Regardless of their age, men often resemble pack animals in their need to find out where they stand in the hierarchy. Boys are famous for testing themselves against their dads; it’s just a natural part of the process of growing up. One night at the dinner table, Tucker decided to demonstrate the latest “thing” going around with his buddies at high school. Assuming a boxing stance, with hands up guarding his face, he reached out and lightly slapped me on the cheek. It was playful, and I knew he was just testing the waters, so I told him, very calmly and clearly, not to do it again. I’m not necessarily against that sort of thing, and if I had assumed the same pose and responded in kind, the game would have been on. This just wasn’t one of those times.
The situation was very clear, but Tucker decided to see if I really meant it. He reached out again.
When the dust settled, I was lying on top of Tucker, pressing his face into the carpet. His eyes were a bit wider than usual, and his voice was a little shaky as he responded to my questions. Ever so calmly, I asked him if he understood that when I said it was time to stop, that meant it was over. He assured me that he did. I explained at length my expectations for his behavior in the future, all in a controlled, steady tone of voice. He said he understood. It was a meeting of the minds.
I let him up.
Just to be clear, Tucker was a teenager when this happened, and we frequently wrestled pretty aggressively for fun. What made this different, and the reason the incident became a famous part of our family lore, was that I had never before used “wrestling moves” to discipline any of the boys. And after this incident, I never had to again. Disciplining their minds yielded such better results in the long run. It also illustrates two of the basic principles around which Karen and I built our whole disciplinary strategy:
- Parental Authority is absolute. If you choose to disregard that authority, the punishment will be swift and severe. This wasn’t some power trip on our part; it was just a recognition that we had experience and wisdom that they didn’t yet have. By obeying first and asking questions later, they stayed safe while developing an appreciation for why we wanted them to do things a certain way.
- If obedience isn’t instant, it’s not obedience. We tried the “count to three” method early on, but the more we thought about it, the clearer it became that “one” and “two” just represented additional disobedience.
Through the years Karen and I spent many an evening, after the boys were in bed, quietly strategizing about how we were going to address new behavioral trends. It was important that we agreed and that we supported each other. Coming up with the appropriate punishments for various offenses by our children required creativity, plus we found that the more prepared we were beforehand, the less likely we were to get angry in the moment. Calm is a splendid tool in discipline.
Together we decided to use things like “time out,” extra chores, and early bedtimes. As the middle child, Tucker was especially keen on where his bedtime fell when compared to his brothers, so imposing a 30 minute penalty could be devastatingly effective. Philip, on the other hand, received a bedtime penalty at the dinner table one night and barely batted an eye. I think his bedtime was around 8:00 at the time and we docked him 15 minutes. The behavior continued, and he lost 15 more. When it happened again, he finally got frustrated and blurted out, “Fine. Why don’t we just take it all the way to 6:30!!?”
“Done,” I replied. We always appreciated suggestions. :-)
Spanking was reserved for direct defiance of authority (see #1 above). Our tool of choice was a wooden spoon. We didn’t have to use the wooden spoon a lot, but we did so enough that just the sight of one was often enough to bring their behavior back between the lines. This was very handy at times. One morning at church another dad was relating his frustrations with the current state of his own son’s behavior. He knew about our reliance on the wooden spoon and wished out loud that he had one handy. I just flipped open my sport coat, reached for the spoon that was holstered in my belt loop, and handed it to him.
We were prepared.
Spoons were an ever-present fact of life in our house for many years. This became particularly evident one time when we did a spring cleaning in the boys’ room. We dug through all their old school papers, purged their dressers of clothes that no longer fit, and generally cleaned everything from top to bottom. When we changed the sheets on their beds, we noticed something strange about one of the decorative pillows on Gerrit’s top bunk. On further inspection we discovered several wooden spoons tucked inside the pillow cover. Apparently he had been spiriting them away from the drawer in the kitchen for some time, hiding them in hopes that their absence would bring about a corresponding reduction in spankings. We had to appreciate his ingenuity.
As the boys got older, our go-to punishment for minor offenses was having them do pushups. Pushups were quick, easy on us, and beneficial for them. If they cheated on their count, they got double. If they ran out of steam, they could substitute sit-ups. Like most other things about parenting, our methods for discipline changed and developed as our boys did.
It’s important to be flexible.
It’s also important for mom and dad to be a team. We always tried to back each other up when the boys came to us separately hoping for different answers. My first response was usually, “What did mom say?” One time when Karen imposed a punishment on Tucker, he asked if she would wait until I got home so he could plead his case with me. She agreed. He was hoping for a different answer.
I don’t recall the details, but Karen remembers me getting home from work and going up to meet Tucker in his room. After a brief silence she heard the sounds of much weeping and wailing.
In discipline it’s often best to go with your first answer.
originally published 9/29/11| next post Setting Good Examples