While I don’t remember the specific details, the moment is etched in my mind forever. Our family was sitting at the dinner table and one of our sons, who was 2 or 3 at the time, was unhappy about something — or maybe everything. I don’t remember if he was complaining about the food, about our rule that everyone stays at the dinner table until all are finished eating, or generally making the meal unpleasant for everyone involved. It could have been all three. This child (whose name I shall withhold to protect a now hardworking, law-abiding adult) always complained when there were transitions. Going from playtime to dinner time. Dinner time to playtime. Going from home to church and then doing it all in reverse on Sundays. He always found moving from one activity to another intensely frustrating and unfortunately, had a bad habit of sharing his displeasure with anyone within earshot.
On this particular day I decided to draw a line in the sand. I told him I was going to take him into the bathroom until he could be quiet and stop disturbing our family meal. Why the bathroom? I have no idea. I guess because it was the closest room with a door and also because his bedroom was like Disney World and it didn’t seem like somewhere I would be able to get my point across.
Predictably (in retrospect), the thought of being scooped up by mom and dragged to the bathroom for a dinnertime adventure proved irresistible to my sweet little dark-eyed tyrant. Game on, mom!
My exit strategy? I didn’t have one. Unfortunately, I didn’t really think the whole thing through. I had just served dinner (dinner that I had put a lot of time and effort into) and family meals were sacrosanct in our house. I was not prepared to see this battle through to the end and he probably knew it. He smelled my surrender the moment I made my idle threat.
He called my bluff and the battle of wills began. Even though I really didn’t want to, I picked him up out of his high chair and whisked him into the half bath. He wailed. And he kept wailing for a good 10 minutes. OK, little guy, you think you can win this one? Off went the lights because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. (Did I mention that I didn’t have an exit strategy?) He wailed louder as our food got colder. We sat together in the pitch black, windowless bathroom for at least 20 minutes while I contemplated my next move and chastised myself for making such a rookie mistake — there was food on the table, after all.
It might have worked except that I didn’t follow the most important rule of child discipline: you must outlast them and always be more stubborn than they are. In truth, I didn’t enter that bathroom prepared to see it through for as long as it took; he entered it prepared (I’m convinced) to die in that bathroom if it meant winning the battle of wills with me.
Eventually, whether it was from exhaustion or frustration or sheer starvation, I gave up. Fine. “But don’t try this stunt again!” I snapped, knowing that he would try it again, probably the next day. And try it again he did, at least every day for the next ten years by my estimate.
The moral of this story? Effective discipline is about outlasting your kids. They are born with a desire to rule over everyone around them — beginning with their parents — and it’s your job to disabuse them of the notion that the world revolves around them.
Nearly every day you will face battles of wills with your kids — probably many of them. You’ll ask one to pick up his toys and he’ll put a chubby little hand on his hip and say, “You can’t make me!” Or you’ll take the kids out to a restaurant and one of them will decide to protest loudly about the chicken nuggets touching the applesauce. Or you’ll put one of them to bed and she will come back out of her room 376 times — in one night.
Those are the make or break moments for you as a parent. They don’t realize it, but they’re testing your resolve. They want to know if you mean what you say and if they can take you at your word. (Do you see the implications of this for the future?) Will you really send him to the time-out corner if he doesn’t pick up his toys or will you give up in frustration and do it for him? Are you going to remove him from the restaurant when he wails or will you order him a dessert to pacify him? And are you really determined to take her back to her room 377 times — in one night?
If you don’t win these battles — if your kids don’t learn these lessons from their parents when they are young — the consequences will be much more painful later on as they clash with friends, teachers, future spouses, and maybe even law enforcement.
Look, it’s exhausting dealing with little kids, right? It seems like some days they know how to push all of our buttons and they seem to have an unlimited amount of energy and an unending determination when they decide to dig their heels in on something stupid like the way you cut their peanut butter and jelly sandwich or how many Goldfish crackers their brother got.
But who ever told you this was going to be easy? You’ve taken it upon yourself to raise human beings who will someday be turned loose in society. This is the hardest — and most important — thing you will ever do in your life. You want to get this right. You’re not going to win all of the battles. Your kids have something like four jobs when they’re little and unfortunately, defiance is one of them, thanks to their inborn sin natures (and because they take after their dad and his mother, so what do you expect?).
The important thing is to win most of these clashes. On those nights when you’re exhausted and you absolutely cannot take that child to bed one more time, do it one more time (or 15 more if you have to). If you must leave a nice meal at a restaurant or on your dinner table, make the sacrifice. Eventually, he’ll begin to know you mean business and trust me, it will get easier and the number of tests will diminish. If you can muscle through these skirmishes and let your kids know that you’re not making idle threats, I promise, it will get easier and you won’t have to go through this nonsense every blessed day for your life for the rest of forever and ever. It won’t be easy, but if you can out-stubborn them and outlast them now in the short run, you’ll make your life (and theirs) exponentially easier in the long run.
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