My first reaction was awe (okay, maybe my first reaction was indignation, but awe did follow). How could my 20-month old fearlessly challenge me—the bigger and stronger person(ality) in our relationship? And later, a new question arose: How dare she just change the rules, without giving me fair notice? But just as David found the courage to battle Goliath, and so too did Ayla. And what choice did I have? Either I could fight, or flee.
The plethora of parenting books means that parents are more educated than ever about the psychology and developmental stages of their children. For example, we know that children are often aggressive when frustrated, rather than being inherently violent. But I quickly realized that understanding your child’s behavior is entirely separate from modifying it. I could spend hours getting to the root cause of her behavioral shifts. Or I could do something about it. I know many parents who have found sophisticated reasons for fleeing—parents who prefer to explain the why’s of their child’s behavior rather than getting their hands dirty trying to change it.
After Ayla began to challenge me, I realized that it was not authentic for me to flee, nor would it be a good (short or long) term decision for Ayla. Ayla is naturally independent, self-directed and fearless. When children know how to assert themselves, their parents ought to teach them when and how to take a step back. Besides, if I didn’t step in, Ayla would soon run the house, and my life.
So when my toddler began spitting out half-chewed mouthfuls of food, I acted decisively. I spoke in a loud but calm voice and said, “We do not spit out food in our house.” Then I proceeded to methodically shovel the half-chewed bits of food back into her mouth, until it was all gone. She could tell by my eyes and my body language that I was serious, and that her behavior would not be tolerated. Afterwards, I was sure to express love--to send the message that she wasn't bad and that my love for her was unconditional.
It was my first major lesson in disciplining my child—a word that seemed so simple and straightforward until I had to enact it. Now the words feels like a fancy word for something much more crude. Is discipline anything other than engaging in a power struggle with your child, and deciding which battles you will win, and which you will concede?
Although I tried to engage my mind in the process, I learned that disciplining was much more instinctive than cerebral. Rather than calling forth directives from “Unconditional Parenting,” and “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be,” I found myself making decisions based on my extensive database of life experience. There was no clear or succinct theory to describe what I considered acceptable and unacceptable. Every woman knows the difference between flirtation and sexual harassment, and precisely when that line is crossed. Similarly, I just know that it is (messy but) reasonable for Ayla to touch every object on my bedside table but that she mustn’t dump out the contents of her lunch bag. I know these things not because my brain tells me the answer but by reading the sensations in my heart and gut.
Another surprise was the sheer volume of repetition involved in setting boundaries. Instead of languishing after her early defeat, my daughter rallied. She spit her food out at least ten times before she decided to stop; and even then, she occasionally decides to try her little trick again. In other matters she is absolutely indefatigable; she won’t stop pushing the buttons on my laptop, no matter how many times I say no, or redirect her, or give her different choices. As you may recall, David didn’t attack Goliath directly; he won by changing the game. Ayla’s strength is her persistence. Even if she doesn’t know it yet, eventually she’ll catch me at a moment of weakness and will get her way. And then what? Will we have to start all over again?
I also learned that I have only two parenting styles in my repertoire—Calm (aka “well-rested”) parenting and Irritable/Short-Fused (aka “not well rested”) parenting. Learning how to convert the latter into the former is the hardest part of all. Where and how do I find the resources to speak firmly and calmly when I’m tired, frustrated or simply having a bad day? This feels like the greatest personal challenge for me in the coming years. How can I both follow my instincts and control my emotions?
I know that this new phase in our household is inevitable and that it too will pass. I console myself with this thought on my bad days, even though I secretly know that it will be decades before Ayla stops pushing my boundaries—and my buttons. I will have to “Discipline, Love, and then Repeat” ad nauseam, until Ayla finally learns how to successfully negotiate what she needs from the world.
For now, I’ve taken to my bed each afternoon for a nap. Because what I’ve also learned is that even a tough cookie like Goliath gets tired, and that sometimes he just needs to lie down…