I got a comment about oppositional behavior, and I just couldn't wait to post about it. Remember when I last left off talking about Montanaro's three crises? Remember how I said I was hoping against hope that "this" was the terrible twos?
There are lots of useful analogies about challenging toddlers. People often say it's like having a preverbal teenager, which is my favorite, and a sentiment I can totally get behind. Before I go on, I just have to say that, for us, entering the crisis of opposition has been a little like early labor for a first time mother. There comes a point at which the hurt is so intense, so unlike anything you've ever felt before, that you're sure it can't get any worse than this, and then it does.
In any case, I think we're really here, now. Nuvy is a delight as long as I don't ask anything of her. She is adorably verbal, heartbreakingly affectionate, and generally sweet and well meaning. But...
THE MINUTE I invade her interior monologue to ask her to (insert benign request here--come to dinner, put on shoes, take off shoes, get sweater, etc.), it all falls apart. I am given to understand that this is not only normal, but healthy, and that it is a phase she'll grow out of. Here's hoping.
So in the absence of having raised up a perfectly cooperative two-year-old, I consulted the literature. I found a few articles here, and here, that are good opening discussions of the "natural and logical consequences" discipline strategy. I think (have been trained to think) that this is a superior method to corporal punishment or "time out". In my educational experience, it is miraculous. In my limited parenting experience, it does work, but somewhat less dramatically for parents than for teachers. By now, this should surprise nobody.
I will state for the record that I am absolutely opposed to corporal punishment and all sorts of intimidation tactics in child-rearing. In the next breath, I have to admit that I am bossy as hell and tend to insist on my own way (I'm glaring in your direction, peanut gallery dwellers), and sometimes pretty forcefully. I have, in fact, yelled at my toddler on more occasions than I like to think about, and have, in extremely tense situations, impulsively smacked her on the hand or bottom three times that I can remember right now. I'm not proud of any of this, but it can and does happen, even to people who KNOW it isn't right.
Now that that's off my chest, I do not believe that yelling or corporal punishment has ever, EVER improved a bad situation with Nuvy. The best that ever happened was that she was temporarily intimidated into obedience, but it was at the cost, of some modicum of her respect for me. I'm sure all you old friends of mine out there are smiling wryly. I would say to you just what you think I would say. ;-)
So, if your family and friends tell you you must discipline your child by corporal means to be effective, I would suggest that there is ample evidence to the contrary. Here is a very nice article from Tomorrow's Child regarding the Montessori approach to discipline. It is an empowering, child-driven philosophy that aims to nurture a self-disciplined child, in contrast with methods that aim to produce an "obedient" child.
The difference between self discipline and obedience is an important one, and it represents a fundamental difference between two ideas of "good" behavior. As you might have guessed, I hope that I am nurturing a self-disciplined child. I think that intimidation methods like corporal punishment, yelling, and even time-out in certain applications, tend to pretty effectively produce obedience, at least for a while. Unfortunately, the effect is only maintained as long as the child's main objective is to please the parent, and parents will find--sooner or later-- that the child's desire to please the parent is, well, intermittent at best. Once parent approval is no longer the child's primary concern, discipline strategies that rely on the child's desire to remain in good standing with the parent fall apart. I know I keep coming back to this (as in my post about praise), but I believe it. Montessori-style discipline, or "normalization" is about a child's learning to make good decisions whether or not adults are there to impose them. Sounds like a tall order? I suppose it is, but I'll try briefly to provide a few central pillars for discussion. Of course, please read all these articles I've linked to. These are just a few quickies:
1. Choose Rules Carefully: There are lots of "rules about rules" that you could read up on, but my rule litmus test is to ask myself, "Do I REALLY mean 'No.'?" I mean, am I willing to pick up my marbles and go home over this? Could I reasonably be persuaded otherwise? Is it just because I'm tired? If not, it's not a rule. I try to make as few rules as possible and make them real. Other things are open to negotiation, and I do think it's ok to negotiate with toddlers, and even to be persuaded by them, because it empowers them, and helps them to understand that talking can sometimes work (whereas whining and hitting do not) to get you what you want. There's lots more about that, but I said I'd be brief...
Corollary: mean "no" when you say it
2. Model the behavior you want: This one was a no-brainer for me, but the very devil to live up to. The argument goes like this: How do you expect to teach your child to be respectful and kind by hitting him or speaking to him in an angry/threatening tone? Do you anticipate the day when he yells or hits back? Again, you can achieve temporary obedience by intimidation, but there is a time coming when you will no longer be as intimidating as you are now. Just something to think about.
Modeling is also a way of keeping the rules clear. If standards of behavior are different for you and for your child, you can imagine the confusion, and the precipitant devaluing of the standard itself.
The fact that we are not perfect parents (are you?), and we slip up now and again in this regard gives us another modeling opportunity. We find we have the opportunity to model appropriate conciliatory behaviors. I have had several opportunities to model for my daughter a sincere apology when I have made a mistake. It's not that I like screwing up, but I think it's valuable to her to learn that errant behaviors can be adequately dealt with by apology, discussion and reconciliation. A child who is asked to forgive, and has an opportunity to offer forgiveness, also learns that she will be forgiven her mistakes, and so may learn to acknowledge them. I think most of us could use a little of that.
Caveat: Kids have a keen nose for insincerity. Remember when you were a kid and an adult tried to bait and switch you? Believe it.
Of course, self-discipline is a process and obedience is a behavior. I want my child to obey me, in the short term, but to obey her own better nature in the long term. The thing is, if she's to develop her own better nature into a strong will, I may have to sacrifice some part of the immediate obedience that would be convenient (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) to me. To people who have raised children, or have been raised themselves in a more authoritarian style, this will surely look like "spoiling" and you will be cautioned to apply more direct heat. I would encourage you to stand your ground.
Don't get me wrong, I do believe children are "spoilable", but I don't think it's respect that spoils them. I think it's lack of discipline on the part of the parent--learned by the child through modeling inconsistent behavioral cause and effect, a frequent by-product of authoritarian rule. Political analogy: ever notice how it's always a totalitarian government that gets overthrown. It's not overthrown because it's oppressive, but because it's subjects discover that it is weak.
But that deserves its own post.