Saturday, April 04, 2009

Adventures in discipline and parenting advice

When you have a toddler, child-proofing becomes a reflex. Upon entering a room -- without even consciously thinking about it -- you immediately notice anything fragile or sharp or poisonous or marble-sized (choking hazard!) anywhere within three or four feet of the floor. It becomes difficult to visit childless people because you can't just say, "Look, these crystal goblets and ceramic knick-knacks on your coffee table have got to go somewhere else" -- instead you get to spend your entire visit following your toddler around, vigilantly focused on protecting him and the deadly decorative items from one another. And then your friends wonder why you're no fun anymore.

When my little Léo was a year-and-a-half old, our family decided to spend New Year's visiting friends in a distant city. The family we planned to stay with also had a toddler around the same age, so I was looking forward to a relaxing visit, chatting with adults who understand, in a child-proofed house where my toddler (and my three-year-old, who wasn't much better) could safely roam free. But as I stepped into their house, my heart sank and my jaw dropped. Right in the middle of their main room -- with no protective barrier of any kind -- stood a large Christmas tree, covered with sparkling glass ornaments all the way to the lowest branches.

After the first hour or so of guarding that tree from little Léo's curiously naughty hands, I asked our hosts the obvious question: "How do you keep your daughter from playing with the ornaments?"

"We just tell her 'no' and she doesn't touch them," was the reply.

Thus, I got a crash course in parenting, or rather, in parenting inadequacy. These folks didn't have toys perpetually strewn all over their living room floor the way we did. (Still do, actually...) They put their toys away after playing with them.

To give you an idea of what my living room looked like at the time, here's a shot of my two adventurers having just conquered Mt. Daddy

And then there was the more damning measure: my little year-and-a-half old Léo barely knew how to say any words at all, while their daughter (just a couple months older) was speaking in whole sentences, even witty ones! And, sure, I can make excuses (boys develop language later! As do kids from bilingual families!), but the devil on my shoulder wouldn't stop whispering, "Clearly you're not raising a li'l genius, are you?"

By the second vacation day of following Léo around to protect him from the deadly combination (of the Christmas tree and his own foolishness), my nerves were starting to get a little frayed. I was dancing with my two boys -- anything to keep them occupied and out of trouble -- when the lady of the house decided to give a discourse on "the right way to discipline a child" for the two childless single ladies with whom she was having tea.

"You just have to be firm and forceful from the first 'no'," she said. "It's okay to even get a little angry at that point. It's better than having a discipline problem later." The single ladies nodded and told her how right she was. How could she not be? What with Exhibit A (as well as Exhibits D and F...) right there in the room as evidence to prove her right.

And what could I do? I grabbed Léo and a few of his toys and took him upstairs and put him in the bathtub to play. At least that way he was corralled so I could sit down and rest while watching him.

Now, I know there are multiple possible interpretations to this story, and here you've only got my side of it. Maybe I'm totally wrong. After all Mathmom reports that some parents advise that you should "house-proof the baby, don't baby-proof the house" (as impossible or insane as that advice would seem for people of mere-mortal-level parenting skills, like me).

Parenting advice is so deadly. All the world's problems can be attributed to "other people's kids," and it's impossible to do it entirely "right," whatever that would mean. So one the one hand, it's hard not to want to show off the things you did well, and on the other hand, it's hard to avoid feeling defensive about stuff that you might have done better. Or differently. Or more like the Jonses did it.

More recently I took Léo (now 5) grocery shopping with me. He decided that he wanted a flashlight, and I decided that we didn't need any more electric junk around the house that will ultimately end up in a landfill, so I told him no. Now, I've been trying to train him not to ask for things whenever we go out (I won't go into the specifics of my technique because it's not important), and I've had some moderate success. So, as I was putting the food on the conveyor belt, Léo tried to put the flashlight on, I turned to him and sternly said, "We are not buying that, so will you be a good boy and put it back?"

And he did. All by himself. He fussed a little, but he put it back where he found it. And the Swiss-German cashier gave me a smile, which I interpreted as approval. And I thought to myself, "This is the day of my greatest parenting triumph."

lol. Pathetic, but true...


Anonymous said...

Dude, I consider the smiling cashier the triumph here!

Your kids are cute and SMART.

- wry

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Wry!!!

I was amazed to have gotten Swiss approval, if only for a second. ;^)

Varina said...

Or more like the Jonses did it.
Well, we are pretty awesome kids, and my mom did indeed not childproof much (of course we didn't own anything of value LOL). I remember learning early on what to do in case of spills and broken glass, but then most of the time it was my mom who broke the thing in question anyway so baby proofing would have been useless there. My mom also likes to point out that we did, after all, have good insurance and live ten minutes from a level 1 trauma center. On discipline, it seems to me that the only really important thing is consistency and the ability to emotionally outlast a child, which sounds so much easier than it actually is, you know. Anyway, getting the kid to leave off without a big fight is definitely a parenting triumph.

And then there was the more damning measure: my little year-and-a-half old Léo barely knew how to say any words at all, while their daughter (just a couple months older) was speaking in whole sentences, even witty ones!

Yeah, well I bet she only speaks one language now, and anyone can have a kid who knows how to speak one language. A little schadenfreude is important in dealing with parenting inadequacy.

Anonymous said...

It becomes difficult to visit childless people because you can't just say, "Look, these crystal goblets and ceramic knick-knacks on your coffee table have got to go somewhere else"

When my oldest son was a toddler, we would

a) take him to Nana and Papa's house,
b) lie him on the floor with his snowsuit on (he couldn't move in that thing when he was flat on his back),
c) move all of my mother-in-law's knick-knacks and tea cups (she had far too many of them, especially the latter) to safe places, then
d) release my son from his snowsuit prison.

Crude, but effective, for us.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

Yeah, "consistency and the ability to emotionally outlast a child" is the technique I'm shooting for. So if he throws a tantrum, then he's guaranteed not to get whatever he was asking for. Instead, I take him out and tell him (repeatedly) "I can't take you shopping with me if it makes you cry. I'll just leave you home with Daddy if you ask for stuff and cry every time." And -- as you point out -- it's very difficult to do that, so I can't promise we're 100% at it (though we do pretty well).

But to expect the same thing to work on a tiny toddler is a bit much....

Hey Chaplain!!!

That works! It's good that your MiL is understanding about it. Sometimes even relatives don't get it, and think it's unreasonable to be expected to move their stuff around for a toddler's sake.

Cathy said...

We childproof, to a point. No harmful objects, because, well, children are really quick, and if you turn your back for a second...well you could be in big trouble. However, just because my children know not to play with my breakables doesn't mean that they know not to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without it appearing that a tornado went through my house. No parent can ever do anything perfect. I am certain that this parent has other issues with their children that you weren't able to see in the short time with them. The method of parenting should never be the focus of our parenting, it is the attitude that we have towards misbehavior and disobedience. Happy to hear about the grocery store victory!!!!

Cathy said...

Oh, totally forgot to mention, we have THREE boys, and one girl...boys are difrferent than girls in development and demeanor.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cathy!!!

Re: The method of parenting should never be the focus of our parenting, it is the attitude that we have towards misbehavior and disobedience.

That's a very good point. I can see how that comes into play (kind of unintentionally) in our family. We're city dwellers, and our kids know that we countenance absolutely no nonsense when it comes to traffic safety (crossing the street, etc.). Around the house, we'd like them to keep their room straight, but they can tell we don't see that one as a life-or-death situation, so it's coming along a little more slowly...

Aerin said...

good for you chanson! No is not necessarily a bad word for kids. I've met a handful of kids (some now adults) who were over-indulged...there's a line that it's important to be conscious of.

A former co-worker of mine had similar advice, she would actually physically slap or hit her daughter when she would touch things she wasn't supposed to.

I don't know - her advice actually made me a bit uncomfortable. I knew that's not how I wanted to handle discipline. I think having a balance is a good thing (what you're describing chanson and sabayon). And figuring out what works for your family, where respect (going both ways) is taught and earned.

beatdad said...

Hey Chanson,

The firm "No" worked really well with my daughter but not with my son.

I am curious if your friends with the fragile Christmas tree had a son if their experience would be the same? Maybe.

On baby proofing, with our daughter we were able to keep all our CD's and nice books on lower shelves; with Charlie keeping anything where he could reach it was inviting disaster, regardless of stern no's, time outs and even a swat on the bum. Sigh....

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

Exactly. It takes balance, and you have to figure out what works for your family.

Hey Beat Dad!!!

That reminds me of our experience. We tried every technique in the book to train Nico not to play with the stereo (press all the buttons and turn the knobs), but the only thing that worked was to move the stereo into another room and wait until he outgrew the toddler phase. They always do.

I think some toddlers can be trained not to grab everything within reach, and some can't. Your example shows it's not just a question of whether the parents do it right. It probably doesn't divide exactly along boy/girl lines, but on average there's definitely a difference in temperament between the two sexes, even at such a young age.

mathmom said...

Hey Chanson! Thanks for pointing to my blog =) I just want to make sure you knew that I was not endorsing the advice "House proof the baby..." That quote came from comments on a post about babyproofing at Free Range Kids. I really love the stuff she posts, but in that case the comments were getting on my nerves... Your last comment (all kids are different, find what works for your family) sums up my thoughts nicely. You could add one more, a difficult one: Don't judge too quickly what other people are doing to discipline their kids. Any advice should be offered with a healthy dose of humility.

My experience lines up with Beat Dad's on the difference between our son and our daughters. It's not a hard and fast rule, but I wouldn't have believed the differences if I hadn't seen them for myself.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

Don't worry, I didn't think you were endorsing that advice. It's just that your story about the sharpie (as well as your earlier post about parenting advice) reminded me of some of my own adventures with parenting advice, and I thought I'd add to the discussion. :D

mathmom said...

And then I responded to part of your post... I love blogs =)

C. L. Hanson said...

That's the fun of blogging, isn't it? :D

Sage said...

I'm happy to have read this just now. My 4-year-old today let the dog out of his crate when we weren't there to supervise, and all hell broke loose. A neighbourhood kid got nipped and ran home screaming before I was at the top of the stairs to see what the kerfuffle was all about. Yikes! She says the kid opened the crate - but I have my doubts. Now I'm hiding from everyone in the basement. Dogs and children be gone!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sage!!!

Yikes, I hope everyone's OK!

Bull said...

I highly recommend The Dog Whisperer (do you get that in Switzerland or wherever you are now?) for people who are expecting or planning on kids. Raising young kids has a lot in common with training a dog. Except if you screw it up with a dog you don't feel as bad...

Seriously. Positive reinforcement. Rules, boundaries, and limitations. Calm, assertive leadership. Living in the moment and letting the past go. Consistency. Regular activity and exercise. Having the stimulation of a job or task you are expected to do. All stuff that a well socialized and trained dog needs. And a kid too.

It's also amazing as the show has grown in popularity at how many people know all of these techniques, but still have trouble putting them into practice.

Also, one of the funniest South Park episodes is when the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan, is called in to fix Cartman.

Oh, one final comment. I have a new dog, a miniature pinscher. He's really cute but a huge task to train compared to my german shepherd or golden retriever. He is just so spastic. I think kids are just a difficult. I think that the same techniques work for all, but some are just more difficult to raise than others. It's certainly been the case with my kids.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bull!!!

I agree with you on the general principles of calm, asstertive leadership, consistency, boundaries, etc. So, in that sense, I'd agree that the same techniques work for both kids and dogs. But it kind of depends on what you're calling a "technique". The devil is in the details of how to act or respond to different challenges and which way to lead.

I have a colleague who is quite skilled with dogs, and is able to give the kind of calm, clear, consistent leader persona that the dog needs. And his dog seems not only better behaved but happier than dogs whose owners are less skilled. And I could imediately see the parallels with raising kids.

But, I think the analogy has some real limitations. Humans need to learn specific techniques for dealing with dogs because dogs are a different species, so one's natural starting point (to mentally interpret dog behavior in terms of human behavior) is going to be wrong in fairly consistent ways throughout this particluar inter-species interaction. Humans have more appropriate instincts when it comes to how to treat human children.

Additionally, your goals for your kids are very different from your goals for your dog. To begin with, you don't ever hope that your dog is going to replace you in your leadership position, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Good behavior is an integral part of well-being, but it's only part of a package of goals that parents have for their kids, and those goals may vary pretty dramatically from one parent to the next. (Case in point: I point at Nico's science accomplishments and say "He's going to be a great scientist one day!" and my husband just rolls his eyes and says "I just want him to be happy.")

Anyway, as I said, I agree on the overall principles, and that parents should strive for that type of leadership in their homes. I'm just a little wary of oversimplification when it comes to the complex task of parenting. ;^)

BluePixo said...

Children need a clear definition of acceptable and unacceptable conduct. They feel more secure when they know the borders of permissible action.

*BluePixo Entertainment - A place for mom and dad to share topics about parenthood*