The Dark Arts of Disciplining Your Toddler
Sure they will behave, but at what cost?
My daughter was perfect until she turned 22 months old. Then, all hell broke loose. She acted out in the normal ways—tantrums, refusing food—but the worst fight came at nap time. Instead of staying in her bed she would run around her room and yell and scream and cry. As discipline we like to use redirection and rewards, but for nap time nothing worked and then the behavior began to trickle over into bedtime. My husband and I were at our wits end. Finally, one day, as she jumped on her bed (strictly forbidden) and blew raspberries (also forbidden), I had an idea. It came from a dark place.
“Don’t jump on the bed or I will take away blanklee.”
She stopped and looked at me, her eyes wide. “No,” she whispered. “He ‘pecial.”
“Then, don’t jump.”
She laid down. Ten minutes later, I heard the bed springs squeak. I had to take away blanklee. Blanklee is my daughter’s blanket. He has been her special friend since she was nine months old. She calls him “blanklee” as a carry over from her baby language. We love blanklee. He is always there when we need him to comfort, soothe or snuggle. Every book I’d read on toddlers said that you need to follow through on threats. So now, I had to rip him away, because of a stupid threat.
I took blanklee. My daughter screamed. She sobbed. She beat her fist against the pillow and wailed, “He ‘pecial. He too ‘pecial.”
I stood outside her room and cried. She’d stopped jumping on the bed, but at what cost? I waited 10 minutes and returned blanklee, but the betrayal was written on her face. “Dat so mean,” she cried as she held him. I apologized and hugged her. My daughter fell asleep with tears still in her eyes. I felt like a monster. I haven’t threatened blanklee since. Even though I know using blanklee as a tool will produce the desired result; I now just prefer time out. Because there are some lines you don’t cross. After repeated trips to time out over the course of several weeks, my daughter eventually learned to behave during nap time. It wasn’t pretty or easy. But we were firm and consistent and she learned.
In The Atlantic, Adam Grant looks at the dark side of emotional intelligence—exploring the idea that if we raise a generation of emotionally intelligent children, will they just be better manipulators? And the flip side of that concern is the one voiced by Grant in his article—If we manipulate our children, aren’t we also raising manipulators? At what point do we cross from the good wizardry of discipline over to the dark arts of coercion?
Beyond the tantrums and the bed jumping, where is the line? Is bribing my daughter to stay still for a picture manipulation? Do I force her to wear the dress her grandma picked out for her? As parents, we know our children—what they love and what they fear—and with this knowledge we can motivate them for good, but when do these motivations cross the line? When does our intelligence about our children become a power we use for good and not for evil? As J.K. Rowling wrote in the Harry Potter series, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
It’s a balancing act that offers no simple solutions. Rather a mindfulness, that what we intend for good can often be used for ill. And as a parent, our power can also be our greatest weakness.
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