This is about the kid, but also about the parent who, much like the kid, sometimes needs to learn better anger control. This is also about punishment vs. making amends for our mistakes.
This morning I was helping JD pick up some toys when I noticed small spots of blue on his nose, forehead, and shirt that could only be one thing. Toothpaste! I didn’t say anything since it seems like a small thing. But then…he turns his head and I see that there are GOBS of toothpaste behind his ear. Look at the other ear and it’s the same story, with some actually in his outer ear. Sigh… dare I go into the bathroom? No, of course not.
Okay so this is JD, mischievous, in the moment and well, five years old. But what about the parent that has to now clean up both child and bathroom. I try to stay patient with him, I really do. But nothing makes me more mad than repeats. All I could think was “didn’t we just go through this a week ago?”. In fact we did go through a similar toothpaste event a week or two ago.
There were stern words, leading inevitably to real anger. I was flummoxed and on the verge of jumping to punishment. If you’ve read Alfie Kohn’s books or other books that espouse positive discipline, you may understand why I try not to resort to punishment. I believe that most punishment is arbitrary to a child and arbitrary consequences serve only to make the child feel more sorry for themselves than sorry for what they did. I want my kids to eventually learn right from wrong by understanding how their actions affect other people. We don’t make huge messes with toothpaste because 1. it cost money, and 2. it makes a mess that someone has to clean up. The problem is that when I’m angry and inevitably thinking about how much work this will cause me (not unlike a child being punished), I find it difficult to be creative about consequences.
Before I lost my top completely I told him to get himself cleaned up and ran down to our bedroom where I vented a scream of frustration that was bubbling up inside me. Unfortunate for my husband, who was asleep after working until 4am and probably didn’t fully appreciate that I was trying not to yell at our child. Oh well, at least he’s old enough to understand, I probably didn’t scar him too badly.
And then during a hot shower, I came up with a solution. A freaking obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it right away, solution, in two parts.
Part I: The clean up. I handed my boy a bottle of cleaning spray (vinegar/water), and some paper towels and informed him that if he was going to make this kind of mess, then it was going to be his responsibility to clean it up.
Part 2: Replacing the goods: JD started getting $1 a week when he turned five. So I told him that he would have to replace the toothpaste that he wasted by buying a new tube with his own money.
Okay now, this is so obvious that if you are reading this you are probably yelling at the computer screen now, right? But this is about what we do as parents, in the moment vs. thinking through possible solutions. How does a parent stay calm and actually think up creative answers to childhood behaviors that are unacceptable for us? It’s easy to get angry and send a child to their room. But how does that help the child? How does that help the parent be confident that their child will learn something from the consequences imposed?
In the end, my son actually enjoyed his consequences! “You mean you want ME to use this spray bottle?” If you had seen him at the store making his very first purchase with his own money, you would have thought he was the cutest thing on the planet. Buying toothpaste of all things! It was a positive end for me because I didn’t have to clean up yet another sticky childhood mess and saw some of the best from my child instead of just the worst. My hope now is that the next time he gets the urge to play with the toothpaste, at the very least he’ll remember that he can clean it up himself and at most might refrain from making the mess in the first place. For me, I would like to think I will remember the great toothpaste escapade the next time he or EJ does something similar and draw on the experience to help me not get angry first but go right to the obvious solution. Of course I know from experience, that there’s a good chance neither will happen and we’ll each repeat our mistakes of today. Wash, rinse, repeat.
For anyone interested in positive discipline here are some books to check out. I have only read a few of these but all have come recommended to me by other parents trying to discipline positively rather than using punishment.
- Alfie Kohn: Unconditional Parenting
- Naomi Aldort: Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves
- Faber/Mazlish: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk.
- Thomas Gordon: Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.)
- Jane Nelson Ed.D: Positive Discipline
I’m sure there are other good books to recommend. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments.