Our daughter is now 6. This means she’s almost done with her first year of compulsory education and is about to enter what she calls “the number grades… the ones that really matter.” Along with this maturation comes an increase in her social circle, and multiple influences from kids, their parents, teachers and administrators who we may not have regular contact with.
Each person she regularly encounters is an influence. Some are beneficial; say, asking for extra homework because a teacher told her that this was how she would become smarter. Others… Let’s just say we want to lock her in a room sometimes and have her detox from the detrimental influences of her overprivileged, entitled school peers. People talk about the terrible twos as if they’re inevitable. We didn’t have that problem. What we’re experiencing are the terrible-Ks—hardheadedness personified.
My wife and I have made a firm commitment to not spank our child. Everyone, but especially Black folks, have their own opinions about spanking. “Look at me. I turned out fine,” or “If I didn’t get my butt whooped, I wouldn’t be here today.” While this may be true for some, hitting our child is too far outside of what we value in our parenting and in our relationship. But damn, sometimes I think, “Oooweee, Bernie Mac was right! Down to the white meat!”
Our daughter’s hardheaded defiance feels like she’s made a concrete plan to anger us. Little over a year ago, I could put a little bass in my voice to get her to comply. This no longer works. I do this now and she laughs at me. Her mother still has her parental superpowers. She can issue a whisper or a piercing stare and our daughter will immediately stop what she’s doing and run to hug her. The disappointment she feels because she disappointed her mother is enough to get her to follow directions.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching discipline. I’ve spoken to medical doctors, psychologists and behavioral health experts, all to find the best tools for disciplining my daughter when she needs it. The thing is, there is no such thing. No one way is the right way to discipline. But to a person, they uniformly rejected spanking.
What follows is a distillation of some of the common themes regarding discipline that I’ve gleaned from various experts. Consider as you will.
Is your child’s behavior discipline worthy? Are they doing something wrong, or are they engaged in behaviors that are developmentally inappropriate? If it’s the former, interrupt their behavior with as few words as possible. Too many words will confuse them. If it’s the latter, teach them why the task is inappropriate and provide an alternative.
Time-outs don’t work unless it’s a time out from having fun with the rest of the family or with friends. Most people will direct their child to a time-out and the house stops and waits for the time-out to be over. After delivering the time-out, continue on with your business until it’s time to check in with your child. When delivering a time out, provide them with a direction (“time out”), location (“in that chair”), and a reason (“for not following directions”), and then disengage. After the time-out (no longer than three minutes), invite them to rejoin the group/activity.
When considering taking away a favorite toy, or denying their participation in a favorite activity, you have to understand that young children feel loss deeper than adults do. You’re trying to correct behavior, not punish them for behaving a certain way. So instead of taking away that special thing, reframe it as them earning the privilege to have the thing. You can do this at 3. Provide them with conditions, and if they follow the structure, they get it. If they don’t adhere to the structure, they get nothing. It’s like a teacher telling the class that everyone starts the semester with an “A.” All they have to do is maintain “A” level work. If not, their grade drops.
This is only a small sampling of what I’ve researched, been told, and have used. I’ll be using this space to revisit the topic from time to time. The one thing that all parents need to keep in mind is that they’re our children, not our opponents. Everything must be done with love, caring and understanding, because we want our children to grow into good adults—a journey that begins in the home.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.