On a recent visit, my friend and I laughed together as we watched our two toddler sons quickly go from tentative ‘hellos’ to the best of friends, taking turns pushing each other on the ride-on car.
And then it took a turn for the worse when, out of our view, the kids started screaming. I discovered my child giving his new best mate’s curly mop an almighty yank while pinning him to the ground, the poor thing yelping for mercy beneath him.
Unfortunately these incidents have been becoming a frequent hazard of social interaction. Whether it’s a play date or a romp in the playground, the fisticuffs inevitably make an appearance, leaving me to clean up the mess.
He never used to be like this; my sweet little boy had often received comments about how shy he was. He was permanently attached to me, and the slightest change on an otherwise familiar face – an uncle’s unshaven stubble, a grandparent’s dark sunglasses – would cause him to burst into tears and bury his face in my chest. “Oh, he’s so sensitive!” would come the comment, and I would glower with indignation. “He’s fine the way he is ... YOU have the problem!” I’d reply in my head.
It actually started to become a problem. He wasn’t the biggest boy for his age (possibly thanks to his mother, who grew to the grand height of 157cm), and regularly came home from daycare with injuries from other kids. I don’t know when it happened, but suddenly he got a burst of confidence and now he’s not afraid to go after what he wants – physically.
As a result, I’d been feeling that my reaction to his behaviour needed to show my respect for the other parents and their children, as though it was a reflection of how good a parent I was. Sometimes I feel like I should be giving him a smack to show the parents that I really mean business - but my husband and I have decided not to smack him. Instead, I put on my stern voice, which usually spirals into my yelling voice. Before long we’re all yelling and crying and the day’s fun is long forgotten.
The question is, who am I doing that for? It’s not for my son. It’s not for me. It’s for the other parents, isn’t it?
But it’s not working. And everyone leaves feeling upset.
For some reason I have concocted this idea that other parents – even my dear friends, who have been by my side through pregnancy, the newborn haze of sleep deprivation and colic, who have supported my struggle with postnatal depression and anxiety, and with whom we have celebrated our children’s first milestones – are now judging the decisions I make with my son.
Just as we have our own styles of raising our kids in terms of feeding, childcare and fashion, we all have our own styles of discipline. Unfortunately we’re now at the part of parenting where the foundations you’ve laid (and are still tending to) now show their strength and their ability to support outside influences.
As for my son’s behaviour, I’m conflicted. I want him to be a model citizen, I want to happily sit back on a coffee date and not have to intervene. But that’s not going to happen. He has to interact with other children, therefore I have to interact with their parents.
Toddlers are experiencing emotions for the first time right now. Up until now they’ve really only had to understand their physical needs. Trying to get them to understand the principle of empathy is a big step for someone who is only just getting the hang of sentences. I know he’s having all these huge feelings that he doesn’t understand and it’s overwhelming. It would be enough to make me cry, too.
Teaching kids this stuff is hard. I’m not an expert. I don’t have training in psychology or child development. Yes, I have read a few parenting books, but often end up more confused than anything (am I the only parent whose child doesn’t fit into the categories those books provide?). I’ve spoken to other parents about their experiences and theories, and it is all very apparent that I have to figure this out for myself if we’re going to make it work best for us.
My husband and I have discussed discipline over and over. We check in with each other regularly, particularly after challenging events. We’re still figuring it out, but I’m actually comfortable with what we do at home. We use redirections and time outs; once my son has had a minute to calm down by himself, he’s usually quite responsive to a simple chat about why we don’t like his behaviour. We encourage saying sorry when possible. Cuddles and encouragement are in ample supply at this time because he’s learning. Our aim is to teach him about life and how it works, not enforce a set of rules upon him.
I leave the play date with one phrase going around in my head: kids are people too, you know.
With that, I feel at peace. I have found my discipline philosophy. I tell myself I need to be comfortable with ‘our way’ in public too. So I’m going to stop this little act I put on, and start doing what works for us. I’m not doing this for the strangers at the playground or even for my parent friends. I’m doing it for my husband and my family; I’m doing it for my son.