My grandfather hung a long leather belt against the wall in his kitchen. It served two purposes. One, to sharpen his old fashion razor blade every morning and two, to offer a warning to the various children passing through his home. Wide, brown, and worn smooth, this belt was the ultimate symbol of authority and discipline. I don’t ever remember being hit with a belt, but I sure appreciated the threat and believed if I didn’t behave, it could happen.
As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, the concept of discipline was powerful. It was always tied to respect and established clear boundaries within my family, as well as the Haitian-American community in which I was raised. As we were exposed to the world outside this community, it became a form of protection. I can remember my mother’s insistence that I wear button-down shirts throughout my first year in middle school. Picture me in the 80’s going to school everyday in a modified uniform. I was the only seventh-grader with hand sewn shirts and with matching pants when every other student was wearing jeans and t-shirts. As embarrassing as that was, there was no way I would have contradicted my mothers wishes. She was the adult and as the ‘child’, I was to follow her rules.
Twenty-five years later, I’m ‘the Mom’ and I struggle to balance my experience of discipline with the more relational approaches available to parents today. At the very least, my wife and I have a few steadfast co-parenting rules for discipline that we (more often than not) follow:
- Back each other up. If I make a decision (whether we’re right or wrong) we openly support the decision or plan.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate. By text, email, phone, or paper. The best example is a Facebook IM I sent when I was upstairs and my wife was downstairs.
- Respect the fact that my parenting will never be the same as my spouse. Never. We simply will never make the same decisions in the same way with our children.
My latest struggle is the back talk. If I make a request of my child, often related to cleaning up, I get a lot of attitude. Immediately followed by eye-rolling, teeth-sucking, and sometimes a slap on the table in exasperation. Here is the intersection where my background, obey your parents and my social work background meet. I land firmly at the corner of the art and strife, the moment before an expletive leaves my mouth and on my way to taking a time out. Strife!
The conflict for me is the inherent value of respecting adults. Listening to those people in your life who have your best interests at heart. Not to be confused with an authoritarian form of parenting that values control or intimidation. Simply, a clear understanding that you simply need to listen to your parents and follow directions. DONE. END of discussion.
The art comes when its time to pick your battles and how best to approach each situation with my child(ren). I had several interactions with both of my kids, where my response was silence in the face of attitude or screaming. Until I could fully understand what about these situations was upsetting and what I needed to happen, any response I had in the moment would be useless. This afternoon was the culmination of several ugly interaction with my oldest that resulted in a lot of attitude. My response was to quietly and firmly in the moment let my son know: (1) you will do what I ask when I ask it, (2) you will stop speaking to me with attitude, and (3) if those things don’t happen you will lose your kindle followed by your Xbox. Done…end of discussion.
Here’s the thing, I have a great kid. He is kind, loveable, and genuinely helpful. These are the things I struggle to remember and incorporate into discipline. AND I need for him to have a clear understanding that he needs to respect his family and himself. He, like all of us, hates being disciplined and felt pretty shamed following this event. So, much later I gave him lots of credit for cleaning up and following directions the first time. Most important was reminding him that I love him and we’ll get through this tough time. As important was reminding myself of the very some things!!