Recently I wrote about dealing with an epic fit my daughter had thrown while I was picking her up from day care. Later, a friend mentioned to me that a quick, firm smack on the butt probably would have calmed her down. It might have. It definitely would have been easier than the chaos of strapping a flailing 4-year-old into her car seat. And trust me, when my sweet little girl lowered her fist like a hammer onto the bridge of my nose, there was more than a small percentage of me that wanted to make it incredibly clear to her that hitting hurts. I think that is a pretty normal reaction to anger and pain, but it is not one I am comfortable with.
When my wife and I became parents, we mutually agreed that we weren't going to spank our kids. It was a remarkably easy decision for us to make at the time. We had this tiny, soft, defenseless human cradled in our arms. We looked into her eyes, and then into each other's eyes, and said, "Let us never spank this tiny perfect person we just made."
And now sometimes I feel as if I have nothing. Time-out rarely works. The taking away of toys doesn't work very well. The calm explanation of feelings only seems to be effective after the hurricane. But in the ramp up, in the moments before the fit, I have nothing. I look my daughter in the face and say, "Don't you dare eat that chip I just told you that you couldn't have, that you then put in your mouth and are currently chewing, and which you just swallowed while I was finishing this run-on-sentence, which was only a run-on-sentence because I know once I reach the end of it and you have swallowed the chip I just explicitly said 'no' to I am going to have to come up with some form of discipline to counteract your direct and obvious defiance of me, of which I have none, because you don't care about time-out, or toys, or anything else, and I can't spank you because I promised tiny cute baby you that I wouldn't, and now you are a toddler-sized asshole and DID YOU JUST PUT ANOTHER CHIP IN YOUR MOUTH!"
(Don't worry. That part was just in my head. Also, I put two asterisks in the middle, so it isn't a real swear word. Right?)
We did this to ourselves. For our daughter's entire life we have been lying to her. We've been lying to ourselves. We've been building an invisible fence that only existed as long as she believed in it.
"Listen to us, or else..."
"You had better do this before I count to three!"
"If you don't get in bed right now, you are going to be in trouble!"
And she would run straight to bed! She never wanted to see what was on the other side of the curtain. The "or else" was enough. But, in our new parent haze, the problem "past" John and Stevie left for "future" John and Stevie to figure out was what would happen when we got to three. So all it took was once...
"Daughter, you had better do [random thing] before I count to three. I'm going to start counting. One... Two... (Oh no. She's going to let me get to three. The jig is up. She's figured me out. I have to stall. How do you stall counting to three???) Twwooooooooooo.... (Really, John. You just said two again, but longer. You're a writer, and that is what you came up with? Do you realize you are still saying two while you are thinking this?) oooooooooooooooo (She's called your bluff. Start crying. Pray for the phone to ring. Fake a heart attack. Just whatever you do, don't say...) THREE!"
And the battle was over. She had won. We stared at each other silently, blinking. I watched as she slowly realized that the control I pretended to have over her was an illusion. There was no fence. Her world opened up. Mine collapsed. I tried again, because I am dumb.
"One... two... three."
Nothing. I had nothing. We've tried positive reinforcement; she laughs and eats another chip. We've tried time-out. Sure, she sits in her room, but she doesn't seem to mind. I have calmly explained why she needs to listen, but my "why" doesn't seem to matter to her.
And so, in the rougher moments, I fleetingly wish I could spank her. It would be easier to make a spanking be the post-three punishment. A "firm smack to the butt" would make an excellent boogie man.
But I won't.
One time, about a year ago, I grabbed my daughter's arm as she wildly flung her tiny fist towards my face, and for one second I squeezed it. I watched as the look in her eyes went from anger to suddenly knowing that I am much, much stronger than she is. Dad isn't just a soft cuddly guy. If he were to choose to, he could inflict pain. It wasn't a remarkably tight squeeze, but it was rougher than I had ever been with her, and as I watched her eyes widen I quickly knew what I was looking at. Fear. My daughter was afraid of me.
She started sobbing. I pulled her in close, buried my face in her hair, apologizing over and over again. She said sorry too, and that destroyed me. She wasn't sorry. She was too young to even grasp the concept of sorry. She was trying to avoid my anger. That's not what I want. That's not a road I want to start down. She shouldn't have to manage my emotions to avoid the possibility of getting hurt.
I have friends who spank. They tell me, "just don't spank angry." That doesn't work for me. The only times I want to spank my kids are when I am furious with them. I can't uncouple hitting from anger. Maybe some people can, but to me, all forms of violence, even the smallest ones, are emotion given physical form. It's not the father my dad was for me. And that is not the father I want to be for my kids.
So where does that leave Stevie and me? Do we continue to cycle through whatever the non-corporal punishment de jour is? I mean, on the scale of one to "Spawn of the Devil," I would say my kids, at their worst, are below a 5. So we're not doing that bad. And it's not as if they are in a constant mode of defiance. Even the fit from a few months ago ended up OK in the end.
For the most part, they are perfectly pleasant toddlers. I just wasn't ready for them to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge and suddenly realize that there isn't anything past me counting to three. Without arbitrary consequences for their defiance, I guess we're going to have to teach them the actual reasons why they should listen to our instructions. This presents two challenges. We're going to need good reasons, and somehow we have to get them to believe us.
Maybe I'll just start counting to 30.