Saturday, June 20, 2009

On discipline

For July Coastkids Magazine.

It’s been an intense month or two around here. Illness, tantrums, and breakdowns: physical (kiddos) mechanical (cars) and mental (Mummy.) Teddy, post-flu, went through a stage where he would only sleep in my arms or lying on my pillow, nose-to-nose. I tried to explain some fundamental physics to him: Mummy is occupying this exact place in space, so you can be next to Mummy, but you can’t actually be where Mummy is. He didn’t get it. Continued trying to burrow through my face for comfort I couldn’t give him. Last night was the first time he's slept alone at night for weeks.

Ivy caught a strain of flu where one of the symptoms was extreme naughtiness. It really forced me to face my own inadequacies as a disciplinarian. To paraphrase Kierkegaard: ‘Parenting can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.’ Disciplining a toddler is like trying to get a wetsuit onto a peeled banana. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, it wriggles out of your grip. And the mess is everywhere.

I consulted a groaning pile of books. They basically told me not to bother – most punishments are too abstract for a toddler. Supervise, they say. Make the space safe, provide entertainment and divert attention away from the seductive appeals of bad behaviour. I’m sure this would work if I never had to do any other jobs. No washing-up to clear. No teetering piles of laundry to put away. No squashed sultanas to excavate from car seats and ear-holes. Especially, no sick and sooky sibling who needs to be carried everywhere. It’s true, Ivy is good as gold with all my attention upon her. It’s when I have to take my adoring eyes away that the naughty demons take over.

Time to start imposing some rules on this little pantomime. First we tried the naughty corner. It worked briefly, and then became a fun place to visit. Ivy would perform some forbidden act, look up excitedly and ask ‘Corner?’ Next, we tried the high shelf. The Wiggles DVD, Ivy’s car, Daddy’s lunchbox, or the treasure-of-the-moment would end up there. Sometimes all at once. On occasion, the naughty shelf was piled so high it threatened the stability of the house. I knew the naughty shelf had stopped working the day Ivy got the hopeful look and asked ‘Shelf?’

Last week, during the virus of naughtiness, I tried shutting Ivy is a dark bedroom for a couple of minutes of Time Out. It occurred to me later that this method is perhaps not optimal. In fact, it’s sort of Victorian. It could be the first step on a slippery slope that ends with sending her into the coal cellar to think about Hell for four hours.

It sort of worked, which is to say that she screamed her head off for a minute and then stared wheedling ‘Mummy, come back here…’ I put my stern face in place, and had a conversation with her that went something like this:

- Ivy, do you know why Mummy put you in Time Out?
- I have to watch Wiggles Go Bananas.
- Look at Mummy. Mummy put you in Time Out because you kicked Teddy.
- I want the Wiggles to come at my house.
- You kicked Teddy, didn’t you, Ivy? Do you remember?
- Can Murray Wiggle ride to my house on a horse, Mummy?
- Just listen, please. We don’t kick or hit. Say ‘I won’t kick Teddy’.
- I won’t kick Teddy.
- Thank you. Off you go then.

Moments later, Teddy is wailing, I am defeated and Ivy is excited. ‘Corner?’ she asks hopefully.


  1. Oh my goodness, mama. I feel for you. They require so much energy when they're litle that it seems there's none left for you sometimes!

    I do think it's awesome that you find humor in these situations. It takes me years in between to go, "Okay. THAT was funny!"

    And then they're older and don't want anything to do with you, and you only see the preciousness in those times when they were melding into you!

  2. First and foremost, you are a Very Funny Person who, despite what a good mate of mine from uni said recently, can write for shit.
    Secondly, I suspect you didn't write this thinking, "I'll just jot something down so that Shelley will feel much, much better about having a disobedient, sibling-whacking toddler". Nevertheless, thank you very much. I'm nodding my head so hard I think a little bit of spinal fluid came out.
    Thirdly, you spooky, spooky, parallel person, with your naughty corner and your high shelf and your shut-in-rooms-with-lights-off. Substitute Thomas for Wiggles and we're like two sides of a Rorschach thingy.


Thanks for talking to me. I don't got cooties. Oh, except for when I got cooties.