Who’s the Boss? Deborah Paul on Discipline

It’s more difficult for kids to recognize authority figures today, let alone mind them.
Luckily, as a grandmother, I’m not responsible for doling out discipline. I tend to give my grandchildren what they ask for. If the kid would like bacon for breakfast at a restaurant, even though her nutrition-conscious parents look unfavorably upon fatty meat, what’s a grandma to do? Order some bacon, and make it crisp!

But that is not to suggest I am a pushover. If it’s time for potty training, and they look me in the face with their magical milk-chocolate eyes and proclaim they won’t, even when they’re 5, I’m getting down to business. They may crack me up, but make no mistake: I’m the boss. Pitch those Pull-Ups, put on that cute Ninja Turtle underwear, and march to the bathroom, mister, hup, two, three, four!

Star NFL running back Adrian Peterson took discipline too far. Viciously beating a child with a tree branch—as Peterson was accused of doing to his son last year—is not acceptable, by anyone at any time for any reason. I once accidentally hung a clothes hanger on my younger son’s lower eyelid in a fitting room at the former L.S. Ayres in Glendale, and he’s never let me forget it. I can’t imagine his (or my) emotional damage had I ever taken him to the woodshed.

At the same time, though, the way many parents today discipline their kids is so far to the other end of the spectrum as to be almost comical. If little Johnny is writing on the wall with a permanent marker, he might get a talking-to that sounds something like, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Can you tell me how you’re feeling? Are you angry or upset?” No, I want to scream, he is simply being bad! But “bad” is a bad word these days. Nobody’s report card is bad, nobody beating on the table with a spoon is bad, nobody slugging a sibling is bad. I’m afraid my response to Johnny would be less like, “Why don’t you come over here and watch Bubble Guppies instead,” and more like, “Not on my wall, you don’t!”

Mommy bloggers who promote distracting a child from unseemly behavior in place of punishing him for it are all the rage. Their new tactics include talking a kid through a meltdown instead of placing him in a safe room to finish screaming in solitude, or diverting his attention when he loudly demands Cheetos before dinner rather than saying “no” and meaning it. I once observed a child at a nearby restaurant table howling at an ear-shattering pitch. The mother didn’t remove him instantly, a punishment that would have fit the crime, but instead handed him an iPad. In essence, the toddler was rewarded for acting “bad.”

My sister, who had successfully parented four kids of her own, grabbed him by his shirt sleeve and dragged him—wailing all the way—out of the sanctuary. Sometimes “please” just isn’t enough.

I admit that by today’s standards, I’m doing the world’s lousiest job of using the right words at the right time. (A colleague once noted that what comes into my head goes out my mouth, and I’m afraid the years have done little to improve the trait.) Awhile back, I visited my younger granddaughter, who was then 3, and observed her dilly-dallying rather than preparing to leave, as was expected. “Go get your shoes!” I said, not harshly, but not politely, either. I could sense her parents’ disapproval and meekly readdressed the child with, “Please go get your shoes.” When she complied, I added, “Thank you for listening!” I’m getting the hang of the new lingo, but I prefer requesting action to asking for a favor.

The trend toward positive conversation and away from old-fashioned consequences has spilled over into education circles as well. I once sat at the edge of a preschool play area watching the youngsters at indoor “recess.” A rowdy boy was grabbing toys from a classmate and throwing them at others. On his tail was a teacher’s aide bleating, “You’re not making good choices!” Her motives were admirable, but if I hadn’t been wedged into a toddler chair like a sausage into its casing, I might have sidelined the guilty youngster, sat him in the corner, and told him to stay there until playtime was over. I wonder if it’s more difficult for kids to recognize authority figures today, let alone mind them.

As a tot, our older son, now an administrative law judge, was as mischievous as he was creative. He could make up stories with intricate plots yet at the same time scoot a chair to the refrigerator and eat the icing off of an entire Sara Lee chocolate cake in the freezer while the rest of the household slept. He remembers our beloved housekeeper, Mary, who raised five kids and helped with her grandkids and their kids, chasing after him waving a wooden spoon. I never heard that she actually made contact, but I don’t think I would have interceded if she had. Mary wasn’t one for second chances. When he declined to remove himself from in front of the TV when it was time for after-school activities, she left without him. And he didn’t do it again.

The same preschooler once sat obstinately in a solemn religious service when an elderly—like 95-years-old elderly—aunt wobbled over to pay her respects and asked for his seat. “Get up,” I hissed, to which he replied “No,” and then, since the old lady’s hearing wasn’t so good, “NO!” The last I saw of him was his backside, when my sister, who had successfully parented four kids of her own, grabbed him by his shirt sleeve and dragged him—wailing all the way—out of the sanctuary. Sometimes “please” just isn’t enough.

My mother used to say that if kids knew what to do, they’d be adults. It is our job to turn them from the former into the latter. Boundaries must be set in the formative years so that rules of society are followed thereafter. Whatever our technique, no-nonsense or thoughtful and polite, nothing we accomplish is more important. The pendulum tends to swing back, however, and I can’t help but predict that a future generation just might speak softly, but carry a wooden spoon.

Yours truly,
Deborah Paul

Email Deborah Paul here.