Recently, Detective Munch got in trouble at school.
He gets in trouble at school every once in a while, but it’s mostly with both the same frequency of trouble and of the same variety of “trouble” that most five-year-olds get into. He doesn’t pay attention to the teachers, he goofs around with his friends and acts silly, he put his fingers in someone else’s mouth. You know, typical behavior.
But last week he did something a little bit more serious, and in an attempt to let him know that such behavior is unacceptable, Mom and Buried and I were forced to lay down the law. Of course, there are only so many ways to discipline a five-year-old, and a lot of the time you end up wondering who’s being punished.
Discipline is a double-edged sword.
Five-year-olds are tough nuts to crack, especially when it comes to managing their often erratic behavior. They flit from adorable to infuriating with all the predictability of a Richter scale, and their shifts can often leave you flat-footed. Nothing can prepare you for whatever is coming next, and so it usually helps to have some set responses to their worst behavior.
Once you rule out spanking, there only basically only two disciplinary tactics left: put the kid in time out or take something away. Time outs are worthless, and there are only so many things you can take away. But take away things you must.
Our hierarchy goes like this:
- Screen time (TV, movie, tablet)
- A playdate or a trip to the park or some other “event”
Your list probably looks somewhat similar, but regardless, you’d better hurry up and choose, because if you don’t decide quickly, they’re unlikely to make the link between their behavior and the punishment. Consequences are still something they don’t totally comprehend. A few too many minutes go by and they no longer remember what they did or why you’re so mad about it.
The biggest problem is that half of those punishments end up being worse for you than for your kids. (Except for taking Lovey away. I’m pretty sure that mostly just traumatizes him.)
I’m not talking about the screaming that ensues when he loses a favorite toy, or the fit he throws when he can’t go to the playground. I’m talking about the nightmare that is not allowing your kid to watch TV for a little while. Or canceling Family Movie Night. Because if there’s one thing that screen time is good for, it’s focusing your kids attention on something other than you.
Screen time is a necessary respite. An oasis of calm amid the daily storm of child-rearing. Whether you need to do some work, cook the night’s dinner, make a phone call, take a shower, or simply decompress with a little quiet time by yourself in another room (that’s not the bathroom), letting your kid watch an hour of cartoons, or play a LEGO game on the iPad, can be a life-saver. And when you have to take that away because he’s being a punk? It often hurts you more than it hurts him.
This is the balancing act we parents have to pull off every day. Make life easier for yourself in the short-run by shirking your parenting responsibilities, and therefore make the long-run a potential hellscape in which
Hulkamania a miniature version of you runs wild on your life? Or sacrifice your afternoon or weekend to teach your kids a lesson, hopefully reaping the benefits years down the line, when your kid isn’t a spoiled brat.
(The ultimate kicker is the fact that not only do such potential results not manifest for years, they are only potential results. Try as we might to parent “the right way” to raise “good kids,” it’s pretty much a crapshoot. There’s about a 50/50 chance none of this shit matters.)
Ultimately, in the aftermath of this recent incident, we decided to cancel a sleepover Detective Munch had planned with his best friends. This happened because it was the first thing Daddy blurted out when he heard what went down at school, but it was proportionate to the scale of the infraction so we stuck with it. In the end, it may turn out that the kid learned nothing and that we accomplished nothing, unless you count pissing of our friends who’d been counting on us having their kids for a night.
Such is the challenge of raising children. You give and you give and you give, even when you’re taking something away.