It was a hot, hot August day when I figuratively picked up my favorite piece of parenting advice and flung it out the window. If I had known how much damage I would do before the day was done, I might have thrown something more tangible out of the window, like say, a Tickle Me Elmo. Because why not? What’s one more broken thing?
Baby Violet had just turned three weeks old. It was the first week of August and my three children and I had been staying home a lot. We were going stir crazy. Our MOPS group was having a play date at a local splash pad that my kids love. I knew it would be a huge challenge to care for my newborn while trying to wrangle my boisterous 3-year-old boy and his side-kick sister into following the splash pad rules (“No running! Stop running!” Don’t they know little boys don’t even know how to walk? That they are born with one speed and that speed is “running?”). But I was prepared to do the crazy thing and try. I even announced to the kids we were going. Now there was really on turning back.
Or was there? The towels were packed, the sunscreen applied, the swimsuits on, but the kids were just plain misbehaving that morning. Nothing I said seemed to get into their ears. “Don’t tip your chair back.” “Please go brush your teeth.” “Stop hitting your sister!” Honestly, my children are usually people I enjoy being around, but I guess we were in the “acting out” phase of having a new baby in the family. As the minutes passed by and the time to leave for the splash pad got closer, the utter disregard for my authority grew. I tried pleading. I tried cheerleader-ish encouraging instructions. “Let’s get those shoes on quick, how quick can you do it!! Go, team, go!” I tried The Look. I tried yelling (tsk, tsk, I know). I knew what I should do, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to say, “You know what? We can’t go out when you are behaving like this. We are staying home.” Because I really, really didn’t want to stay home.
But we did. After I finally made the decision, I managed to say it pretty calmly: “I’m sorry, I wanted to take you to the splash pad, but you are not listening to me. We have to stay home today.” There were some tears, but I think I was sadder than they were. I had broken my favorite parenting rule: “When you punish your kids, do not punish yourself along with them.” I first heard this advice when my oldest was still an infant. I thought it sounded so good, I told myself, “Oh yeah, I’m making that rule my own!” I mean, what parent needs worse punishment than being The Punisher?
Apparently, this parent.
At that moment, it became very clear that I had to let that parenting rule go. Because if I’m honest, I need just as much discipline as my children. In fact, I’m starting to realize the cruel truth of parenting is that if I want any of this discipline I’m doling out to work, I have to be the most self-disciplined of all.
Sigh. It was a sad moment of realization, but it felt right. Like when you decide to take back that shirt you bought but didn’t need when you were at Target last week.
The kids straightened up their attitudes a few minutes after I delivered the crushing (to me) blow of staying home. A bit later, I told them I would turn the sprinkler on in the backyard for them. Maybe we can redeem this day after all, I thought. That didn’t happen the way I thought it would, though. As I went out to turn on the sprinkler, I pulled on the hose a bit too hard…hard enough to pull the spigot out of the foundation of our house. I stood there for a minute, listening to the water gushing out of the broken pipe under our house, just feeling like life was really unfair. This is what I get for doing the right thing and staying home? Then I snapped out of it and did what every good homeowner does when they have a leak, which is, of course, turn off the water supply. But I couldn’t turn the knob on the valve for the life of me. Maybe it was really stuck, maybe I was too weak only three weeks postpartum, but at life seemed pretty unfair.
My husband was out of town. My in-laws were at the beach. I couldn’t reach my dad. All the while, the water flowed out of the pipe under my house. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have turned on my own waterworks. I felt so abandoned by everyone and cheated by my good intentions of doing the right thing.
$300 later, the pipe was fixed, the kids were fed, the Little Einsteins were on, and we were all doing okay. I sat feeding my baby, trying to make sense of all the thoughts in my head (this is a big process when you’re sleep deprived). I was positive I had been the one learning the most about discipline that day. I learned in a very real way that parents have to do the right things, even when it’s hard, and that the right things aren’t always fun. They can even involve broken pipes if you’re not careful. The reward isn’t immediate and the hard things can just get harder before you see any of the good that follows. I’m still figuring this all out, but I have this feeling that pursuing discipline in myself first will be a real game changer in my home. Without my own self-correction, teachability, and humility, I don’t think the discipline I give to my children will have good lasting effects. My theory is any “discipline” I give my children will just be punishment, not training, if I’m not growing and learning right along with them.
It’s been six months since I threw my favorite parenting rule out the window. The practical side of this theory is starting to make sense in real life now. I recognize that when the kids are throwing a fit over turning of the TV after just one show, it’s a result of my own lack of discipline. Have I fallen into the habit of letting them watch more like an hour of TV? Yes. My own lack of discipline in my practices has brought us to this point of rebellion and tears and tantrums. It’s still not an appropriate response from my children, that is undeniable. And they will get some sort of consequence, probably along the lines of no TV tomorrow, which means no down time for me tomorrow. But at this point I know if I had drawn the line and stayed on the right side of it, we all would know that the line was not to be crossed. Now my children think there’s a totally different line then the one I meant to set and they feel I’m doing them an injustice. I know I am the one in this situation that the discipline starts with.
So I’m replacing my old favorite parenting rule with a new one: “Discipline in my family starts with me.” I’m praying we’ll all be better for it.
I’m just hoping it doesn’t involve any more broken pipes…