The Journey Begins

We're all in this together ... alone. - Lily Tomlin

When my oldest son first started drawing, he drew a picture of me as the perfect mom with blonde hair, red cheeks, a smile, a sun shining brightly, and a warm red heart - Mommy the Good. On the other side of that very same paper, he drew a second picture, a different version of me. This one had blue and white scraggly hair, a zigzag line for a mouth, no sun, and a very cold green heart. Perhaps most telling is the missing circle which would have delineated my head, which I feel represented so effectively my loss of integrity - Mommy the Bad. Never think for a moment that your children do not notice. In truth, I was both of these mommies; he, in his naivetÈ, had captured my essence. Clearly, something needed to be done. Mommy the Bad needed to go, to be exorcized.

I started backwards. I sought skills first, but I could not judge their appropriateness with any tool other than, "Does it work?" I was missing the critical component of discipline, its root word, which means teaching and has been forgotten or overlooked for too long. I was at the mercy of the "experts" who so often disagree. I realized I was not seeking expertise; I was seeking and needing wisdom to help me guide my children to healthy, happy, responsible, humane adulthood. I failed to regain my integrity until I came to understand that every time I disciplined my son, I was not simply addressing and changing current behavior, I was also teaching him life lessons and principles he would use to guide his life both now and in the future. I needed not only to be effective in the present, but I also needed to teach healthy and helpful principles to my child.

Being a parent is far more challenging, frustrating, and sometimes discouraging than I ever thought it would or could be. And I was a school psychologist, an early childhood educator, and the wife of a teacher before I ever had children of my own. My close friends and I have decided that the difficulty of this challenge is one of the worldís best-kept secrets. My journey into this book, the subject of which I have been speaking about and teaching for years, began with the frustration and discouragement I experienced as our first-born began toddlerhood. I had never planned to be the perfect parent; I had just expected that with all my experience with other peopleís children and my education (please donít laugh, I was young), I would, at least, be a good parent. Well, it wasnít necessarily so.

Early on I recognized one of the main factors in my poor parenting: what I practiced and what I believed were two different things. My integrity - that elusive ability to match believed principles with practiced principles - was not intact. I constantly found myself dealing with my son much more nastily and harshly than I wished (that was Mommy the Bad). Further, I found myself using practices I knew were neither right nor helpful. I did not wish to teach my children practices or ideas in which I did not truly believe, yet that is exactly what I found myself doing. I had been teaching him that I had the right to hurt him if I did not like his behavior. But, I also felt that no one was allowed to hurt me if they did not like my behavior. I had tried to buy him off and thus, I taught him that it was all right to be bought. I had also used and therefore taught him disrespect. I scared myself with the person I had become so quickly and completely. I did not like Mommy the Bad. Nothing had so baffled and beaten me as trying to rear my son, nothing (not school, not career, not even marriage) had brought forth and shown me the worst of who I was.

Discipline, using the term loosely here, has for years now focused heavily on behavior only. When I first started working with children, I, like most teachers and parents, believed discipline is what you do with children to get them to behave. Is this not what you have been taught? This view, however, is short-sighted, out-dated, and quite frankly, dangerous. Somewhere in our minds, we must be able to envision our child on his or her sixteenth birthday. I know where she will be - at the Department of Motor Vehicles seeking freedom in the form of a driver's license. By that time, the correct principles (of responsibility, of responsiveness, of respect, etc.) must be in place. These principles will help determine how each new driver decides to operate a car. Will she drive the speed limit only when there are police around? Will she drive fast because it is fun? Or, will she understand that how she chooses to operate the vehicle will determine whether people live or die? It is critical that each driver understands this last statement. The safety of each of our children and loved ones depends on it.

How we discipline a child at age two, at age five, at age nine, plays a significant role in determining how he drives at sixteen, how he handles relationships, what kind of spouse and parent he becomes, in short, how he handles his life. The future does depend on what we do in the present. In our hearts we know this. We have always recognized that the actions we take with children when they are young return to help or haunt us as they age. Thus, our discipline cannot afford to be short-sighted and look merely at how to most quickly and efficiently get a child to behave now. Certainly we do not want to give up immediate effectiveness; we need to be effective. But, immediate effectiveness is not enough. We need to build on this layer and move into a higher level of discipline. That next, and higher, level looks at what lesson needs to be learned and how best to teach it to a specific child. What principles are involved? Do I believe in these principles? Do I want them in my future? We all need to recognize that we will see these principles in our futures. Will they benefit ourselves and others? That, too, is part of our job description. This idea, that discipline can address more than present behavior and must also concern itself with lessons as well, needs to be our first point of agreement. We need to see that what we do in the present affects the future. We need to recognize that what we teach is critical to long-term discipline.

Yes, you can be the parent you want to be, or at least a whole lot closer to it. And yes, being a family can be mostly healthy, happy, and a benefit to you, rather than a disappointment in your life. It is critical not only for our own sanity and our children's lives, but also for our future, that we learn to guide our children through childhood and into healthy adulthood. There is so much they need to learn and know about in order to become emotionally healthy, happy, functional adults: forming healthy relationships, developing sound and helpful communication, acquiring correct principles to guide their lives, using problem solving, being responsive to others, showing respect and taking responsibility for their actions, discovering resourcefulness and negotiating skills, building self-esteem, dealing with anger. True discipline teaches all of these. It is clear we must not only be knowledgeable in these areas, but we must also know positive ways to teach them.

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