D is for Discipline

Before today’s lead playgroup-class at Isis, a fellow mom leaned forward, allowing the rear of her navy canvas backjack to go slack. “I want to ask you guys for some advice,” she implored, wiggling her toes in sock-clad feet as her toddler scampered and cavorted. “What are you guys doing as far as discipline? Do we do time-outs, or what?”

Discipline. The Big D. One of those enormous topics of parenting, discussed at length both by those who are currently parenting, the verb, and those who are not and may never; both groups imagining themselves equally informed but only one group really subject to scrutiny.

I smiled, only half to myself. Parents and nonparents and never-parents, let me let you in on a little secret. Discipline, at least at the toddler stage, is all for show. No, really, it is. It’s in no way effective at changing behavior, it’s just an elaborate dance that we parents do in order to demonstrate to anyone who happens to witness the behavioral transgression that’s occurred that we Desire an Orderly Child and Do Not Allow Him/Her to Run Wild. Every, “Oh, no. We don’t hit!” (“We”, may not, but the toddler in question surely does!), each “NO. We take turns!” (Sure to garner the best fuck-off face your toddler can muster) is designed primarily with the audience in mind, and only secondarily with an aim at Behavior Change.

And why should it be? Offering painfully reasonable explanations in painfully reasonable voices to the crazed being that is a toddler is like offering them to a feral cat. “Nooo, mustn’t scratch. We are gentle. GENTLE! OWOWOWOWOW!” (That last bit being the sound you emit when either the feral cat or toddler finally bites you in frustration.)

“I don’t bother with discipline. Really, not at all.”, I ventured bravely. “Time-outs just seem pointless right now, like they’d complicate my life.” (Of course, most of the parents in the class are first-time parents, with no idea of what it’s like to split your time between two, to choose “a less complicated life” over “a well-behaved child”. I say to them, just wait.) A few polite nods in agreement, a few openly incredulous faces appeal to the class’s facilitator. When should time-outs begin?

“Usually not until the preschool years.”, she asserts, her face apologetic. “Right now, focus on redirection, or really noticing and rewarding good behavior.” Redirection is all it is, all it ever is. Hell, I think I redirect more than I “discipline” now, with a five-year-old. She’s helpful, the facilitator. She calms the first-time parents’ clumsy fumbling fears, makes them see that they’re not insane when time-outs don’t work with their 20-month-old. That’s what people get from these classes, I think to myself, that’s what they are for.

But then Juniper is snatching a scarf from another toddler, so I have to intervene. “No, no, Juniper. We share the scarves. Share.”

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