The first time Henry threw a legitimate tantrum, I was positive that he must be having an allergic reaction to something he had eaten earlier in the day at his babysitter’s house. Surely only approaching death and deep physical pain could be responsible for transforming my cherub baby into the shrieking beast before me. We were both crying by the end, and I made a mental note to question his childcare provider in depth about allergen exposure as I soothed my baby-on-the-brink-of-death.
But then it happened again a couple weeks later, only this time, the offense was not a criminal food, but the fact that I wouldn’t let him hold the Swiffer while he ate dinner. Even then- I initially let him hold it, but he kept whacking his face with it and making himself cry, hence my audacious attempt to extract it.
That’s when it occurred to me: we are beyond logic. We are in toddler land. And it is riddled with tantrums and meltdowns, proof of a brain that literally explodes as it learns that the world is full of Arbitrary Limits Imposed by Other Humans and this knowledge proves infuriating and must be rebelled against.
Pause. If you have a baby that is under the age of 14 months and you are blinking wide-eyed and innocent at this post and thinking, I’m so glad my kid doesn’t have tantrums-
Just wait. They are coming. Your kid is not special. They might not come till 2, it might be 4, but they will come. You will join us in these battered trenches of discipline, just bide your time. Some parents have deeper trenches, some stay in longer, some lose more limbs in the battle. But no one gets to skip out entirely.
Outbursts have to come, because they are the very normal and healthy result of tiny humans experiencing the world with all the emotions and sensations, but very few of the coping mechanisms.
Which brings me to discipline. I am not here to advocate a certain method, but rather to say that I am learning a lot about the concept as a whole. I have come to view it not, in fact, as a set list of rules to impose, and rather as a (much more frighteningly) fluid change and mindset required in myself to create a world of good, clear, and healthy boundaries that set my son free to develop as he needs.
That sounds pretty, right? Like I know what I’m doing and have some zen approach where Henry and I press our foreheads together when he is losing it, and then I calm him by humming Gregorian chants before using a feelings board to identify his emotions. FALSE.
In reality, it is the hardest part of parenting thus far, because often I have no clue how to effectively discipline and guide my child. He’s 20 months old, too young for many things I associate with the (good and fair) discipline I received growing up. And yet, he is definitely not too old to crave limits, to need correction, and to be fully capable of understanding and following instructions. That last part is crucial, and I initially overlooked it. But I am beyond blessed to have several friends who have kids a couple years, or even months older, than Henry. I have watched them navigate tantrums and even just inappropriate but not malicious behavior (like throwing food on the ground) with grace and firmness and seen the way that their kids thrived. I have asked for help and they have given good and concrete advice.
Obviously, I hate, hate, HATE having to set up boundaries for my child. It is not fun to sit calmly eating dinner beside him while he shrieks because he no longer wants the dinner that is provided- that he requested 30 seconds ago – and he wants to leave the table. It is deeply unpleasant to have to repeat myself and withhold something until he requests it politely. It would be so much easier to pick up the food he throws on the ground, rather than quietly making him get down and pick it up himself, to not require words of politeness, to cave to every whim, to turn on the TV when he hurls himself to the ground in tears yelling, “MOANNNNNNAAAA!!!” It would be so, so, so much easier to not discipline my child. It is exhausting to have to be consistent day in, day out.
But it is necessary.
A couple months ago, I picked Henry up from childcare and learned that he is a biter. Henry, my precious boy, who loves hugging and his blankies, had left a tooth indentation on another child. Let me be clear- this was not an issue of teething or accident. He was totally happy and pretty much just walked up and took a bite out of someone else because he could. It was not an isolated incident either. I saw him try it at the park a couple times, at which point I did what every dog owner does when their pooch snaps at someone: 1) Feign GREAT SURPRISE, claiming this has Never happened! 2) Dramatically haul the kid away, preferably with a eloquent speech in a loud voice about “GENTLE TOUCH!” 3) Quietly pray that other kids start biting back to scare him out of it. Once he was dancing at Boogie Babes and went in to hug another kid, because my kid is a hugger. She did not want a hug, and y’all- he went for her jugular. I loudly exclaimed, “Henry- we don’t kiss people without permission!,” pulling him back as the other mother giggled and said, “How sweet!” She didn’t know that her daughter almost had her throat ripped out by my zombie child. She didn’t know, but I know. And Henry knows it is wrong. But yet, he does it anyways.
Because fundamentally, a toddler is like the rest of us: Fallen. Interested in pushing limits. Curious about what they can get away with. Unsure how to proceed in new surroundings. Automatically unkind to people who do them (perceived or real) wrong.
And that is why one of my most important jobs is to establish boundaries, to foster self control and compassion, to teach him that some things are not ok and that we do not treat people like that.
It starts small, this training. It looks unimportant, these boundaries. For now, it looks like that stupid charade of making Henry share toys and take turns if he seizes something from another kid, and even occasionally making him give up the toy he had rightfully first. It looks like withholding anything he wants until it is requested with a “please” and followed by a “thank you.” It looks like me hauling him back to a kid he wronged at toddler gym until he says thank you. It looks like table manners and teaching him to sit still during prayer and requiring that he hold my hand when he crosses the street. It looks hard and pointless and it would be a thousand times easier to not do it and let him just be a savage toddler.
But that would be refusing to do my job. My job is to crawl into the chaos of his tiny world and build guardrails around it to push him in the right direction. To teach him to respect people and things. To teach him to respond with grace and patience. To teach him that this world isn’t about him and his wants. To teach him that boundaries and discipline and rules set us free from our own base impulses and desires.
Don’t misunderstand me- I let my kid be wild a lot of the time, because that is who he is. I don’t stop him from making messes or climbing the furniture. He is not reprimanded when he comes back from the park caked in mud or dumps the entire contents of his dresser on the floor while playing. I let him be loud and chaotic. He is an energetic and curious boy and I love that, even if the mess drives me crazy. But coupled with his freedom to play is the necessity of learning when, and for what, we do not play around. We draw the lines at respect for others, at kindness, at obedience. I require that he sit quietly while we pray or ask politely for things so that he learns that all of life isn’t governed by park rules or free play. We practice stillness and restraint sometimes so we can revel in freedom and activity most of the time. Thinking intentionally about discipline gives me freedom to respond to acts of disobedience, while shrugging my shoulders at the broken dishes, fallen food, and ruined clothes that come from toddler motor skills and curiosity rather than willful volition. There is a difference, and we are both learning what that is and how to respond.
Because what is perhaps most humbling to me about the daily drudgery of disciplining and correcting is the way it is fostering those same qualities in me. If I don’t say please and thank you to him- how will he learn it? If I yell in anger and frustration, why shouldn’t he? If I am quick to lose my temper, how much quicker will he be?
That’s the thing about discipline- it is constant. For both of us. He is watching. He is learning. I am writing the rules of his world, and I am learning that I have play by them too if I ever want to teach him how.