Category Archives: discipline

Stick police

Things that go through your head when your kids start playing with someone else’s kids at the playground:

Isn’t that nice, they’re all playing together.
My children are so well socialized, obviously.
They’re playing a nice game of tag.
Wait, where did that stick come from?
Oh, that’s okay, they all have sticks.
Wait now, that’s not a stick, that’s half a small tree.
Is the other parent here? He must be the man in the car. Where does he stand on the stick issue? Should I say something? Am I a helicopter parent if I wade in yelling “No sticks!” or am I a negligent parent if I don’t? Is he judging me?
Okay, they’re in teams. That’s nice.
No, wait, you can’t exclude the little one.
Uh oh. Here comes the little one to talk to her dad.


Maybe I’ll just go have a word with them. Make sure they’re all playing nicely together.

“Hi! What’s your name?”
“Sarah, this is Mabel. Mabel’s four. Are you four? Is that your brother? He’s in second grade like Mabel’s brother? That’s nice. Now you can be friends. Be careful with the sticks. Maybe we should put the sticks down. Dash, how about playing tag with no sticks? Hmm? No, you don’t have to defend yourself. Well, yes, I can see that the other boys have sticks … Fine, just everyone play nicely, right?”

Well, that cleared everything right up.
Girls against boys?
No, but, the girls are four and the boys are seven or eight and that’s three against two… oh good, she wants to be on his team…but now it’s everyone against the little one again…
I should not be policing this.
But that father is sitting there in his car.
Judging me.

He wasn’t judging me. He looked out his car window and we had a nice conversation about how you should let the children just play, but that it’s always hard to know where another parent might draw a line that you don’t. And then I decided that playing dodgeball with sticks was probably a good moment to draw a line, and announced that it was time to go home.

Star charts, episode umpty: A new hope

Sometimes I wonder when having kids became this intricate tango of bribery that you can’t call bribery and reward systems and star charts and calculated praise and natural consequences and parenting strategies and whatever else it is we do to try to outwit or outmaneuver these small people. I’m sure when I was a child – ah, when I were a lass – my parents just said “It’s time for bed,” and off I trotted like a good little girl. (Actually, my dad gave me a piggyback upstairs and read me my stories, but then I turned over and went to sleep and that was that.)

I did not have star charts, I did not have rewards or punishments or a naughty step or time outs. I was spanked a couple of times, but mostly the threat of parental disapproval was enough to keep me on the straight and narrow. (I did have a penny taken off my 20p pocket money every time I said “Yeah” instead of “Yes” for a while, and I admit I went into negative equity pretty quickly on that one.)

So, what? Children these days, eh? Parents these days, more like, being one of them myself. I blame some amount of my good behaviour on my lack of siblings, having seen for myself how much better behaved my kids are one at a time rather than both together, when they egg each other on and rile each other up and kick each other and love each other simultaneously in ways I, a sibling-deficient only, could never even begin to fathom.

But I do keep thinking it should be less complicated. We should just tell them what they have to do, and they should just do it. I’m sure I’m not remembering it wrong. I’m sure my parents had it easy.


And so the summer vacation begins and I haul out a new star chart, a new System, a new set of bribes and routines and things to aim for and fun in return for no fun (also known as cooperation). I am suffused with hope, shot through with organization, filled with plans, inspired by lists.

It’ll probably all fall apart in a couple of weeks, assuming it even gets off the ground. My goals won’t be SMART enough, or my menus won’t be planned enough, and I’ll be winging it daily and we’ll all be yelling at each other and then there’ll be another reset when we’re on vacation, and for camp, and for the second half of the summer.

But we have to start somewhere, right? We can be shiny with optimism and glowing in the delight of our no-failure-yet for a little while longer.

Clothes-pegs on cups reward system for star chart

Why on earth did I not try this before?

Scene: Yesterday, getting into the car to go to school. I open the passenger door to put something on the seat. Mabel takes her chance to jump in the “wrong” way.

Me: Don’t… oh, okay, fine, just don’t squash my stuff in the bag there.

Mabel notices the bag and purposely smushes a fist down on top of the carefully ironed and folded clothes I’m bringing to the consignment store.

Me: Sigh.

Mabel switches direction and heads for the driver’s seat instead of her own.

Me: [lightbulb moment] Mabel, don’t sit in your seat.

Mabel looks at me, confused.

Me, more clearly: Mabel, whatever you do, you’re not allowed to sit in your carseat. Don’t come over here.

Mabel gives me a tiny grin and clambers very purposefully towards her seat. She sits down beautifully.

Me, doing up her straps: Don’t sit here. You’d better not sit here.

We get to school and Mabel shows signs of reluctance.

Me, wondering if it can possibly keep working: You’re not to go to school today. You’ll be in big trouble if you go into that classroom.

She gets out of the car, eager to break a rule, and heads for the building, and down the corridor, having the time of her life as I call after her.

Me: Don’t go inside. You’d better not go through that door…

And so on. Her courage failed her when it was time for me to leave, and I did have to read a story and then have her teacher peel her off me and distract her with snacktime plans (muffins!), but it worked amazingly well. 

Just something to keep in my arsenal and pull out only ocassionally, I think, in the hopes that it might save us all a meltdown some other day.


(I can’t find a video clip, but here’s the audio for exactly what this calls to mind, just to save anyone from having to go and look for it.)

Homer Simpson

Now with extra autonomy

I’m pretty sure I’m hormonal today, because I don’t think I usually would have to fight back tears while listening to an NPR report on how the theme to Reading Rainbow is very popular on YouTube. (Something about the magic of stories really got me, man.)

I suppose one is always hormonal, and that’s a good thing, but extra hormonal, let’s say. Also, I have a giant zit at the edge of my eye socket, of all places, which is a dead giveaway. Better than the tip of my nose, I suppose, as my glasses frames hide it a little. The two-inch-thick layer of concealer also hides it a little, but only a little.

I mailed KeAnne’s cookies this morning, so now I’m just frittering away the rest of my time before I have to get Mabel from school. It’s the first time for a while I’ve had nothing to do (housework, shmousework, I’m sure you’ll agree), so I’m just doing nothing.

Maybe another cup of tea.

So, anyway. At the moment we are experimenting in giving the six-year-old more autonomy. I think that’s what we’re doing, while also, of course, providing firm boundaries and limits for him to continue to test with all his might and main. Our two main areas of battle lately have been i) homework and ii) bedtime.

So, as promised, yesterday I told him about his homework twice and left it at that. He didn’t do it. This morning he got up and did it. It was not quite painless, as he was still finding it hard to focus, and breakfast time isn’t the best time to work, but on the other hand he sat down and did it. Then he read for 20 minutes with me before he got dressed. Reading in the morning is definitely easier for him than reading at night, but, again, it cuts into the time when preparation for school should be happening, leaving us without any extra room for manoever.

On the plus side, yesterday afternoon was delightfully stress-free for all of us, and I enjoyed it much more that way. He probably did too.

Bedtime has been a bear lately. Last week B had extra choir rehearsals and then three concerts, so I did a lot of solo bedtimes, and they weren’t good. They were pretty horrible, really, with an extra half hour of both children ignoring me, and then 40 minutes of insane manic yelling and running around (them), and a lot of shouting (me), and some locking myself in the bathroom before I did something I’d regret, and finally things would calm down, and Dash would have to use the toilet, and I’d take the opportunity to put Mabel to sleep, and once she was out of the picture he’d get to bed. Eventually.

The thing is that the lure of stories just hasn’t been so lure-y of late. Telling him that “At 8pm I’m not reading any more, so you have to be ready before then,” doesn’t work. He still demands the stories, and by then it’s 8:30 and you’re so worn down that you think he’ll probably leap out of bed and wake his sister and run rampage all over again, so you read them anyway. Not good for any of us. Not enforcing limits. Not setting boundaries. Not enjoying it.

Two nights ago, when B was back for our regular routine and I was trying to get Mabel to sleep while listening to their usual back-and-forth over “Do you WANT stories?” a thought occurred to me. Why not just read the stories first, and let Dash put himself to bed after that? It’s all the waiting round through his interminable nighttime routine that infuriates the waiting adult; if we take that out of the equation, the pressure is off.

So for the past couple of nights B has read stories first, and then Dash has pottered around getting himself ready for bed and putting himself into it at his own daydreamy pace, without infuriating anyone because nobody was waiting for him any more. And because nobody’s waiting and badgering him to do it, he just does it. He likes the independence, and it’s not as if he needs us to supervise at this stage anyway.

It’s such a simple change, but it seems to go against everything we expected: surely every child wants to get into bed and be read stories and be kissed goodnight and tucked in. It has probably been staring me in the face for ages, but it took this long to percolate through. I think it was only because I was once again an observer, listening to the same old futile arguments, that I could think clearly enough to come up with an improvement.

We’ll see how it goes, anyway.

What to do when you don’t know what to do

Where is the hilarity, you might ask? Where have all the funny conversations gone? Where’s the real stuff of life? (Wait, it was just Jimmy Durante asking that one.) I dunno, really.

Mabel has calmed down, a bit, but Dash has ramped up the anger management issues, and it’s not so funny when he goes all hulk smash on me, because I can’t just hold him at arm’s length and let his not-so-little legs windmill around without connecting. They get my kneecaps every time.

This boy has never been physically violent in his life before. Even as a two-year-old, he’d throw things and rip up books but not hit people. So I’m hopeful that this is a phase; I just hope it burns out soon, before somebody gets hurt. And the rage is always directed at us, the parents: at school he’s doing wonderfully; everyone else thinks he’s the “easy” child – but right now, not so much.

However. As threatened, I took How to Talk so Kids will Listen out of the library, and I think it might just be saving my bacon. I even got B to read the first few chapters, though he’s still not as convinced as I am by it – he feels they’re presenting a one-sided argument, while I’ve been totally brainwashed and have decided this is the One True Way. It certainly offers a parenting technique that fits my style and personality, and even now that the initial Come-To-Jesus-ness of it has worn off for me, I’m trying my best to use it, and it’s working often enough for me to remain convinced.

If you don’t know the book, its basic message is empathetic parenting. That sounds all wishy-washy and lovey-dovey, but they give some examples of how you would feel when things aren’t going your way, and people in authority talk down to you, try to coerce you, or ignore you, and I found they really rung true. If I want to teach my children to respect other people and think of their feelings, then I have to start by parenting them that way. The book helps. It gives me tools that I can pass on to them. It tells me what to do when I don’t know what to do. I don’t know about you, but I really like that in a parenting book.

For instance. At least three times lately I’ve been faced with a boy who is determined not to give in. Whatever the original issue was, it has come down each time to a refusal to get ready for bed. There is no way to force this with him, and it’s very hard to get a graceful exit. Or any exit, come to think of it.

One of the problem-solving techniques in the book is to make a list of options. Even with a non-reader, you say “I’m going to make a list of the things we could do to work this out” and you sit down with a piece of paper and start writing. You list what the child wants, and what you want, and any number of options in between and around about and totally unrelated. Somehow, the act of doing this, giving his plight the weight that a written list denotes, and appearing to (yes, you’re allowed pretend) seriously consider what he wants to do, helps ground the crazed beast and draw him into the process. With a little luck, you’ll even think of some totally ridiculous options to inject a little levity into the situation.

Then you go through the options together and cross out the ones that aren’t acceptable to you, and the ones he doesn’t agree with. And eventually, magically, something appears that is not remotely related to the matter at hand, and you write it down and draw a big circle around it and he does it and then the whole thing goes away.

I know. It sounds as if it couldn’t possibly work every time. I’m not saying it will. But I am saying that several times now this has got me out of a totally boxed-in corner with Dash. Today I spent an hour asking him to sit down and do his homework. He never did. I told him that he could do double on Thursday (the week’s homework is due on Friday; we don’t have time for more than one day’s worth on Wednesdays), or he could find out what happens when you don’t hand in any homework. But either way, he wasn’t getting to watch his favourite TV show today, because he didn’t do it. He went outside to play after dinner, and when he came in he was under the impression that he could still do his homework and watch his show (on the Internet).

Dash tends to think that time is elastic and that the evening will stretch to fit all the things he wants to do, but bedtime is not so forgiving. When I told him the window on homework, and therefore TV shows, had closed, he had a total meltdown. It wasn’t pretty, but he still thought that his will would prevail. Now, I’m a pushover, but not that much of a pushover, and his way was not an option tonight. We were utterly stuck.

I got out my trusty notebook and a pen, and wrote:

How to get Dash to bed

Then I listed some options, like “Watch his show,” “Watch a 2-minute snippet of his show,” “Go straight to toothbrushing and bedtime stories.” I asked for more suggestions: “Watch ten episodes,” he said. “Watch 16 episodes.” I wrote it all down. “We sit on him until he falls asleep,” I added, for good measure. And “Run naked around the house five times,” since he was refusing to put on his pyjamas.

We started crossing things out. I had no idea where this was going, because we hadn’t yet hit on anything both of us liked. He grabbed my notebook and ran away. I sighed.

Then, out of nowhere, he came up with a new one. “I put on a puppet show of my TV program, and you make a movie out of it [with my camera] and I watch the movie.”

“Oookay,” I said, “but it has to be all done in five minutes, because we’re right up to bedtime now.”

“Okay,” he agreed. We got the camera. His father set the timer for five minutes. Dash picked up two random objects to be the puppets and started making them talk before I’d even found the movie setting. I filmed until (luckily) the camera memory was full. He watched it play back. And then he put on his pyjamas, brushed his teeth, had two very short bedtime stories, and was done.

It took time and dedication, but we resolved the stalemate without violence, without shouting, without tears. I don’t know exactly why it works, but it works. It might just save our sanity.

Present imperfect

Mabel’s a biter.

There. I’ve said it. It’s the worst thing your child can be, until they grow up and become a druggie or   a republican or a dirty hippie or whatever your bag isn’t, baby.

I’m sick of blogs that make you think everyone else’s children are perfect, and of making myself feel that I’m a crappy parent because of this one thing. So I’m telling you here and now that this is what’s been going on, and it’s not fun. I’m also willing to bet I’m not the only one of you who has had a child with a horrible phase, and I think we need to talk about it.

When she was younger, maybe a year ago or more, she went through a biting phase. Happily, it was short-lived and I didn’t have to be the mother of the biter. But now she’s doing it again so, for now, that’s what I am, again.

I know when she does it and how it happens. She’s not attention-seeking, and I don’t think she’s even pushing boundaries. When she’s seeking attention, she leaps up and down and rudely interrupts my conversations with adults. When she pushes her boundaries, she walks up the down-slide smirking and casting sideways glances at me to make sure I see how good she is at being bad. This is not how she bites.

It happens when she’s tired. Because right now we’re in a huge sleep upheaval – the good sort where she is finally, praise the lord, learning to sleep all night, alone, in her own bed, without waking – on the days after the nights where that doesn’t happen for one reason or another, she’s exhausted. I daren’t let her nap midday  – last time I did that, a one-hour nap led to a three-hour-late bedtime, and the whole, horrible, cycle was perpetuated. So we just have to plough through, and sometimes other people are the innocent victims.

When she bites, it’s because, although she may look perfectly content from the outside – watching tv, playing happily with other children, going about her own business – she’s actually teetering on the brink of exhaustion. Something small happens, and she snaps. Her instant, instinctive, uncontrollable response to the anger she feels then, is to bite.

I have a temper. I do, really. It’s been tamped down by time and effort, but I still remember the feeling of having to lash out. I still remember slapping friends who got my goat so badly I had to do something about it. (And I was probably nine or so for that memory – I can’t imagine what I did when I was three.) I remember making a conscious decision to snap a pencil in half rather than hurt someone. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying. So she probably got it from me, is what I’m saying.

I’ve also been the mother of the bitten, when the shoe was on the other foot, and that’s no fun. I know how people feel about biters; I’ve felt it, I’ve listened to the gossip, I’ve avoided certain children and watched them like a hawk. I would not blame anyone I know for feeling that way about Mabel at this point in time.

Three-year-olds do not have much impusle control. It is easily eroded by fatigue, hunger, a long day, a frustrating scenario. They can ask nicely and use their words and share beautifully and even sometimes delay gratification in the morning. But come the witching hour, all bets are off. We’ve talked about feeling angry, and things you can do when you feel angry, like stamping your foot or jumping up and down, or punching a cushion. When she’s tired, there is no space of recognition between the feeling and the reaction, so there’s no time for me to redirect her or for her, yet, to redirect herself.

I have thought a lot about this lately. We’re using a star chart for other things, we’re bringing more order into our lives now that school has started, we are settling into a routine. I am trying with all my might to get Mabel’s sleep on track, because I am 100% sure that’s the key to all of this. That, and time. Time for her to not be three-and a-half any more. Time for her to stop doing it. Time for her to work out what to do with her anger, even when she’s not feeling her best. Time for the bitten to forgive and forget.

Time for me to believe in her, and in me.

Safe, respectful, and kind

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a long weekend.

It started badly, when on Saturday morning Mabel was Postively Awful and had to be removed from a birthday party in disgrace, in which unhallowed state she remained all afternoon while her brother got to go to the carnival. I won’t tell you exactly what she did (to protect the innocent), but when asked to say sorry to the injured party, she blew a raspberry at him and all the parents present had a hard time not bursting out laughing. She’s got some comic timing, all right.

But no, it was a Bad Thing she done, and she knew it. (Which is why she blew the raspberry. When in trouble, her refuge is to become ever more defiant. This will not serve her well.)

That evening, exhausted from riding all the rides, Dash had a bit of an outburst over getting water instead of milk because we were almost out of milk. This was completely unreasonable, and he got uncharacteristically defiant as well, with the result that lightsabering privileges were revoked for two days. He felt this was unfair; doubly so the next day when it turned out “two days” did not mean part of the first day and you get it back on the second day, but a full 48 hours.

In general, I felt things were going badly. It was not nice, all this shouting and banging down of fists (that was Dash). So today, we did that cheesy-sounding thing and called a family meeting, wherein we all came up with household rules and talked about what might happen when people didn’t keep the rules, and what things people enjoyed that we could all do when the rules were followed. (This last is a bit hand-wavy, but I wanted something positive in the mix.)

Dash was entirely on board. He loved it. I would have to say that this sort of thing is made for five- or six-year-olds. (Not knowing much about sevens or older, I’m not sure when the rebellion kicks in again.) He had a great time laying down the law (coming up with rules) and telling me the things he’d like to do in those halcyon times when everyone’s well-behaved (have a costume parade, an art competition, and races). He pronounced that it was never ever fair to take away (or threaten to take away) his light saber.

I went over the things people had done that had got them into trouble lately, and manipulated the evidence so that everything fell neatly into the three categories I wanted the rules to cover, so that we could get them down to something concise and memorable that would work for every infraction worth fighting over. (I mention this because it’s something I read on the internet, I think originally from Moxie‘s excellent frequent commenter Hedra, and not because I made it up myself. I think it’s so good you might want to use it too.) Basically, we want to be 1) Safe, 2) Respectful, and 3) Kind. If what you do is all those things and I’m still getting my knickers in a twist about it, talk to me and I’ll be more reasonable.

I love this (when I remember it) because it makes sense from their perspective as well as mine, and because it helps me pick my battles. When I first read it, back when Dash was a little one, I thought “Well, that’s all very nice but I’m sure I can come up with three equally valid concepts that are my own.” This many years later I’m much more exhasuted and beaten down and quite happy that Hedra has done it already.

I’m not saying we’ve solved all our discipline problems in one fell swoop. Mabel, in particular, spent the whole meeting jumping around the sofa (no matter how much we pointed out that it was neither safe nor respectful (of property)) like a marmoset on speed, so I’m not sure the concept works so well for threes. But what had been nagging at me before was a sense that perhaps the children felt we were pulling these rules out of our arses whenever we felt like shouting, and that perhaps we were ambushing them with big punishments for small things that had escalated due to bad management. This way at least everyone knows what we’re trying to acheive.

My next step, mostly for Mabel, is to reclaim my copy of Adventures in Gentle Discipline from the friend I lent it to, and check How to Talk so Kids will Listen out of the library again. And I will remember to talk about expectations for behavior before we do things, to remind and direct with positive terms, and to praise the good actions whenever I see them.

Mabel goes back to school tomorrow, and right now she’s all fired up with plans to be polite and sweet and say please and thank-you all over the gaff. Option B, of course, is HellChild, and the unmentioned option C is that she throws a wobbler like last year and refuses to let me leave her sight. (I will be unmoved, mostly because for at least the first half hour I’ve to hang around the school office doing admin-y stuff anyway.)

And then I will go outside and join the other mothers doing the Happy Dance of Freedom, and go to Target on my own.

Taking my lumps

I got delivered a smackdown from the Internet today, in the form of some mild criticism/advice on parenting on a discussion board where I had specifically asked for (or at least put myself out there for) such. I metaphorically burst into tears, and then I had to spend the rest of the day analyzing my reaction as well as the criticism and whether it was reasonable or not.

You know, I’m bad with criticism, because I lack practice with it. I’m a people-pleaser, a good student, and extremely non-confrontational. I also shy away from things that are difficult or I’m bad at. I do all this, basically, to avoid criticism.

When required to describe me, my teenaged classmates could come up with nothing more interesting than basically “Not a bitch”. Which felt like damning with faint praise, and even this mild comment sent me into a spiral of self-examination back then, when my skin was translucently thin, just like every other 15-year-old.

My skin’s a bit thicker now, but I have also surrounded myself with people who are too nice, or too polite, to be mean to me (or, you know, tell me the truth if it’s anything but flattering). So dealing with criticism doesn’t really come up often, except when I am so silly as to put myself on the Internet where total strangers can tell me whatever they like, working with whatever small subset of relevant information I may have provided to come to possibly erroneous conclusions.

If my blog had a bigger readership maybe people would pop up here to tell me that I’m crazy or terrible or a bad person, but I think for the most part, readers of blogs like this one are a pretty self-selecting lot: if they don’t like it, they don’t read it, and they certainly don’t bother to comment. It takes a certain type of hater with a lot of time on their hands to read a blog they hate just to make nasty comments.

So when I read what someone said today, my first instinct was to get on the defensive. But you don’t understand … you don’t know … you haven’t even met me so you are unaware of what a nice person I am … let me give you more information. Also, to convince myself that the critic has vastly different views on parenting from mine (possibly true) and that they’re an idiot anyway (probably not true, but I am as much as stranger to them as they are to me, so who knows).

Then I took a few hours to let it rattle around my head. It’s still rattling, to be honest. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up with my faith in myself and my processes restored; it’s not that I think I’m the most fantastickest parent on the block, or that my kids are the most perfect humans ever produced, but most of the time I’m pretty happy with the way things are going along, and willing to overlook my small defects in the areas of keeping floors clean and serving vegetables at every meal (for instance). (Those were not things that were criticized by the critic, but maybe they would have been had I provided that information.)

Mostly I have faith in my children’s genes, which are good ones from good people, to triumph over the day-to-day foibles of their minder; and in my own intentions, which are for the best.

It’s a little too easy, with fingers bouncing on keyboard, to say things you’d never say to a stranger standing in front of you, without taking the time to make them a little more palatable by coating them in manners and prevarication and the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes that makes the Internet a refreshingly frank place to be, but mostly it just hurts people’s feelings and makes them less receptive to whatever it was you were trying to tell them.

So there. I’ve taken my criticism and turned it right back around. Hah. It’s much easier to give it out than take it.