Discipline does not come easy to me. I’ll be the first to admit that fact. I’m a talker, not a yeller, and I’m someone who would typically prefer to reason with those around me, as opposed to enforcing my own views or opinions about how the world should work.
But as anyone who has ever dealt with a toddler knows, reasoning isn’t really an option.
As a single mom, disciplining my daughter is all on me. And obviously, I understand the benefits of raising children with limits and a healthy respect for authority figures. So, discipline is something I am always working on — reminding myself not to reward my daughter’s bad behavior with ice cream and a talk, for instance, when time-out and shutting her movie off might be the better way to go.
Still, there is one piece of discipline advice I somehow always seem to forget: Never threaten a punishment you don’t actually want to follow through on.
Because follow-through is key to discipline. (Or so I’ve learned.) It’s not enough to just threaten that time-out, or to say you’re going to walk out of the restaurant if a fit continues. You have to actually be willing to follow through on those threats that fly out of your mouth if your child continues to behave badly. Because if you don’t? Your kid will know they were meaningless.
And then … they’ll own you.
But it’s easier said than done. Remembering not to threaten something I don’t want to follow through on is something I still struggle with.
My daughter was just shy of 2 years old the first time I “learned” this lesson. My favorite time of day was just before bed, curling up with her in the glider to read stories and cuddle before putting her down to sleep. But one night in particular, my little girl began throwing a fit to end all fits. I tried to comfort her at first, but then she hit me — a recurring issue we were dealing with at the time. In frustration, I held her hands away and said, “Do not hit Mommy. If you do it again, no stories tonight.”
Of course, she had to test that limit. She hit me. Hard. And I had to follow through.
I picked her up and put her directly in her crib — no story. Then, I walked out and listened to her cry for the next 30 minutes straight.
No bedtime book for either of us. No cuddles. No rocking.
It was brutal. And I felt like I had just punished myself as much as I had punished her.
Talking on the phone with a friend that night as I tried to wait my toddler out, she said, “Lesson learned. Never threaten something you don’t want to follow through on.”
It really is great advice. Because if a child tests that threat, you’re stuck. You either have to follow through — sometimes punishing yourself in the process — or you cave. And once again … they own you.
Recently, I forgot this lesson. We’re well past my daughter’s hitting stage, but now we’ve entered the bedtime fight stage. My little girl, who has always been an amazing sleeper, has decided in the last few months that she shouldn’t have to remain in her room at bedtime. And she will come out as many as 20 times in an effort to fight sleep at all costs.
Trust me, I’ve tried anything and everything to put an end to this battle. I have read all the expert advice, I have sat outside her room more times than I’d care to count, and guided her back to her bed again and again without any words or emotion. I have tried reward charts and stickers and prizes to be had if she would just stay in her room. I have even resorted to the baby gate, which I mostly hate because she’s 3-and-a-half years old now — old enough to understand the rule of staying in bed at night, and to not test that rule within seconds of my leaving the room.
I want her to learn this. To understand that it is her responsibility to stay in bed at bedtime. But so far, I’ve failed miserably on that front.
So one night, in a moment of exhausted frustration, I made a threat: “If you come out of your room one more time, I’m taking your Zoey away.” (Zoey is her favorite lovie, which she’s been attached to since birth.) She sleeps with the arm of this thing in her mouth, and has never been able to be away from it at night.
I thought for sure this threat would do the trick. But within seconds of my leaving, my brazen little girl walked right out of her room.
So, I took Zoey; and told my daughter I would keep taking prized possessions every time she left her room.
I thought for sure there would be tears. Maybe even an epic fit would ensue. But instead, my daughter continued to walk out of her room every two minutes or so — bringing me a favorite toy each time with a smile on her face as she said, “Here, Mom!”
I, of course, took something else as well — she wasn’t going to dictate what I took. But it became quickly obvious this wasn’t working. And I was stuck. I had made the threat, so I had to follow through. But I didn’t want to be taking her stuff; and I didn’t want to be in this weird bartering game where my daughter seemed to think she could trade her toys for time out of her room.
I just wanted her to go to bed.
I decided to step things up a notch, grabbing a trash bag and throwing all these prized possessions in. My daughter watched, completely un-phased. “If you come out again,” I said, “I’m throwing it all away.”
She was out again within minutes. And when I walked that trash bag out our front door, she watched out her bedroom window with a smile on her face and waved.
Sitting in our garage, I questioned what to do. I didn’t want to throw away her prized possessions! I mean, I was glad she seemed to have such a dis-attachment to her “stuff,” but … this was her Zoey! And her guitar and her puzzles and her books; things I had actually worked hard to buy for her.
How had we gotten here? Why had I made this threat?
It turns out, my daughter and I are both very stubborn. So even though I hated this punishment (and the clutter it was creating in both my closet and our downstairs storage area) I kept it up. For three nights straight, I removed a toy or possession every time my daughter left her room after bedtime.
By the third night, she had nothing left. And I was pretty sure I had lost completely; then left with the predicament of what to do next. Not only was there nothing left to take, but … my daughter no longer had a single toy or way to occupy herself at all left in her room.
Do you know what that would mean? Come the weekend, I was going to be her only form of entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong, I love playing with my girl. But … I also love when she goes to her room and plays with her puzzles or her toy kitchen by herself for 15 minutes or so. I love being able to set her up with Play-Doh while I do laundry. And I love her books — why had I taken all her books?!?
I had no idea what I was going to do. But thankfully, I didn’t have to figure it out. Because just as I was contemplating giving up completely, restocking her room while she was at preschool one day and setting up the gate from that point forward — accepting defeat and realizing she would never stay in her room on her own — something clicked. She started staying in her room, and earning her possessions back.
We’ve had a few backslides since then. Both Zoey and the toy kitchen have found their way back into my closet a time or two. But for the most part, this punishment I hate seems to have worked — to an extent.
She’ll still bring me a toy with a smile on her face when she decides she simply doesn’t want to comply. In the end, though, following through seemed to work; the message seemed to get through.
But the tactic? Still one I hate and wish I had never threatened to begin with.
I’m learning that discipline is kind of a game of chance. You’re always negotiating to figure out what kind of “currency” your child deals in; what will actually affect them and get the message through. All kids are different, and as much as I try to steer my child with positive reinforcement, sometimes that stubborn girl of mine needs a consequence to learn a lesson.
I just need to remember to make those consequences things I’m actually willing to follow through on. Instead of dishing out unrealistic threats in the moment, on the hope that she won’t test me on my word.
Because she will test me. And I will follow through.
And that will just suck for us both.More On