Negotiating With Terrorists: Discipline in the Toddler Years

Before you read any further, I want to let you know that I will offer absolutely no advice in this post about how to discipline your toddler.

I have no tips. I have no ideas. I have no helpful stories to share.  

What I do have is a title already picked out for my motherhood memoirs: “This Is Harder Than I Thought: Confessions of One Tired Mother.

When I write this memoir there will be an entire four chapters devoted to toddler discipline. The chapter headings will be: “Stop it,” “I said STOP IT,” and “THAT IS DRAIN CLOG FLUID, PUT THAT DOWN.”

What? That’s only three headings, you say? That’s because the fourth chapter will remain unwritten as a symbol of the literally millions of things in my life that don’t get done because I am trying to peel my squealing toddler off of an overturned chair. It’s just going to be ten blank pages. Ten sad, blank pages.

For me, disciplining my toddler has been the hardest, darkest, murkiest, most despair-filled Odyssey of this whole motherhood journey.

Discipline is really important to me. It’s one of the things I admire most about my mother: she was the biggest pushover, the cuddliest softie in all the world — but she took great pains to ensure we all knew right from wrong. If we did something wrong or stepped out of line, she explained it to us and helped us rectify our behavior. 

As with so many other aspects of parenthood, my mother made instilling discipline and order in our lives appear easy. So when, in my life B.C. (Before Child) I would see parents struggling to manage the behavior of unruly toddlers (or even older kids) in the grocery store, it wasn’t judgment that overcame me — it was confusion. Can’t you just set limits? Are you afraid to be the bad guy?

What never occurred to me is that kids don’t arrive on your doorstep with fully formed consciences and fully fleshed out moral codes. They don’t show up as someone you can reason with. They show up as limp, defenseless creatures for whom “tantrums” are the only means of communication, and you need to somehow shepherd them into an understanding of control, of morality, of self-government.

But how do you discipline a 20-month-old?

They’re basically non-verbal terrorists. They’re 22 pounds of pure feeling and emotion. They’re cuter, more violent teenagers who can’t speak English. They have no language, no coping skills, no sense of proportion. They’re babies – but they’re not. They don’t understand — but shouldn’t they?

I know that my daughter doesn’t understand that it’s really, really unkind to snatch my glasses off of my face. I know she thinks it’s a funny game and that the prize is watching Mommy sputter with frustration trying to wrestle them out of her daughter’s tiny baby death grip. I know she’s only 20 months old and it isn’t fair to get upset at her for this behavior.

But I have to, somehow, some way, make her understand that the Glasses Game — and the Hair-Pulling Game and the Scratching Game — won’t earn her friends on the playground.

Everybody has a different idea of how and when children supposed to start learning discipline and self-control, and lucky me! They’ve all written books. And when I read these books, it all sounds so simple. Why have I not thought of this before? I can’t wait to implement these tactics in my day-to-day life! Instead of taking the drain clog fluid from my daughter, I will calmly explain to her that this is a dangerous thing that she cannot have, mimicking injury and repeating “Owie!” so that she understands. Cut to me and my daughter 20 minutes later, both of us in tears and both of us wet because now she’s thrown her sippy cup at me. And still does not understand that the drain clog fluid is lethal.

And now you hear the ghost of your former self: What’s so hard about discipline? Can’t you just set limits? Are you afraid to be the bad guy?

So you do everything you’re supposed to, even though you’re not sure you’re supposed to do it, because apparently there aren’t any rules, just a lot of suggestions that contradict themselves. You give the time-out, uncertain if they understand it at all. You stick your finger in their face and say, very seriously, No biting! (while they laugh at you). You ignore the tantrum so they understand that screaming doesn’t get them everything they want, but torture yourself with the thought of Dr. Harvey Karp and all the other people with fancy degrees who say doing the opposite is the way to go, that you have to acknowledge the tantrum to teach them empathy and make sure they don’t end up with personality disorders.

You go to bed clutching a glass of wine, wondering if your kid might possibly grow up to be a car thief or worse. You hope that the earnings from your memoirs are enough to post bail. You begin to muse on titles for your second book. Postcards From the Edge? Aw, crap, it’s already taken. You cry yourself to sleep. She’s so beautiful, your perfect baby, and you love her so much. How will she survive in prison? Then you hear her cry, and you creep into her room, and there she is in her crib, bedhead and footie pajamas, half-asleep, mumbling your name into the darkness, and you think: There’s no judge in the world who would convict her.

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