I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

Too smart for a three-year-old

I think one of the biggest problems in my relationship with my daughter Izzie is that I keep treating her like a five- or six-year-old, expecting an older child’s level of understanding, emoting and behavioural control. Why? Because she’s too damn smart for a three-year-old.

Take yesterday, for example. She was sitting in the kitchen, drawing with her mummy, granny and sister, when I came in, sat down, and started chatting. After a few minutes, she said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t read much of your book today.’

‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I thought I’d sit in here with you.’

‘Well, I know you want to read your book, so why don’t you go and read your book? We’ll be okay.’

‘I’m alright.’

‘Daddy. It’s starting to get dark. You should read your book now.’

‘You really want me to read my book?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘See you in a bit.’

‘Okay, daddy, bye bye.’

I got up, walked out of the room, and then heard her say to the others, ‘Ah. Nice and quiet.’

And they all burst out laughing.

I raced back in. ‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘Were you trying to get rid of me?’

Izzie gave me an apologetic look and said, ‘You just talk so much, daddy.’

Oh my gosh. Instead of telling me to be quiet or go away or any of the other things you might expect a three-year-old to say, she used subtlety and subterfuge to remove me, playing on my own desires and interests to get what she wanted. I’d like to think it was about sparing my feelings – it’s an improvement on a month ago when she said, ‘Daddy, daddy, stop talking, I’m just not interested’ – but I’m pretty sure she was simply sharpening her manipulative wiles for the future.

Gosh darn.

A couple of days ago, she showed another keen eye for social interaction. I have to admit that, despite writing on this very blog that you shouldn’t shout at kids because they won’t listen to you, I haven’t been following my own advice. Lately, Izzie has been very disobedient, or, to quote the ladies at nursery, ‘not using her listening ears’ – basically completely ignoring the authority figure and doing what she wants. And I have doubled down on the shouting because she’s testing every boundary, and getting on every last nerve of every person she meets.

So the other day she was in the bath, throwing water all over me, and I told her to stop. And I told her to stop. And then I shouted at her to stop or I would get her out of the bath and make her sit on the naughty step.

‘Daddy,’ she snapped. ‘When I’m being naughty, treat me like I’m not being naughty.’

I stopped. ‘Huh? You mean let you do whatever you want?’

‘No, talk to me like you talk to me when I’m not naughty.’

‘You mean, don’t shout?’

‘Yes, daddy. Don’t shout at me when I’m naughty.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t listen when you shout. So I keep being naughty.’

‘Oh. So if I speak in a normal voice, you’ll listen to me when I tell you to stop?’

‘Yes, daddy.’

‘Okay.’ I thought a moment. ‘Let’s make a deal then. From now on, I’ll speak to you in a normal voice when you’re being naughty. But you have to listen when I do, and do what I say.’

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We’ll do that. High five.’

So we high-fived on it. And at least one of us is upholding his side of the bargain…

But here is my question. If she’s that freaking smart that she’s a nursery room lawyer and can wind everyone in her life around her little finger at just three years of age, how come I have to check under the bed for dinosaurs every night?

Confronting abusive parents

When I was a teenager, I’d often notice kids being shouted at by their parents, belittled in public, sworn at, smacked, nagged, grabbed and abused, and it never failed to ruin my whole day – partly because of my sympathy for the poor tyke, and partly because of my failure to do anything about it. I would roast myself for my cowardice, relive what I had witnessed over and over, wondering what I could, or should, have done.

These ruminations always ended the same way – with the reassurance that though I was currently unable to intervene, when I was older, bigger, more confident in myself, and packing both the muscles and bank balance equal to my ego, I’d never let a transgression go unpunished.

Trouble is, I never got much bigger. Nor did I develop the muscles, bank balance or confidence that would enable me to face down bad behaviour. In fact, following several breakdowns and a diagnosis of autism, I have an almost pathological aversion to confrontation, something I’ve covered in depth in Takers and the Took: Asperger’s and Confrontation. So when I say my evening out last night, the first without the kids for a year, was horribly ruined, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

As we entered an all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, out burst a man with a shaved head, tattoos, tattered clothes and a scarred face, carrying a crying seven-year-old boy by the arm. He slammed this poor kid down on a low wall, shook him roughly, shouted and swore into his face and then dragged him back inside and threw him down into a chair. At the table, the mother, dolled up to the nines with bleach-blonde hair, black eye-liner and a top showing off her cleavage, said to the kid, ‘What you crying for?’ whereupon the man thrust his finger into the boy’s face and hissed, ‘He’s being a right [expletive deleted].’

All the while, the kid hid beneath his hoodie while his many brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles acted as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. And, judging by the speed with which this kid seemed to get over it and start mucking around with the others, perhaps he’s used to it. But it shocked the hell out of me.

I’ve always admired those maverick characters like Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon and John McClane from Die Hard, the kind who if he saw something like that would step up and make them regret ever lifting a finger to their kid. Unfortunately, those people don’t exist outside the pages of fiction, or if they do, I’ve never met any.

So I sat there trying to enjoy my meal, watching this kid and his father, bathing in my own cowardice. I tried to look at it from all angles – maybe the kid was being a shit, maybe his dad was at the end of his tether, maybe they were out for a birthday and the kid was ruining it yet again and his dad just lost it. I know what that’s like – I planned this really special surprise day out for all of us on Boxing Day at Monkey World, only to have my three-year-old daughter bitch and moan the whole way round about how she’d rather be at the playpark and how monkeys are boring and how she wanted to go home, until I shouted at her and said she was ruining my enjoyment of the day, which made her cry. Who am I to judge another father’s parenting style? And what right do I have to stick my nose in where it’s not welcome? Am I really that arrogant and presumptuous to think that my way is best?

That was a good way to get me off the hook, but really it was making excuses for my inaction, because this dad’s behaviour was more than the normal, run-of-the-mill fed up parent stuff – it was uncomfortable to watch and it crossed a line. True, he didn’t assault the boy – not in a way that would stand up in court – but the way he mocked, manhandled and humiliated that kid in public just wasn’t right.

But what could I do? Go up to a table full of burly builder-type blokes and say to them, ‘Good day, sirs, I beg your pardon for interrupting your meal, but I thoroughly disapprove of the way you treat your child.’ I’d be lucky to get told to mind my own effing business. And would having my face rearranged really improve things for the boy? Knowing the way these things work, blood being thicker than water, and all, he’d probably have cheered his dad on.

I thought of interacting with the boy when he got up to replenish his plate, asking if he was okay and offering some reassurance, but I decided that was an even better way to get beaten up. And then I started thinking about the times that I’ve shouted at my kids, or grabbed them and dragged them to the naughty step, the times I’ve threatened to take away their toys if they don’t stop misbehaving, or simply snapped at them because I’m tired or unwell or overwhelmed, and I wondered: am I like that guy? Am I getting so upset because I recognise in him a trace of what exists in me? Is he what I could become if I don’t constantly keep myself in check? And is that how I appear to my kids – a hulking, angry monster with a shaved head and tattoos?

So, as you’ve probably already figured out, I did nothing. Nothing but watch them, excoriate myself for my faintheartedness, and then dwell on it all of last night and all day into this evening. The world’s children are not my responsibility, I tell myself. I do not possess the skills or authority to act in such a situation. Anything I did would probably have made things worse. In short, I’m a gutless, spineless, powerless coward.

My on!y consolation is that when it comes to my own kids, I’m able to overcome my natural aversion to confrontation. I learned this a couple of months ago when I discovered a family member had disciplined my child in a manner of which I did not approve, a person set in their ways who has always intimidated me. I’ve always clung to the belief that as a parent, your instincts take over and enable you to be a freaking tiger when you need to be, but it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t make you any less afraid or any less alone, and nor do you look inside and find a strength you never knew you had. The truth is, you simply don’t have a choice – right is right, wrong is wrong, and as a parent, when you see a wrong being done your child, you have no option but to confront it, no matter how scary it is.

And so it was, legs shaking, palms sweating, heart beating out of my chest and my stomach doing cartwheels, every fibre of my being telling me to run away and hide, that I drove round this person’s house and told them in no uncertain terms never again to discipline my child in that way. I had psyched myself up for a fight, and you know what? They absolutely crumbled.

I guess that’s what matters – knowing that when push comes to shove, I can look after my kids and keep them safe.

I just wish someone could do the same for that kid.

My devious threenager

Normally it’s pretty easy to know what to do as a parent – they’re good, you praise them, they’re naughty, you punish them. This is just as true with new behaviours as old, because you generally expect the ways they behave, either as a natural part of child development or an extension of your own personality. They start to bite? You know how to deal with that. They hit you? You hit them right back (joking!).

However, my three-year-old’s recent behaviour has thrown me through a loop, because it’s so unexpected I have no idea how I feel about it and, consequently, no idea how to treat it. It’s just so naughty yet so gosh-darned smart I can’t help but admire it, and as it’s the first truly individual expression of her own personality, I don’t really want to squash it.

For at least a year now, my daughter has not been allowed a dummy, so imagine my surprise when I checked on her in the middle of the night to discover her asleep with a dummy in her mouth, only to have that dummy disappear by morning. This happened two or three nights in a row – no dummy at bedtime, no dummy in the morning, but a dummy in the middle of the night – so I casually asked her about it over breakfast.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘That’s my secret dummy.’

‘Your secret dummy?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘I keep it in a secret place.’

‘You know you’re not allowed dummies, right?’

‘I know, but it’s my secret dummy,’ she said, ‘and I only use it when I need to.’

Well, what the hell can you say to that? She’s not allowed a dummy, but the fact that she has a secret life that goes on unobserved by her parents, an independent little three-year-old world that’s entirely hers, is crazily advanced and individualistic, and I’d feel like a real meanie taking that away from her.

Also, I have no idea where she hides it!

This strange, devious streak infuses much of her behaviour. If I tell her she has to eat her dinner before she can have pudding, she’ll dutifully clear her plate. We’ll have a great evening, and then after I’ve put her to bed, I’ll start to tidy and discover her dinner hidden under a cushion or on a shelf. I’ve also caught her slipping food onto her sister’s plate, since my youngest – aka The Hoover – will scoff it down before anyone notices.

She’s also cunning with her excuses. Not when she blames her sixteen-month-old sister for things, or says she has her sister’s permission, or that her sister, who can’t talk yet, told her to – because that’s pretty easy to see-through. But some of her excuses are so, well, plausible, I sometimes wonder who’s the one being unreasonable.

Last night, for example, I caught her drawing on the walls with a set of coloured lip  salves she got for Christmas. Of course, I hit the freaking roof. But her excuse? On an episode of the TV programme Bing, they paint a rainbow on Sula’s wall to make the room pretty, and she thought she’d make it pretty for us as a nice surprise. She knows she’s not allowed to draw on the walls with pens or pencils or crayons, which is why she did it with coloured lip balm. And doesn’t it look nice?

Oh. Well, when you put it like that, it doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable. In fact, punishing you for it is what seems unreasonable. So, like, don’t do it again, okay?

And that’s happening every day at the moment. I look at my daughter and think, Aren’t I supposed to be telling you off right now? I’m not even sure myself. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Or maybe it means she’s winning.

Three Words That Kill

It’s often said that, as a parent, the worst three words you can ever hear are, ‘I hate you,’ spoken by the sweet darling you’ve sacrificed your health and sanity for.

I always took this with a pinch of salt. Grow a freaking backbone, I thought. Your kids don’t mean it for one second – that’s how they talk. ‘I hate you’ is small person shorthand for ‘I’m angry because you won’t let me get my own way, but I’m not yet emotionally, cognitively or socially developed enough to deal with these feelings or articulate them in a healthy or appropriate manner.’

Besides, there are far worse things a parent can hear. Five words that never fail to freak me out are, ‘Hello, I’m from Children’s Services’. I’m sure I’d be turned into a gibbering wreck by a mere two words: ‘It’s meningitis.’ By comparison, ‘I hate you’ is incredibly mild.

This complacency left me thoroughly unprepared for a grouping of five words that have killed me over the past few days, especially as it’s Christmas. My three-year-old hasn’t told me she hates me, no – I’d be able to handle that. Instead, she keeps looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t love you, daddy.’

Ouch.

If she said it once, in the heat of the moment, that’d be okay, but she brings it up at least every hour. Sometimes she varies it with, ‘I don’t love you anymore,’ or she adds, ‘You’re naughty’ or ‘You’re always mean to me.’

She often juxtaposes it with, ‘But I love my mummy.’ Indeed, she delighted in telling people over Christmas, ‘I don’t love daddy anymore, but I love my mummy.’

I’ve got to tell you: that shit hurts.

Despite the tough, resilient front I put on, I have to admit that I’m not handling it well. For three years she was a daddy’s girl, but now I’m like something she’s stepped in. When she’s screaming because daddy’s putting her to bed and not mummy, and shouting that she doesn’t love daddy, she loves mummy, and even after you’ve calmed her down and read her a story and checked her room for monsters and told her you love her and wished her goodnight she says to you, ‘Can mummy put me to bed tomorrow because I love mummy and I don’t love you,’ it’s hard not to let that bring down your whole evening.

Whenever I ask her why, she tells me it’s because I’m naughty and mean to her.

What do I do that’s so bad? I make her eat her breakfast. I make her put her shoes on when we go out. If we’re driving and I notice she’s slipped her seatbelts off her shoulders, I tell her to put them back on. I make her stay in bed after I’ve put her there, and sit on the naughty step if she hits her sister. And instead of crisps and sweets all the time, I try to make her eat fruit.

Yep, what an ogre I must be. On Christmas morning, because I made her eat her cereal, she told me I wasn’t allowed to go to my in-laws for Christmas Dinner because I’d been naughty and mean to her and she didn’t love me and wanted to spend Christmas with people she loved – mummy, her sister, her grandparents, but certainly not me.

Every time I try to do things with her now, she kicks and screams and says she wants her mummy instead. It’s kind of hard to enjoy yourself when you’ve got that hanging over your head. You wonder why the hell you bother taking her to theme parks and adventure playgrounds, why you cook her nice food and go out especially to buy special puddings, why you play with her in the bath and dry her all over with a hair-drier, and wipe her bottom and kiss away her ouchies and educate her about the world, why you try so hard to do everything right when apparently everything you do is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’d be easier just to sit on the sofa, let her do what she wants, whenever she wants, let her eat junk and watch garbage on TV and go to bed when she chooses, and leave her to her beloved mummy. I would be far healthier and happier. I could read my books again, make models, watch movies, lounge in a hot bath, play video games, get a decent night’s sleep for a change – all the things I don’t have time for because I’m looking after two kids.

But if I did that, I wouldn’t be a parent. Let her mummy be her best friend. Much as I’d love to be able to, it’s not my job to make her feel warm and cuddly inside. It’s my job to keep her safe, clean and fed, to prepare her for the world, to make sure we have a home in which to live. She might say she doesn’t love me, but I’m the one she shouts for when she has a problem, I’m the one she needs if she’s had a nightmare, I’m the one who fixes the things that she breaks.

God, why does it matter to me so much what a three-year-old thinks of me? And why does it make me so upset when she says she doesn’t love me?

I guess that, no matter how old you get or how much you prepare yourself, rejection still feels like the absolute pits. I’d really better grow a backbone. I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

A Problem of Discipline: My Toddler

Back in April I started a three-part series grandly entitled How to Discipline a Toddler because I was a smug git. At the time I had a very well-behaved toddler that I was easily able to understand and control, a foolproof weapon called the Naughty Step that could solve any problem, and the patience of a saint. The world could only stand to benefit from the fruits of my experience.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that after starting this series, the frequency of my posts dropped off the face of the Earth, and I am yet to write number three. The reason for this, I can now reveal, is that almost immediately after starting to write about how great I am at disciplining my toddler, things became slightly more problematic – which is a nicer way of saying that my daughter Izzie morphed into a freaking demon child.

Despite my best attempts to stress that good behaviour is not dependant on an external force but an internal sense of right and wrong, Izzie has decided that if I don’t see her misbehave then it must be okay. I know this because she has told me as much – repeatedly.

It’s my own fault for not being clear in my language – for allowing her a legal loophole she can exploit.

‘The next time I see you snatch your sister’s toy off her, you’re on the naughty step.’

‘Okay, daddy, I make sure you not see me.’

Little bastard! If I’m cooking in the kitchen while she’s misbehaving in the lounge and I tell her off, she often closes the door and shouts, ‘You not see, it’s okay,’ and goes right back to doing it.

Sometimes she even tells me when she’s about to be naughty: ‘Daddy, don’t look, I going to push Rosie over.’

She understands the concept of differential authority too. ‘Take your sister’s dummy out of your mouth, you know your mum hates it.’

She takes it out and looks around. ‘Where is mummy?’ she asks.

‘She’s in the bath.’

So she puts the dummy back in and grins at me with an I-outsmarted-you look on her three-year-old face.

Of course, this is nothing next to the tantrums that occur Every. Single. Time. We. Say. No.

It’s a constant battle for supremacy.

‘I want to get dressed downstairs.’

‘No, upstairs.’

Tantrum.

‘I want ice cream for breakfast.’

‘No, you’re having cereal.’

Tantrum.

‘Here’s your juice.’

‘I want it in that cup.’

‘Well it’s already in this cup.’

Tantrum.

And this is all before 8 o’clock! If I could drink toddler tears, I’d never have to use the tap again.

Then there’s the insolence. Every night, for example, at some point during the night she opens all her drawers and throws every item of clothing out over the floor – and since my wife is a hoarder, that’s a lot of clothes. So every night before bedtime I say to her, ‘You will not make a mess tonight or I will be very cross with you in the morning.’

She grins at me and says, ‘I’ll make a little mess.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘No mess. All your clothes are to stay in your drawers.’

‘Okay, I’ll only empty one drawer.’

‘No. No drawers.’

And then I’ll catch her doing it in the night, and I’ll snap, ‘What did I say about not making a mess?’

And she’ll laugh and shout, ‘You say I can make a big, big mess.’

Argh!

She’s also become really mean. It first happened when I was trying to get my youngest, Rosie, off to sleep. I was rocking her in my arms about 8.30, an hour after I’d put Izzie to bed, when Izzie appeared in her doorway and informed me that she had decided to have a bath and if I didn’t like it, I should simply look away.

‘Izzie,’ I replied. ‘Close the door and go back to bed.’

‘No, daddy,’ she said. ‘You listen to me. I having a bath.’

‘Actually, you’ll close that door and go back to bed by the count of three or I’ll cancel you seeing Granny tomorrow.’

‘Daddy,’ she said defiantly, ‘daddy, you not talk to me ever again and I not talk to you ever again, okay?’

‘Be that as it may, ONE, TWO…’

The door slammed, and I heard lots of sobbing and muttering interspersed with the words ‘daddy naughty’, over and over. Sucks to be me.

This has grown into a daily tirade of, ‘Daddy, I not like you anymore. Daddy, you very naughty. Daddy, I love mummy but not you. I not talk to you anymore. Daddy, if I have to choose you or mummy, I always choose mummy.’

Which, despite her being a toddler, is incredibly hurtful.

As are the lies she’s started telling about me. Whenever she says in front of people that she doesn’t like me, they invariably ask, ‘Oh, why not?’

‘He hits me on the head and pushes me down the stairs.’

‘What!?’ I cry. ‘I do no such thing!’

Which makes me look guilty as sin.

The truth is that she’s cross with me because I discipline her, and loves her mother because she doesn’t. Indeed, her mother is her best friend who plays with her and mucks around with her and is really just a big kid to her, while I’m the authority figure who exists simply to spoil their fun.

It has, without a doubt, grown far worse since my wife has started putting Izzie to bed. I spent three years putting Izzie to bed, every single night. I spent the past ten months putting both kids to bed, every single night. I hoped, I prayed, I begged for my wife to help me out, and after three years she finally relented about a month ago and put Izzie to bed.

And from that moment on, Izzie only wants mummy to put her to bed, and tantrums if daddy tries to do it. Which, after three years of my doing it, is a real kick in the crotch.

Of course, the reason she loves her mummy doing it is because her mummy doesn’t actually put her to bed. They go to the bedroom and play. Then my wife leaves and Izzie follows her and they get into mummy and daddy’s bed and play. And then mummy goes to sleep and Izzie continues to play. And then I come upstairs and shout at Izzie for not being in bed and shout at mummy for not putting Izzie to bed, and then I put Izzie to bed and she sobs herself to sleep because daddy’s so mean and mummy is her favourite. Again, sucks to be me.

I think what bugs me most about this is that, because she is now three, she’s going to start remembering things. And despite everything I’ve done for three years, her earliest memories are going to be of her mummy playing with her and lovingly putting her to bed every night while her daddy just tells her off all the time. And that’s not fair.

What it boils down to is that my wife has all the fun, playful, exciting quality time with Izzie, while I get to do all the practical things, like wiping her bottom, cutting her fingernails, kissing her ‘ouchies’ away, taking her to the doctor, ripping off her plasters, removing her splinters, and putting her on the Naughty Step. No wonder she doesn’t like me!

I’m not sure how I can change this, however. My wife encourages me to play with her more often, but my attempts to be a fun dad have only made things worse.

A typical example – we sit down to play with her Sylvanian Families and I pick up a hedgehog and put it in the toy car.

‘Brrmm, brrmm,’ I say, before she snatches it off me and shouts, ‘No, they having a picnic!’

I see she has arranged the chairs in a circle.

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another toy. ‘Here comes Mrs Rabbit,’ and I put her in a chair.

‘No!’ Izzie cries. ‘She sitting over here.’

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another. ‘Where does Mr Panda sit?’

‘Mr Panda not invited!’ she shouts, slapping it out of my hand. ‘You not doing it right!’

‘Well then!’ I shout back. ‘If you won’t let me do anything then I won’t blinking well play with you!’

And then she goes to her mum all stroppy and whines, ‘Daddy not playing with me.’

I tell you, she’s driving me crazy. As if to sum it all up, she has a new favourite song. I always flick between the rock channels on TV and I stumbled across an old hip-hop classic which she instantly fell in love with. In a moment I’ve come to regret, when she asked me what it was, I told her.

We have an Amazon Dot…or Echo, or whatever it’s called. Izzie used to say, ‘Lexa, play Tinkle, Tinkle,’ and it’d play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by The Rainbow Collection. Ahhh.

She’s not so pure any more.

‘Lexa, play House of Pain, Jump Around.’

And then she proceeds to jump around the lounge shouting, ‘House of Pain! House of Pain! House of Pain!’

And it truly is.

But that’s only half the reason I’m blogging so rarely. The other half turned eleven months the other day, and I’ll describe that demon child in another post – if I ever get the chance again!

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

Right from the get go, let me say that I’m not a professional, I’m not trained in child care, and despite living all day, every day with a toddler, I am by no means an expert. Nor am I a perfect dad – like every parent, there are days I find my little girl’s behaviour so exasperating I just want to throw her out the nearest window – without opening it (I don’t, just to be clear for all the social workers reading this!). I make mistakes, fail to follow my own advice, and can sometimes make a real mess of things – especially as most of my books are out of date.

That said, I do think I’m doing a pretty good job of raising a polite and conscientious – if spirited, wilful and independent – little girl, and it’s all down to discipline. For those who think that ‘discipline’ is synonymous with ‘punishment’ or ‘conformity’, it doesn’t mean suppressing her individuality or stifling her need to express herself – it simply means we have certain standards of behaviour we all need to follow in order to get along with one another, and teaching a child what these are from an early age makes life a lot easier. Nobody wants a child that bites, or hits other children, or thinks it’s fun to break all their toys. Discipline is how you prevent that.

So, in that spirit, let’s begin.

Boundaries

Whether you’re a strict parent or more laid back, every child needs boundaries, even simply as something to push against as they develop their personalities. It doesn’t matter if you have five house rules or fifty-five (although that does seems slightly excessive), as I mentioned in How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler, the basis of discipline is to be clear, calm and consistent. Your child needs to know where the boundaries are and what happens when they cross them, every time, no matter what day it is, where they are or who they’re with. And that takes thought and communication.

You need to decide what’s important and what the rules are, and you need to make sure your partner, parents and other care givers are on the same page. I’m not saying the grandparents have to follow the rules exactly – they’re meant to spoil the grandkids – but make sure everyone knows what’s expected. Otherwise, your child won’t know whether they’re coming or going, or worse they’ll play you off against each other because they know you’re inconsistent in your approach, and if you want problems in a relationship, that’s a great way of starting them.

For the most part, effective discipline is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Don’t lie to a child to make things easier right now, because you’ll have to deal with the repercussions of that dishonesty later. Don’t negotiate or bargain, don’t beg or plead, and don’t get into arguments, because they’re a toddler and their stubbornness knows no bounds. And if you threaten something or promise something, you have to follow through with it. The moment you fail to be consistent, you’re sending mixed messages and starting down the slippery slope towards chaos.

If your child asks for something they know they’re not allowed to have, look them in the eye and calmly but firmly say no. And then disengage. You’ve already answered their request, so they need to know that all the subsequent shouting, whining and playing up isn’t going to get them what they want. And no matter how hard it is, stick to it.

Nobody wants to spend all day shouting at their kids and saying no, no, no all the time, but that’s something you see practically everywhere in public – supermarkets, beaches, fairgrounds, the swimming pool. Shouting parents, screaming children, locked in a battle of wills. It shouldn’t be a battle – you’re the adult and what you say goes. Sticking to consistent boundaries is how you achieve that.

Avoiding discipline

The best way of avoiding conflict is discipline, and the best discipline is avoiding having to discipline at all.

What the hell does that mean? Simple. The use of specific disciplinary techniques should be part of a wider strategy that encourages good behaviour, anticipates problems, and relies on punishment only when necessary.

I heard recently that the average toddler receives around 300 negative statements a day – don’t do that, stop, be quiet, put that down, you’re driving me insane – and only ten positive comments. I can well believe it.

Instead of constantly correcting your child and turning your lives into a misery, use the other tools in your repertoire. Toddlers are easily bored, but this also means they’re easily distracted. If your toddler is fiddling with something you don’t want her to fiddle with, pick her up and move her away from it. If she’s heading towards something you know she shouldn’t, distract her with something else. Involve her in what you’re doing. Ask her if she can help you find X, Y or Z. Tell her to shout out if she sees a red car. Make a game of everything. Channel that energy into something positive and tell her well done and very good, because that way you’re giving her attention and reinforcing good behaviour instead of focusing all your attention on the bad.

This last skill is very important. If you’re spending all your time engaging with your toddler when she’s naughty, then she has a reason to be naughty – even if she’s not getting what she wants, she’s getting you. This is especially true if you have a younger sibling in the house – the acting out is to bring your attention from the baby and onto them. So one technique is to ignore the bad behaviour if you can – don’t give it the oxygen it needs to breathe. This is really clear if your child picks up a swear word. Reacting to it only makes them say it more – ignore it and they stop using it. Knowing when to punish and when to ignore is a judgement call, but one that becomes easier with experience.

With experience you can also anticipate problems and head them off at the pass. I know my daughter is going to kick off when getting out of the bath, at bedtime and when leaving a friend’s house, so instead of dumping these things on her, I give her a five-minute warning to get her head round it, then a two-minute warning, and a one-minute warning. You’re an expert on your child so you know the flashpoints, and you have to adapt your behaviour accordingly.

Much of this is about planning. For example, most kids are at their worst when they’re hungry and when they’re tired, so make sure they’re properly fed and well rested. Don’t cram too much stimulation into one day or you’re setting yourself up for a fractious child. Also, be careful what you feed them – a sugary snack is a nice treat from time to time, so long as you’re prepared to scrape them off the ceiling afterwards as their blood sugar goes sky high, and then deal with the corresponding sugar crash when it drops again. With a little effort and a lot of creativity, you’ll find you’re winning in the behaviour wars.

 

Types of discipline

Of course, avoiding discipline only goes so far, and sometimes, whether it’s once a day or twenty, you have to go further.

According to Hoffman and Saltzstein (1967), disciplinary techniques can be divided into the following three types:

  1. Power assertion – physical punishment, removal of material possessions such as toys.
  2. Love withdrawal – paying no attention, showing no affection.
  3. Induction – letting the child know the effect their behaviour has on others.

As Feldman (1977) showed, a key difference between these types is that the first encourages good behaviour through fear of an external threat, whereas the second two encourage good behaviour through an internal sense of guilt. In the long term, children disciplined through love withdrawal and induction are far more likely to develop self control than those disciplined through power assertion, who come to depend upon the threat of external punishment to control their behaviour. Indeed, the more aggression a parent shows, the greater a child’s dependence on this external threat, whereas those disciplined in the other two ways learn to behave irrespective of any exterior influence.

In basic English, this means that shouting at your kids from time to time isn’t going to do them any harm, but if it’s your main means of controlling them, eventually the only way you’ll be able to make them behave is by shouting at them – which is going to cause everyone a great deal of aggro, especially if you’re in a restaurant. Furthermore, if you’re not looking or they think they can get away with it, they are less likely to behave because the behavioural controls haven’t been internalized – they’re only behaving because they’re afraid of being caught and punished.

On the other hand, a technique such as the naughty step (see Part 3: the Techniques), which combines both love withdrawal and induction, is a far more effective way of creating a child who will behave whether you’re watching or not. Instead of behaving because they’re afraid of punishment, the child behaves because they want to be loved and don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings – which, for my money, makes it a no-brainer which type of discipline to use.

However, studies have also suggested it is not necessarily the type or strictness of the disciplinary technique but its consistency that is the key to developing good behaviour. Furthermore, utilising a single technique tends to reduce its effectiveness over time, so the choice of what to use is up to you.

The process of punishment

When resorting to punishment, it is helpful to know how punishment works and thus what might work best for you and your family.

The process of punishment tends to go like this: the child commits an infraction, which destabilises the equilibrium; the child is punished, creating a rupture in their relationship with the parent; the child performs a restorative act that repairs the relationship; and the equilibrium is restored. An example would be that the child hits her sister; you put her on the naughty step; she says sorry; then you kiss and make up and the punishment is over.

The shorter the gap between the transgression, the punishment and the restorative act, the more strongly they are associated in the child’s mind and thus the more effective the technique. Therefore, the punishment should be performed right away – no ‘wait till your dad gets home.’

This is another reason that the naughty step technique is so effective – it requires the restorative act to complete, whereupon everyone’s happy and gets on with their day. With power assertion techniques, the punishment ends with the smack or the toy being confiscated, and it can be a long time before a restorative act is performed. This means that, rather than being a short, sharp punishment, something like smacking is a punishment that lasts far longer than the simple physical act.

I well remember being sent to my room as a child and waiting for my father to come up and administer my punishment. After being smacked, the relationship would remain tense and an uncomfortable atmosphere would linger in the house, making it a prolonged and deeply unpleasant experience all round. Effective use of the naughty step is a far more appropriate means of controlling bad behaviour without creating an unhappy household.

A special note on smacking

This leads me to my last section in this post: whether or not it is right to smack your children. While there are arguments for and against the moral issue of corporal punishment, most experts agree that it just isn’t very effective – certainly not as effective as the other techniques that are available.

Legally, smacking is very much a grey area. In England, for example, smacking is classed as common assault, but if done in the home, the parent is able to use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, provided it doesn’t cross the line into ABH, GBH or child cruelty. However, where common assault becomes ABH  – the injury must be more than ‘transient and trifling’ – is unclear, and there is no definition of what constitutes ‘reasonable’ punishment. Citizens Advice suggests that if the smack leaves any kind of mark – a bruise, for example – the parent is liable for prosecution and can have their kids taken away and placed into care. Whether you want to risk that is up to you.

As somebody who was smacked as a child, I can honestly say, ‘It never did me any harm.’ Yes, I remember being smacked so hard on the bottom when I was four, I literally couldn’t sit down for the rest of the day – but I had just bitten my brother, and I never bit him again. Smacking, in this instance at least, did its job.

On the other hand, I’ve never smacked my kids and I don’t intend to, for several reasons. Firstly, if you smack your children when you’re angry, then you are lashing out and taking out your annoyance on a toddler, which seems wrong on so many levels. Furthermore, if good discipline is all about consistency, how consistently can you smack when you’re angry? Anybody who has slammed a door can attest to being unable to accurately gauge force when angry, so really, if you smack a child when you’re angry, you have no idea how hard you’re hitting them.

I also have problems with smacking children after you’ve calmed down. While it’s true that the force you use can be more measured, if you’ve waited until you’re less riled up, the punishment comes way after the transgression. Furthermore, deliberately deciding to inflict pain upon your loved ones for their own good when you’re not angry with them doesn’t seem like a psychologically healthy long-term strategy.

And lastly, if you’re hitting children in order to teach them not to hit, what kind of a cock-eyed lesson is that?

‘Don’t (smack) hit (smack) people (smack).’

Hypocrisy, thy name is you.

Look out  for How to Discipline A Toddler, Part 3: The Techniques