The story regarding the spanking was just one random incident. So why share that particular story? For starters, it just happened so it is fresh in my mind. Primarily, however, it is a simple and illustrative case study. Did I do the right thing? Did I act emotionally, or was my reaction thoughtfully calculated? Will that spanking lead to future psychological issues? The problem with disciplining is that it is so situational and subjective, and there is no formal set of rules that both parents and kids should abide by. If there is, can someone please share that handbook with my kids?
It dawned on me however that, although there isn’t a concrete set of rules for disciplining our kids, my wife and I do operate under some unwritten guidelines. Why not put them on paper? Below is our attempt at a Top 10 list. Keep in mind we’ve got two fairly young kids, so coming to us for parenting advice is like going to Donald Drumpf for lessons on empathy.
Coincidentally, I’m reading The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a 2,500 year old book on military strategy that is still studied today. Because it applies remarkably to parenting (because don’t we all believe our children are tiny enemies from time to time?), I’ve included some quotable quotes.
1. We try to avoid physical discipline when possible.
We almost always defer to forms of discipline that don’t involve physical pain. We once relied heavily on time-outs, but their effectiveness diminished over time. We now typically take away a privilege (a toy, an activity, etc). If we take away a toy it is kept in plain site (above our fridge is a common spot) as a reminder that they did something wrong and are being punished. Regardless of what punishment we use, we force our kids to recognize what they did wrong by looking us in the eyes and explaining why they are in trouble.
To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. – Sun Tzu
2. However, we don’t take physical discipline off the table entirely.
I was raised by parents who were very kind, loving people, but like many parents of their generation they were okay resorting to an occasional spanking or even the belt. They weren’t abusive and they used other very effective forms of discipline. One time they put my cherished bicycle in the attic for a month because I got a “Below Satisfactory” on my conduct card for talking too much in grade school. Damn you, Mrs. Goodman – did I really deserve that? But on a rare occasion they resorted to a good old fashioned spanking. My generation of parents shudders at that thought, but I’ll be honest – we’re on the fence. We don’t want to teach our children that physical violence is appropriate and I certainly don’t want to psychologically scar them, but come on – is it really abusive to give a kid a slap on the tush? We resort to other forms of discipline 99 times out of 100, but on occasion we are okay with an encouraging spank on the bottom.
If fighting is sure to result in victory, than you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding. – Sun Tzu
3. We keep our cool and don’t react emotionally.
This one might come across as common sense, but it might be the hardest guideline to follow, because boy is it easy to lose your cool when your older son experiments with a mallet on his younger brother. Breathe, Roberto. Breathe.
The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants. – Sun Tzu
4. We back each other up and tap out when necessary.
Keeping cool is important, but sometimes it is just impossible. Assuming you’ve got a parenting partner nearby, this might be a good time to tap out. It has taken time, but my wife and I have become pretty good at reading each other’s body language and cues. We recognize when a situation is escalating and we determine whether it provides any value to step in. The danger here of course is stepping on each other’s toes or coming across as a divided front, but that can be managed if the transition occurs smoothly and both adults keep a level head and recognize what’s going on.
He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. – Sun Tzu
5. We pick our battles.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I suck at following this guideline but I’m getting better. My wife on the other hand excels at this, which is probably why her blood pressure is remarkably better than mine. Just yesterday my son politely asked me for ice water: “Excuse me Papi. Can I please have ice water?” Upon delivering him non-iced water he got upset. In his little mind he did everything right. I on the other hand don’t tolerate whining, so I told him he was stuck with non-iced water. I can just picture my parents telling me: “Some children in Africa don’t even have clean water. Be happy with what you got!” I didn’t react emotionally, but in retrospect it was just a silly battle to pick, especially given how politely he had made his original request.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. – Sun Tzu
6. We remind ourselves that their brains are still developing.
Neuroscientists today believe the brain doesn’t fully develop until we reach our mid 20s (if not later). This means we can, to some degree, blame our immature brains for all those big mistakes we made growing up. If our brains don’t fully mature until we are fully grown adults, you can only imagine how poorly a four, eight, or even 12 year old’s brain is processing information, maintaining attention, controlling impulses, and thinking logically. That doesn’t mean you should ignore discipline, because how we discipline them will create healthy patterns and structure. All it means is that we can’t expect our kid to think like we do yet. If you’ve ever tried talking a toddler out of a major meltdown and failed, it is because their brain can’t handle logic like ours can.
To know your enemy, you must become your enemy. – Sun Tzu
7. We avoid lies, empty threats, and bribes.
One of my kids is not a great eater. It is usually an ordeal to get him to sit down with us for dinner, so we end up forcing him to join us. To us, this is non-negotiable because we embrace the importance of eating together as a family. Once we’ve dragged him to the table, he is rarely enthusiastic about eating whatever amazing dinner we’ve prepared. He’ll eat a few bites and then show little interest in continuing his meal. Now keep two things in mind: 1) He is in the 5th percentile for weight and height, so eating is obviously a concern for us. 2) He will eat a few bites, refuse to eat the rest of his dinner, and then wander into the kitchen 30 minutes later begging for some sort of salty carb-loaded snack (pretzels, crackers, toast, etc). One day we brought home a pint of Bluebell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream (everyone’s favorite, aside from the listeria). We coerced him into finishing his healthy dinner by bribing him with ice cream for dessert. It was a huge success, but we regretted it immediately. Every day that week he would finish his dinner, but only if we promised him ice cream. Although it was an easy fix to our dinner problems, Cory and I agreed bribing him with junk food was a really bad habit. It took us a month to get him to stop demanding dessert. For the record, we now approach dinner very differently. During dinner, we try to engage him with questions like, “What is something that made you smile today?” or, “What is something that made you upset today?” In between his answers, we’ll ask him to take one bite before responding. If all else fails, we leave his unfinished plate on the table until bed time. If he comes asking for snacks, we’ll insist that he finishes his dinner before getting any bedtime snacks. Like everything else on the list, we recognize that an occasional bribe is okay…but we try to make those instances the exception to the rule.
The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. – Sun Tzu
8. We react swiftly to take advantage of teachable moments.
There are two reasons to react swiftly. First, kids often don’t remember what they did wrong 10 minutes after the offense so you have to act fast. Second, once you’ve picked a battle it is imperative to get the most out of it. Use that moment to teach your child wrong versus right, moral versus immoral, etc. If too much time passes, that teachable moment may go to waste.
There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare. – Sun Tzu
9. We recognize when discipline is self-inflicted (and we avoid embarrassing them).
My son, who was perfectly potty trained at the time, had an ‘accident’ on the playground. I had asked him several times if he needed to use the bathroom, but he insisted that he didn’t need to. In reality, he was just having too much fun to be bothered with bodily fluids until it was too late. He stood there hugging a pole on the jungle gym, concealing the front of his pants. After a couple minutes I walked over. He was sad and embarrassed. It upset me because the situation had been totally avoidable and dealing with a pee-soaked child is less than ideal, but I knew from the look on his face that he was terrified. I whispered in his ear, “Hey buddy. Did you have an accident?” He bashfully acknowledged after which I picked him up concealing his wet spot and carried him away.
In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. – Sun Tzu
10. We pivot and persevere.
I’m a consulting manager in the software industry. I am often faced with major decisions on whether to keep course or make major course corrections. Eric Ries, a well recognized Silicon Valley entrepreneur, came up with a fancy catch phrase for this – Pivot or Persevere. In the context of entrepreneurship, a Pivot is a structured course correction designed to test a new hypothesis or approach. Parenting is a lot like entrepreneurship. There have been plenty of parents before us, just like there have been plenty of businesses before all new start-ups…but each of us (new parents and entrepreneurs) face challenges unique to our circumstances and children. We must persevere when we think we are getting something right…and pivot when we are not. By doing so we gain confidence in our approach and ultimately become better parents.
You have to believe in yourself. – Sun Tzu