By Jeremy Bangs
How many times, probably when your kids where 3-5 years old, did you say some version of the following:
“I’m going to count to three!” We just want to them to do … whatever … and we don’t want to take the time to explain why. This will work – the countdown always works.
“One!” We say this with all the conviction of a battlefield commander ordering his troops to advance toward the enemy.
“Two!” The kid hasn’t moved and doubt is creeping in now.
“Two-and-a-half!” Hope is now our strategy. Hope that she moves soon and hope that she doesn’t know we’re technically at ‘three.’
“Two-and-five-eighths?” OK, who is doing the stalling at this point – me or my kid? Abort mission!
The countdown is the ultimate parent bluff, isn’t it? Did you ever get to three? Has anyone?
So it was with great interest at work one day when I was in those countdown years of Livvy’s life that I listened to a guy breakdown the fallacy of that tactic and how he escaped it.
“My wife always counts them down,” he said. “And I’m always curious to see where it goes because I know they’ll call her bluff one day and when she gets to three, she’s got nothin’! I always remind my boys, ‘Mommy counts to three, but daddy counts to now!’”
Looking back, that was probably the first time I began to reconsider all the schemes, threats and silly tactics we employ in the name of discipline. As we begin to discuss the virtue of assertiveness, I’ve been thinking about it a lot in these terms.
Being assertive, to me, means we cut right to the point in a calm, collected manner. There are no games, no manipulations or trickery – just plain honesty. In other words, no bluffing.
We tend to overthink things when it comes to disciplining kids. I’ve heard stories from other parents about incredibly complicated punishments they’ve handed their kids. The creativity is impressive in some cases, but what a ton of work to come up with some of these things.
Much in the same way we might mentally rehearse an argument with a spouse or co-worker, we can come up with these approaches to discipline with our kids that take us so far outside of our own personalities that the underlying point is lost. Do you want your kid to put her shoes on because of the threat that something awful is coming when you get to “three” or because you asked her to so she won’t be late for school?
Growing up, I was a pretty boring kid as far as discipline goes. My folks weren’t yellers. My dad, in particular, was a pretty laid-back dude. He still is. When I screwed up, I mostly remember conversations with my folks. Knowing I did something that irritated them or went against our values was enough. They didn’t threaten me with groundings or try to bluff me.
I think my dad got some of his disciplining mistakes out of his system at work. He was a junior high school math teacher and off-and-on track coach and basketball coach for 33 years. While he taught those kids to solve for x, run hurdles and pick-and-roll, they taught him bluffs will be called from time to time.
To discourage kids from passing notes, he promised to read them aloud to the class if he caught them. That was his policy, until they set up by passing a note that embarrassed him more than the note passers. From then on, notes were dumped in the trash with little fanfare.
For a few years, he carried a plastic yardstick that he’d slap on desks – the crack of that yardstick would snap the room back to attention. Unfortunately, plastic gets brittle so when the yardstick ultimately shattered it into countless pieces, half the class feigned eye injuries so they could go to the nurse’s office. The yardstick strategy was retired.
The best story, however, came from the halftime speech he delivered to a basketball team of seventh and eighth graders. As dad tells it, the team lacked focus and he planned to deliver a halftime tirade that would peel the paint off the locker room walls.
It was going great, he said. His team sat on the benches completely scared to death as he ranted about their lack of effort and commitment to the game. For the big finish, he decided to kick a stack of boxes in the corner of the locker room. He kicked the empty box at the base of the stack and watched his foot disappear inside of it. Hopping on the foot that was not stuck inside an empty box, he made his way to the bench where his team sat and he sat beside them. The momentum of his speech vanished as he opened the box to retrieve his shoe, which had fallen off when he pulled his foot out of the box. I’m not sure how that team did in the second half or how they approached basketball afterward. I bet they thought twice about kicking boxes, though.
My dad told me those stories many times over the years. They are funny, precisely because they in no way describe the person he is. He became the kind of teacher who was clear about his expectations, had fun when it was time and was generally a straight shooter. It must have been a far simpler way to do that job.
So by the time I was pushing my parent’s buttons, I didn’t have a chance. The man had been there and seen that. More importantly, he was comfortable in his own skin. Mom was, too. That’s why I remember conversations more than I remember yelling and punishments.
As I raise my daughter, I don’t want her actions driven by the fear of being punished – the mysterious threat of what awaits at the count of three. I want her motivations to be grounded in the belief that she’s doing the right thing for herself and others. I can’t get her there unless we’re talking. That’s where we are at our best, in good situations and bad. Discipline can be done in an assertive way that is also loving and compassionate. After all, it’s not really discipline we’re after as much as we’re trying to teach them right from wrong, good from bad and generosity from selfishness.
Jeremy Bangs is a single father of a 9-year-old daughter, Olivia. He spent more than 17 years as a writer, photographer and managing editor for community newspapers along Colorado’s Front Range.