeling so let down and betrayed by them. It was a seminal moment.

Tonight I’ll be helping my son to write his own apology letters. He was disruptive in a music workshop last week, part of a specially-funded program. In order to show responsibility for his behavior and avoid being asked to permanently leave the program, I’ve asked him to show his respect for the instructor as well as the school principal and guidance counselor, who had to deal with the incident, by writing apology letters to all three of them to express his thoughts and feelings on the matter. It won’t be fun, but it’s his job to do it, and mine to make sure that it gets done.

The ironic echoes of my past are not lost on me. I will be parsing these situations for as long as I can foresee. I hope I get the balance right, but I wonder, when my son is grown up and he’s looking back on the time his mom made him write those apology letters to the teachers at school, what he’ll be thinking…

Photo by Michael 1952

2 responses »

  1. I am currently living on both sides of the coin, with a (just turned) 10-year-old daughter who butts heads with me on a regular basis, probably because she is so like me, and as an instructor of an after-school literacy through drama program at three inner city schools. I am powerless in those schools, as I am an outsider, without the authority to discipline in the ways the kids are trained to expect. I am also offering a different kind of learning, where they are on their feet and I am not teaching to a test. At one school in particular, the group is made up of kids with lots of problems at home, many of whom are in the foster system. They don’t have parents who are willing to make them write letters of apology. They don’t have who gives them the inner strength to understand when they are being treated unfairly, or when they are being treated with kindness.

    From that dual perspective, I’d say that you are an excellent parent.

    • Thanks for that perspective, Lisa. When I look at things from the wide view, I realize that my son has a lot of advantages, just for the sheer fact of having a caring parent living with him. It’s good to remember, especially when I’m wondering as to whether or not I’m doing a good enough job…

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