Friday, March 25, 2011

Mixed Messages

While The Boy was at school today, I took Little Bear down to the JCC for their little persons' Shabbat celebration. We had a very pleasant surprise: three (including me) of the seven parent/grandparents there were men! It's nice to see other dudes like me, who have a Sugar Momma that takes care of them. At the end of the little service, three went home, leaving me, one man, and two grandmas. One of the grandsons was older than Little Bear by six or seven months (needless to say, my kid was bigger and stronger than that one, which turned out to be not-so- relevant to the discussion but still fun to point out), and this little boy was a biter. He bit one of the littler girls, whose father took it in stride and comforted the girl. It's unfortunate, he knew, but it's what happens when groups of children get together. They act like children.

The grandma absolutely flipped her lid, yelled at the boy and carried over to the corner for a time out. She remarked that she wanted to wash the boy's mouth out with soap, but the boy's mother wouldn't let her. This spurred the discussion of the various times that the parents of the previous generation or two beat the living tar out of the people there, usually richly deserved and warranted. After various posturing by parents there about what they'd do to their kids in various situations ("If my girl ran out into the street, I'd beat the crap out of her. That'd teach her not to do it again!"), I finally spoke up.

"I'd like to think that I can find a better way to discipline my children that doesn't involve beating them."

Gentle Readers, most of you know me well enough by now to know that I am, by far, not a violent person. Far from it - I'm a Teddy bear, all bark and very, very little bite. I'm a big, strong weight lifter, who'd rather break a fistr smashing a wall than dare to attack another person, much less my beloved sons. I will confess the occasional desire to backhand one of them when they're being particularly malicious and mean, but I'm more likely to soak my head in a used toilet bowl than to follow that irrational impulse.

I was asked what I would do if that were my kid. The answer is, I'm not entirely sure. Biting is a phase that many, many kids go through, and most of them outgrow it before high school. It's an attention thing. His mom is pregnant, and the house is consumed with preparing things for the new baby. He's likely feeling that pressure and tension and trying to get the stable, familiar living situation back. The only way he can control things is by biting. That is my dime-store psychological assessment. I told them that I'd first remove the boy from the situation and talk it through with him. When he was calmer and more rational, I'd ask him to apologize to the little girl and promise not to do it again.

He'd do it again, for sure. It's something that he needs to outgrow. He needs to find another outlet for aggression and another way to get the attention of the people around him. It's possible that washings his mouth out with soap might cure him of the habit - if he relates the soap to the biting. I think it more likely, at two years old, that he doesn't white understand the connection between the punishment and the action. Given enough times, he'd figure the connection out, but how many times is that - 10? 15? 50?

My older son still has a hard time deciding to stop his activity and going to the potty, because that one extra piece of the puzzle is worth having wet pants. That might be a losing proposition.

And, where does it stop? If you wash his mouth out with soap for biting, what do you do for hitting? Hit his hands? Hit him? What if he pushes a kid in school? Gets in a fight? Cheats on a test? At what points does the physical violence against the child become too much? When do you, as a parent, decide, "Well, it's not working when I beat the he'll out of kid, so let's find an alternate solution?"

Taking the other tack: what if it is the most efficient and effective solution? What if smacking The Boy on his behind when he has an accident is the best motivation? Fear, and fear of failure, is the biggest motivator in my life. Well, that and proving wrong people who've thought little of me, which amounts to the same thing. Is it right or wrong to help encourage that very necessary dollop of fear into my sons' lives? Is extrinsic punishment a fitting complement to intrinsic reward?

I don't really have the answer to that statement. I hope that I'm doing the right thing in the way that I'm choosing to raise my sons. I hope that unconditional love, a calm and steady household (ha!), positive reinforcement of habits we like, a redirection or ignoring of habits we don't, and a love of learning and reading and exploring and fun will be enough to mold my sons into fine, upstanding young men who are ready to succeed on their own merits.

Or to be like me: unemployed, living in their wife's parents house, writing blogs about children who are finally sleeping in their own room.


If you're interested, people started looking kind of uncomfortable when I said that I wasn't so into beating my children to punish them for things that they might not quite understand. The topic turned to discipline in the classroom - the aforementioned grandma was also a school teacher. Sigh. She would have been the classroom teacher that absolutely hated me. I can tell that. I eat people like her for lunch, and the kids know it, and she knows it.

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