Finding the Will to Fight: Disciplining in Spite of Screams and Sobs

I'll never forget the first time I raised my voice to my toddler. She had it coming; this was a repeat offense and she knew better. Even so, I wasn't prepared for the pain in her eyes, the curled up lip, the rush of crocodile tears. "Mommy's so sorry!" I gasped, blotting her tears with my thumb. "Oh, honey! Please don't cry!"

Some days, when our little ones glare at us, sob, hit, kick or scream it breaks our hearts. Other times, it sends our minds spiraling into an abyss of hopeless frustration. That's when we hear the little voice inside urging, "Just let it go this time. Ignore it. He's too young to understand what he's doing."

Trouble is, we may have a hard time finding a child development expert to back us up. Most contend that children form attitudes about authority even in the early toddler years. Nashville pediatrician Dr. Bill Slonecker once said on a radio broadcast, "If discipline begins on the second day of life, you're one day late." Dr. Slonecker wasn't recommending we physically discipline or punish an infant. He was explaining that it's never too early for parents to lovingly establish who's in charge.

Implementing discipline early on works to our advantage. We're bigger, so we're physically able to put a child in his "time-out" spot – and keep putting him there if he refuses to stay! We're more rational, so we're less likely to be drawn into a war of words. If we lock in our behavioral expectations when kids are small, we may prevent some of the harsher battles for which teens are infamous.

No one enjoys following through with discipline – but it helps to remember we're conveying critical life lessons. Here are a few practical suggestions for providing loving correction on and off the battlefield:

Don't react in anger.

Regardless of their views on spanking, experts agree that parents should never raise a hand in anger. Acting in rage increases our chances of inflicting serious emotional or physical harm. It also creates a glaring double standard: We ask our kids to manage their behavior, but our anger shows we can't control our own.

Peacetime Preparations:
Develop a strategy for managing frustrating behavioral situations. Include your spouse, if possible. By mentally preparing rational, loving responses you'll be less likely to lose your temper when conflict erupts.

Offer choices.

At the first sign of trouble, we can provide a child with two acceptable choices. "Daniel, do you want to play nicely, or would you rather spend some time in your room?" In a big people's world, kids are starved for control and affirmation. We address both needs when we give kids choices. We allow them to decide on their next move. Provided they accept one of our suggestions, we can invariably encourage them by saying, "That's a good decision."

Peacetime Preparations:
Give kids lots of choices, even about small things like which shirt to wear or what vegetables they want to eat. Offer only two appropriate choices to avoid overwhelming them. If they don't decide in a timely manner, pick one for them.

Create a place for kids to calm down.

Different experts suggest sending a disobedient child to a "time-out" chair, a corner, his bedroom or a child-proofed guest room. Where we put them is incidental. What matters is that the child isn't getting attention for bad behavior. We should let kids know they're entitled to have and express feelings. But there are right and wrong ways to do so, especially in public.

Peacetime Preparations:
Help kids recognize and name their feelings. "Did it make you angry and sad when Billy said that?" Teach them to find positive outlets for their emotions, like drawing pictures, writing a story or keeping a journal.

Seek out the underlying problem.

Disrespect often stems from a child's desire to test the limits of his environment. Other times, deeper issues exist. Our child may simply be tired or hungry when he acts out – or he may be trying to tell us something is very wrong in his life. If behavior problems are persistent, contact your pediatrician.

Peacetime Preparations:
Know your child. Make a point of talking with him about his friends, likes and dislikes and how he spends his days. Maintain open lines of communication.


Remember the scene in the film The Miracle Worker where Helen Keller and her teacher engage in a lengthy battle of wills? Despite Helen's violent and emotional outbursts, Annie Sullivan continues to "speak" into the child's hands. Today we know Helen Keller as a woman who changed the world. Now imagine if Miss Sullivan had surrendered. Because of the profound influence we have on our kids, we must refuse to give in to their bad behavior.

Peacetime Preparations:
Earn your kids' respect by being consistent in all areas of life. Push hard when necessary, but play hard during the good times.

Pulling off effective discipline requires a delicate balance of compassion and control. Kids crave rules and routines; we provide security when we deliver consistent, decisive correction. But who can forget the wise words of the original super nanny, Mary Poppins: "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." A little sincere empathy from parents – as they firmly hold their child responsible for his actions – makes any reprimand easier to swallow.

Background Information

Journey of No Return
Sometimes as parents, we have a knee-jerk response to our kids as we're barraged by their numerous inquires and desires. Maybe it's time to stop being so negative.

When Not To Discipline
Parents should recognize when they should and shouldn't discipline their children.

When You Feel Like Calling in the SWAT Team
Are your children constantly testing you? This classic parenting advice will help you regain the upper hand.

Questions and Answers

After I spank my child, she usually wants to hug me and make up, but I continue to be cool to her for a few hours. Do you think that is right?

We'd like to be more unified in our approach, but how do we successfully move from two financial approaches to one?

How long do you think a child should be allowed to cry after being punished? Is there a limit?

I have never spanked my 3-year-old because I am afraid it will teach her to hit others and be a violent person. Do you think I am wrong?

It just seems barbaric to cause pain to a defenseless child. Is it healthy to spank him or her?

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RelationshipsParents and Adult Children, Blended Families