When Baby Starts Testing Limits, Daddy Tries Discipline

07/30/2010 04:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My son's got a temper.

He gets it from his mother. My wife has been known to drop-kick a duffel bag across the kitchen in frustration, or storm out of the house in the middle of an argument for a long walk to who knows where. But these eruptions come rarely. My 14-month-old son, Mr. F, on the other hand, blows his top several times a day.

He has several weapons in his arsenal, most of which my defenses can handle. Crying I tune out. He wails and moans so often, I've grown impervious. Flailing arms and legs I restrain by strapping him into his stroller or high chair. His signature move, the claw grab to the face, hurts like hell. But this is easily neutralized by plopping Mr. F on the floor, where my calves make less tender targets.

Recently, he's discovered a new, very powerful weapon--his voice. To describe the sound he produces as a scream doesn't do it justice. I call it the sonic attack.

It takes some force to generate. He fills his lungs with a deep inhale and pulls his head into his neck like a turtle and opens his mouth wide. Out comes a noise so loud and shrill that my eardrums rattle--literally, physically ringing inside my head--and sometimes, if he's close enough to them, I pick up a crackle, a static shimmering on the periphery of my hearing.

This, I can not abide.

I'm sensitive to sound. When exchanges occur at a certain volume, I can't hear what the other person is saying over how they're saying it. Even if said person is a baby not yet able to say anything in words, my hackles raise, my shields go up.

In last week's blistering heat, with the normally cool-headed daddy already on edge, Mr. F debuted his new offensive maneuver. When I secured him in his stroller, he screamed. When I wasn't providing him a steady flow of crackers as we walked down the street, he screamed. When we were in the produce aisle of the grocery store he screamed--I have no idea why, but it attracted the consternation of all within earshot. Upon returning home, he screamed incessantly as I tried to unload the groceries, though he had been fed and changed and there were plenty of toys strewn across the floor to keep him occupied.

I tried to handle his behavior rationally. I consistently told him, "Stop screaming. Be gentle with your voice." He knows what gentle means--he touches plants and doggies and (usually) mommy and daddy gently. I reiterated my message visually by pointing to my vocal cords and whispering. But he continued his sonic assaults, the mischievous glint in his eye and slight smirk on his lips giving me every impression that he knew he was being naughty.

Finally I picked him up and restocked the fridge one-handed. But this only gave him better access to my delicate ear holes. And when I continued to unpack in the face of his barrage he combined attacks, twisting my cheek in a claw grip while shrieking.

"That's it," I told him, my voice dropping into a sterner, more authoritative register. "You've gone too far. You're getting a time out."

This must have come as news to him--he's never had a time out before. But I marched him upstairs and with a final admonishing to be gentle, deposited him in his crib.

Once back in the kitchen, my tough guy exterior collapsed and I became a mess of apprehension. Would he be able to connect his behavior with his punishment and thereby learn from this experience, or was I subjecting him to cruel and unusual treatment? Was it bad to use his place of slumber as a place of punishment? Even without the baby monitor on I could hear him crying and howling, and I hung my head with guilt.

I rinsed my face off, tried to cool down and finished unpacking the food. Then, after five minutes had passed, I retrieved my son. Though he had calmed down from his initial upset, he was still weeping, his shirt wet through with tears and sweat. When I picked him up, he hung on limp and whimpering, nuzzling his ruddy, hot face into the crook of my arm. He allowed me to put him into his stroller and apply sunscreen with little fuss, and we left the house, off to get a snack and hit the playground sprinklers. Things were fine again, and the screaming meanie didn't return for the rest of the day.

Later, when I talked about what had happened with other parents, everyone agreed that I had done OK. The time out had worked, in that it put an end to the offending noise. And second, it gave me time to cool down, to recharge my patience. But still I wondered if I had made the right decision.

Parents with babies around Mr. F's age have noticed that it's difficult to tell when their baby is acting out of true need and when their baby is testing boundaries. The child can't talk, so we read their nonverbal cues the best we can. This sounds to me like parenting in the Wild West, with dad or mom, in the heat of the moment, trusting his or her gut on when to give in to the child's demands and when to resist, when to grit our teeth and tolerate unruly behavior as exploratory and when to punish such behavior as deliberate boundary breaking. Mr. F's a baby on the verge right now--acquiring toddler skills like talking and walking, while still sometimes needing the care and security of a younger baby.

Just as a child's development doesn't broadcast itself with clear markers, so too are parents unable to know with one hundred percent certainty how to react. But with time, I figure I'll become more adept at knowing, and hopefully Mr. F will get better at anticipating my reaction and be deterred from deliberately misbehaving.

One thing's for sure. With this kid's temper, I'm sure to have plenty of practice at making hard calls.