My son grabbed my headset and twirled it in the air like a lasso. In a firm, but calm voice I asked him to put it down. Seconds later – whap – the ear pieces slammed against the wall next to him. Starting to get agitated I raised my voice and firmly stated, “Arthur, put that down right now or I’m putting you in time out!” He didn’t. The headset continued its orbit. As I approached – wham – the headset had been ejected from his hand and into the nearest wall. My parenting instincts kicked in and I knew in that moment that a time-out was futile. Arthur had already calculated in his small but deceptively brilliant little brain that a few minutes sitting in the corner was well worth the joy of twirling my headset in the air. I closed the gap on him, reached down, and gave his bottom a smack. He immediately starting crying, on the verge of hyperventilating. The tears weren’t from pain, as I assure you the slap of his bottom had less force than the average sneeze. His tears were because spankings are so rare in our family and I had caught him by surprise. For the record, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever spanked him.
My frustration with Arthur wasn’t because he was man-handling that not-so-cheap piece of equipment. Hell, in all honesty, that headset was on its way out as it had recently developed a seriously annoying crackling sound. My frustration was because this type of interaction had become far too common. My 3 year-old was just testing his boundaries, which usually ended in a time-out, taking away a privilege, or commandeering a toy. This time I wanted to change the paradigm a bit.
As tears poured down his cheeks, Arthur ran to his mom. In between his dramatic gasps of air he told her that, ‘Papi spanked me.” My wife looked at him and explained that 1) she had seen the entire event unfold, 2) that she heard Papi politely ask not once, not twice, but three times to put down the headset, and 3) that the headset was important for Papi’s job. Recognizing Mom wasn’t going to bend, he slowly regained his composure.
As parents how do we know how and when to discipline? Are there clear parameters we can follow? How much discipline is too much? How much is too little? Is a controlled slap on the bottom really as bad as my generation of parents makes it out to be?
Now bear with me for a brief off-topic history lesson – I promise it has some relevance. In 1964 the Supreme Court took on a case of whether pornography was a protected form of free speech. Supreme Court Justice Stewart found it impossible to define the boundary where pornography crossed from being a freedom of expression to being obscene. Because it was perhaps impossible to intelligibly define that boundary, Justice Stewart deferred to his gut and stated, “I know it when I see it.” That phrase became one of the most famous phrases in Supreme Court history, and has subsequently become a common expression in our daily language.
As parents we are constantly analyzing our disciplining techniques. We strive to find a balance between being too strict and being too soft. We watch our closest friends, neighbors at the park, and even total strangers at the grocery store discipline their children. We are constantly comparing judging their styles. We place each of their styles on this notional spectrum in our heads – ranging from too soft to too strict. Too soft will lead to a case of “Affluenza.” Too strict might lead to self-esteem issues and rebellion. If you ask me to define the boundary between good and bad disciplining I can’t intelligibly do so, but, “I know it when I see it.”