Within the modern parenting game, there are 3 major thought wars being waged at any given time. The opinions on both sides of all three disputes are militantly defended to the point of downgrading the existence of holders of the opposing viewpoints to subhuman. Vaccines, Breastfeeding, and Spanking (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “discipline”) comprise the golden triangle of parent shaming. I’m going to take a run at the latter of the three but I want to offer a few words regarding all three.
Knock it off. Parenting is difficult. It’s more difficult when you have to dodge the flaming arrows from self-righteous Mom shamers. Most of us are doing the best we can for our kids with what we have, where we are. If what you have to say will not edify and encourage your fellow parents, tell it to the dog and no one else.
To me, discipline is the most challenging part of being a dad. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. A lot of dads walk in a great deal of confidence in nearly every other aspect of their lives. But when it comes to the disciplining of our children…we have questions. Am I too harsh? Too lenient? Where is the line between disobedience and them just being a kid? What about my special needs kid and the different way her brain works? What about multiple kids who respond in different ways to different things at different ages? How do I explain the differences in things my kids are allowed to do in comparison to what they see their friends are allowed to do? Time out? How long? Spanking? Grounding? Dr. Phil’s weird military boot camp deal?
I can keep going if you’d like. I have more. A thousand questions. Very few solid answers.
For me, each new phase of parenting with regard to discipline has made me feel like a rookie NFL quarterback; the game moves way too fast for me to keep up and I always feel like there is someone trying to take out my knees or put me on my back. So, what’s the response? How do I get out in front of this storm of questions before it swirls all around me?
What I have found to work best is setting a Protocol of Discipline that dictates what my response will be in any given disciplinary interaction at any time with any of my children. (As a quick aside, one of the thought leaders who has really come to influence me is a guy named Ryan Michler who founded orderofman.com. Guys, check it out. Phenomenal stuff. Anyway, he talks about developing a set of protocols for your life which are overarching principles that govern your behavior.)
My protocol of discipline sits as a general guideline over parental decision-making to the point where I don’t have to generate a lot of creative energy about my response to any given situation. It is a 3 tiered framework and it looks like this (complete with real life examples).
1. Provide vague general warning. When any of the She-Gables begins to step outside the bounds of what we have loosely defined as “acceptable behavior”, they will receive a first warning. This serves multiple purposes. It alerts them to the fact that I am paying attention to them. It opens the door for easy redirection. It reminds them of previously established boundaries or it notifies them of new boundaries they have not yet tried to cross. It is an unmistakable shot across the bow. Many times, this first warning is enough to curb the behavior. An example of this one happened just this morning. Instead of continuing to play with some magnetic stacking block things she got for her birthday, Goldilocks (our 5 year old middle child) was told by her mother to go brush her teeth. She, of course, preferred to keep playing so she made a little show of her disapproval and just sat there. This is called pouting and it’s not one of the things we tolerate. So, I immediately dad voiced my vague general warning across the kitchen with a resounding “Yes ma’am”. This was sufficient to convince her to repeat the words and head to the bathroom to brush those little teeth.
2. Provide specific warning with detailed consequence. There are quite a few times when a vague general warning is not enough to change behavior. When this happens, the disciplinary protocol prescribes a second warning. While serving the same purpose as the vague general warning of tier 1, the second tier warning is specific in nature and carries detailed information concerning the future should this second warning again be insufficient. This tier happens often at our house, which is ok because they are children after all. One example from a few days ago: my sweet wife requested that all 3 She-Gables gather in the “play room” and commence the process of picking up and putting away all of their toys – a reasonable request because that place looked like a little bomb had gone off in there. She explained each of their tasks and off they went. After a few minutes, it was apparent they were playing instead of cleaning. (Playing and cleaning have far different sounds.) Their mother had already graciously given the tier 1 vague general warning so she elevated to tier 2 by visiting the play room and reiterating the need for it to be picked up. She also offered a clear consequence threatening to ground all of them from that play room for an entire week if there was not significant progress in 10 minutes. After allowing about 15 minutes to pass, we both converged on them to find a good portion of the toys had been picked up off the floor and placed in reasonable proximity to their assigned buckets. To us, this was a success. Most of the time, we do not get beyond tier 2 specifically because of the times in the past where we’ve elevated to tier 3. Most of the time.
3. Execute detailed consequence with a view toward rehabilitation. Tier 3 is where Dad has to plant his feet and act. He cannot afford to allow the warnings of tiers 1 and 2 to become idle threats. The lynchpin of the effective disciplinary protocol is the swift execution of clearly defined and appropriate consequences. These actions contain perhaps the most concentrated teaching moments available to parents. For this reason, the consequence or punishment for past behavior should be viewed in terms of what appropriate future behavior looks like. This is rehabilitation and it is powerful. When our kids identify what acceptable behavior looks like in the midst of experiencing consequences for unacceptable behavior, the coupling of the 2 images produces fewer tier 3 instances. An example: A few weeks ago, two of our daughters were playing together and a little spat started. One of them was playing with a certain little doll thing that belonged to the other. The other saw her playing with it and decided she wanted to play with it. And Fight! Anyway, we bolted through tiers 1 and 2 with a “Stop fighting and work it out” and a “If you do not stop fighting over that thing, I will take it and you won’t be able to play with it anymore. Work it out.” Any guesses on what happened next? That’s right, more fighting. At this point, I walked over with the intention of making good on the tier 2 warning. Then I saw my youngest snatch the doll thing out of her sister’s hand and throw it right at her nose. I’ve never been more shocked. After a serious chat, a spanking, and some hugs, 15 minutes later and the girls are playing happily together…with a different toy.
I dearly love my daughters but in this arena, I feel like I fail them often. Most days, I fall quite a bit short of the ideal. But this struggle is worth it. Aiming to provide discipline in their young lives may be the most far reaching and influential thing I ever do. Whatever discipline looks like for you and your family, it’s worth serious consideration. Good luck, my friends. You can do this.