Disciplining Your Children

September 19, 2014

There's no one of my age -- at least no one whose family hails from the rural South -- who hasn't heard, "When I was bad, Daddy made me go outside and pick my own switch."

I always dismissed this as old person hyperbole. In my mind it belongs with, "I walked fourteen miles to school barefoot every day, and it was uphill in both directions."

I'm not really all that surprised to find out this week that there are terrible parents who break off a switch and beat their kids with it. A four year old? What the fuck?

And then, there's some debate as to whether this actually constitutes abuse. And that's where there's an interesting question. Make no mistake -- a toddler beaten until his legs and nutsack bled is an abused toddler. But it's fair to expect that for a variety of reasonable people, the punishment/abuse line can fall somewhere different.

When V was two, he was enrolled in a good elementary school's Pre-K3 program. Pre-K before Pre-K. The class had a discipline system where the kid came back every day having been a green fish (the apple polishers), yellow fish (moderately annoying brats), or a red fish (they were bad). V was usually a yellow fish, and often a red fish.

Vanya in the Fall of 2008

After the first few red fish, I decided that he had to go into his room by himself with the door closed any time that happened. So dutifully, I shut him up in there, and sat outside his room feeling terrible. He wailed through the door, "I'M SORRY PAPA! I WON'T DO IT AGAIN! I PROMISE I WON'T DO IT AGAIN." After a few minutes, I would let him out, but he was a wreck with tear-soaked cheeks, and those sort of quiverry exhales that kids get when they're trying to stop crying.

At the turn of the semester, his classmates started having birthday parties, and once we started talking to parents of the other kids in the class, we found out that almost every single kid came home with red fish several times a week. Every boy did for sure. And all of us thought we were raising hellions that would cause us no end of grief until they turned 30.

As I type, it's pissing me off all over again. I put him (and me) through that two or three times a week when he was just being a normal little boy. I'd like to stuff leaves in that teacher's mouth and beat her with a switch.

K's preschool is so much better. They're three now. The school has no color coded guide that parents are expected to act on. They say things like, "Three year olds are supposed to run and play and explore different things. That's how they learn." And, "We're trying to get them to stand in a line together." An on the games they play to learn letters and numbers, "We let them dictate what they're ready to do." I'm sure that seems a little hippy-dippy, but the results prove that they know how little kids learn.

I still use bedroom isolation as punishment for both of the kids, but not often. Like any good method, the threat of it is usually enough to stop the behavior. Yes, both of the kids act like it's the worst torture ever, but I guess that's how it should feel in the moment.

I can't forsee anything that would happen that would lead me to even spank one of them, but every parent loses his shit once in a while. Go ahead and read that linked article. It's entertaining, and it will make you feel like the best parent in the world.