We introduced timeouts into our toddler’s life a few months ago, and it’s been quite the rollercoaster in managing discipline for our oldest daughter Eliza. There are some weeks where her timeout chair gets worn out with frequent and other stretches where it’s long forgotten in the corner of the living room. This is our first child so we are definitely winging it on this discipline thing and learning as we go along. It is, at least, making some type of impression on Eliza as she has quickly moved to delegating punishment on down the line (see here). Whether it’s her Elmo doll, a misbehaving horse figure, or her beloved stuffed dog Paco, she has no qualms about making sure her arsenal of playthings by instituting swift timeout justice at a moment’s notice.
I doubt that it is ever easy to discipline a child, but we’ve found it particularly difficult with a young toddler. Both my wife and I grew up in moderately strict households and we’re seeking to do the best for our daughter’s development via non-excessive but sufficient punishment. The biggest challenge in deciding what to do with a misbehaving toddler is the innate empathetic nature parents possess. There are times when Eliza is going crazy but I recognize that she’s drooling wildly and tugging at her teeth, clearly teething and not quite herself. Do I offer grace for her misbehavior or ignore the circumstances? It’s a thin line and one my wife and I struggle to define and administer. We can perceive the visible pangs of sickness, fatigue, and teething, but does that excuse not listening and other feisty behavior? At just two and a half years old, it sometimes takes ample contemplation to move forward with any form of punishment. What habits need to be learned at age two and which battles should be postponed until later? I always shudder at the thought that I might raise my voice or administer the feared ‘timeout’ while my toddler doesn’t fully comprehend what is going on. There are times when she slyly grins—clearly knowing she’s being an ornery squirt—and runs in the opposite direction of daddy’s voice; these moments make it easy to calmly walk her to timeout with the confidence in my actions. Yet other times she acts up and I’m not quite sure she understands a condemning shout. It seems to be a case-by-case basis, but it’s not easy as a parent to differentiate between what needs to be instilled immediately as a toddler and what should be pushed onto an older age.
The final and seemingly biggest challenge is the intertwined relationship between punishing our toddler and punishing ourselves. It’s not easy laying down the laws of justice after a long day of work and only a two-hour window with my little darling. Spending even a moment of my precious time with my daughters devoted to a timeout or a drawn out process of explanation is doubly difficult when it slices into anticipated family quality time. Everything I have heard from family and friends or read in books says that the worst thing you can do for a child is to voice an empty threat; there are times (rarities at this point, thank goodness) when my wife or I threaten Eliza with an early bedtime or naptime. When she continues her tantrum, we reluctantly have no choice but to follow through. This is punishment for her, but unfortunately it feels like even greater punishment for us as every last second with our sweethearts is cherished.
We follow our instincts and support each other the best we can, but there’s no such thing as black and white when it comes to raising a child. We swim in the shades of gray and pray that the tiny sacrifices we make today will translate into a better future for our daughters tomorrow. Even at 11:30 pm, writing this tinges a morsel of guilt that makes me want to sneak into her room and salvage some extra cuddles. She is an incredibly well behaved child (as told to us by others), but there’s no escaping the growing pains of a toddler testing her limits. Perhaps I should follow Eliza’s lead and start demonstrating discipline by placing Elmo in timeout and instituting corporal punishment for her legion of LittlePeople and stuffed animal collection; maybe that would suffice in teaching Eliza and I won’t have to spend my evenings writing blog posts of reflection…but oh how I love these challenges!