My hands are full caring for two children these days. My baby boy is now six months old, and he is a placid, friendly child, with a ready smile and an easy temper. He is soft, like a pillow, with a tasty double chin and the promise of a dimple on his right cheek. He has learned to miss me when I leave the room, to cry loudly when I take a toy away, to sit up and to raise his arms when he wants to come to me. I am very grateful that he is healthy and happy, and the evenness of his temper allows me to care for my daughter with attention that is almost undiminished and unchanged by his arrival into our family circle.
Most of the time motherhood is a joy. It is very satisfying to feel that I am doing a good job, that my children are growing up in a healthy, stable environment and that I am giving them a happy childhood, but as much as I enjoy parenting, I am facing a challenge that is causing me much concern. My daughter, who will turn five in a few months, is a lively, intelligent little girl, eager to learn and happily exploring the world around her. She is also fearless, headstrong and very determined to have her own way and that is where my problem lies.
My approach to discipline is based on the idea that I am teaching my children how to live, and that every action I take regarding their upbringing should be a conscious decision. I believe in correcting bad habits and reinforcing good ones. I think children should be told when they do something wrong, but I always explain my thinking when I scold. I believe that teaching our values starts from the cradle, and so does the learning, because I don’t think unruly toddlers will suddenly turn into obedient, respectful young people. I don’t spank, but I do raise my voice when nothing else will do, and I’ve used the naughty step with some success, at least to instill a hard-won sense of regret.
I am realistic enough to know that I shouldn’t expect obedience one hundred percent of the time, but I would like the limits that I have set to be respected and acknowledged. I want to be in charge, and my daughter fights me for almost everything. If I tell her not to walk without shoes on the cold tile floor, I have to say it fifteen times a day and more. If it’s time for the t.v. to be off, there are tears and tantrums. Proper food was a daily battle until I gave up making myself miserable over it, an episode that deserves its own post.
My daughter questions everything. Every rule I set is tested, and although as I write this and she sleeps peacefully within view of my computer I feel I could be overreacting, I do not exaggerate when I say that every time she pushes the boundaries I have set, and every time she defies me, and every time I lose my cool over her disobedience, I am filled with a feeling that I can only describe as heartache.
How do I know when to let her be? How much should I expect from a child of four? Am I being unkind by setting so many rules, and what should I do when she breaks them? How much discipline is too much? And what if she cries? All these questions assail me and make me doubt myself.
Sometimes her tears break my heart and I feel awful, like a heartless witch who is stealing her childhood away, but then my instinctive response is no, I care too much about the kind of person she will turn out to be to let her grow up unchecked and without guidance, and I say to myself that I am doing the right thing and that I will give her the benefit of my advice, regardless of how hard it is for me to bear.
My greatest fear is that I will trade her obedience for her love and that by being the one who sets the limits, I will destroy my relationship with my daughter. Nothing prepares you for parenthood, not even wholehearted dedication. It is a constant, never-ending effort. I liken it to some ancient craft that takes years of minute, painstaking, repetitive labor. It’s the true bit of ivory.
I feel that essentially I am right, that limits are good, and that maintaining standards of behavior is important, but after much thought and internal debate I realize that my daughter may respond better if I am gentler in my approach, softer in my delivery and more tender in my expression. I express my love for her all the time, many times a day, but finding the right dose of discipline will be my main focus in this new year. She obviously resists me when she thinks I am too strict, and perhaps I am, so I have decided to let some things slide and rethink my priorities regarding some issues that are relatively minor. I remember a woman I knew who used to say that her daughter couldn’t pick and choose when to obey her, but with a strong-willed child like my little girl, I have come to accept that less conflict is more important than total submission. My goal is not to control her and simply make her do what I say, but rather to teach the principle behind the rule.
I should not forget that there is love in discipline and that I should allow it to come through, even when I scold. I will try not to forget that I am the adult, and that it is up to me to set the tone of my relationship with my children.