On Disciplining Kids

Channeling my inner Betty Draper . . . or is it Tiger Mom?

“Oh my God, have I turned into Betty Draper?” I wondered to myself in the dark silence of my house as I spanked my two-year-old for the first time. Keep in mind that by spank, I mean lightly tap her naked behind to make a very deliberate point that her behavior had pushed me past the boiling point. This was in January, when the dreary doldrums of Pepco’s inability to keep our lights on provided me with more time than usual to wonder if I was finally losing it and transforming into something resembling TV’s worst mom.

Later, I was stricken with post-discipline doubt. Does screaming and thrashing because she refuses to put on her overnight diaper, night after night, count as an innocuous kid offense, or is it worthy of a spanking? How do you draw the line with kids but avoid spiraling off the deep end?

As I struggle to navigate how to discipline my kids appropriately, I’m certain that many punishments have an expiration date, with time-outs leading the charge. My two-year-old reacts with indifference and amusement to time-outs. For me, part of the challenge is that the need to discipline doesn’t come with a warning, so I have to be well-prepared in advance and ready to strategically deploy a technique that fits the crime. We know Betty Draper would probably smack poor Sally in the face just for dropping her hair bows in the mud. If the Tiger Mom can make her daughter play piano until her fingers bleed, then along the continuum of discipline techniques, is the very occasional spanking really as bad as the modern experts suggest it is?

In my quest for creative discipline techniques, I recently stumbled into another mom’s experimentation. I was stopping by to drop something off for a mom friend, and when I arrived, I could hear mayhem erupting inside her house, clear through the closed front door. Should I leave and come back later, I wondered, even though she was expecting me? The melee was clearly between her two sons, but it was loud and raucous. Initially, my knock was ignored, but then the house grew quiet, and I timidly knocked again. When my friend came to the door, she stepped out front, and I asked her what was happening. She explained that one of her sons had flown off the handle because his brother changed the password to a game they played.

“How are you going to handle his behavior?” I asked my friend. “That’s the thing,” she said. “I’ve already gone through a variety of punishments with him; I think it’s time for me to wash his mouth out with soap. I have to nip this and I don’t know what else will work.”

“Ummm, is it 1957?” I asked her laughing because I hadn’t heard of anyone deploying the soap-in-the-mouth technique since my grandma told us stories of using it on my mother.

By then my friend was laughing too, and I asked her how she’d execute said punishment. Turns out she was debating between using her expensive bar soap, which she really didn’t want to waste inside his mouth, or squirting some liquid Dial soap onto a toothbrush and rubbing it on his tongue. We were highly amused with both scenarios. In the end, she let him sweat out the threat of soap and then resolved it with stern words and a promise of soap in the event of a next time.

The thing is, there’s always a next time. A parenting-magazine article I read a few months ago suggests taking a minute to visualize how you’ll look in the moment of discipline, before you head down the path to Rage Town. The idea of the article is that because parents ought to be teaching their children how to behave, including in moments of turmoil and unrest, they’ll be more effective if they appear calm themselves.
My reaction is part wanting to burn that article and part agreeing with it. My negative reaction stems from the general frustration that’s a result of kid-badgering for nine or ten straight hours. Who isn’t going to unleash at some point? The flip side is, I do want my children to behave properly as they grow and venture out into the world, so perhaps a few deep breaths and some visualization isn’t such bad advice.

For the record, my two-year-old hasn’t misbehaved while I put on her overnight diaper since she was spanked back in January. And that’s the only spanking she’s ever received. So okay, maybe I’m no Betty Draper. And considering I feel like Tiger Mom after I make my five-year-old try to zip her own coat for the fourth time before giving up, I’m pretty certain no one’s fingers will be bleeding during piano practice at my house.

I’m still on the hunt for better discipline techniques, however, somewhere on that continuum between calm lectures and washing mouths out with soap . . . but can I at least look like January Jones when I’m visualizing myself in the moment?

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