One of the things that bugs me the most about being a parent is that there’s no right way to do it. I mean, there’s not like an instruction book or anything. You get a new car, a new computer, or a new phone, there are instructions about how to care for it: upkeep, maintenance, trouble-shooting, all that.
With a baby, you don’t get any of it. Sure, there’s the What To Expect line of books, and you have the doctor to help you out, and there are about 18 million forums you can read.
But an overwhelming amount of that information is contradictory, and even the information from “the experts” seems to change about every two years or so.
We’re venturing towards our second year, now, and although I’m still pretty clueless about how to dad, I feel like we’ve got a pretty good grip on the basics, as parents. We feed him right (or as close to “right” as you can get, with so many people in disagreement about what to feed a toddler), we bathe him, we get him to sleep, and we keep him safe.
But one thing I’ve realized about parenthood is this: when you think you’ve got it under control, something will come along to show you that you are hilariously mistaken.
Our latest battle is discipline.
Everyone thinks they’re right, when it comes to disciplining a child. And everyone has an opinion about it. This is an area where internet forum parents go absolutely bonkers. I’ve seen everything from people talking about beating their kid daily just to keep them in line to people saying if they ever saw anyone so much as slap a child on the hand, they’d call the police.
I’ve seen professional baby studiers who say you should never hit your child; I’ve seen some that say a swat or hand-spank is fine; I read something the other day that said even time-out is terrible because it alienates your child and teaches them that if they’re in trouble, they have to deal with it on their own, so they won’t come to you for help in later years.
It’s…a delicate issue.
But my son is 18 months, and he has decided that it’s time we figure out a game plan for when he gets in trouble. Actually, it’s more that he has decided to elevate getting into trouble to an art form, so we’re forced to figure out how to handle it.
Right now, one of his favorite forms of getting into trouble is hitting. A lot of times, I think it’s because he gets over-excited. There doesn’t seem to be any maliciousness behind his actions, and it usually happens when we’re playing and having a good time.
But the second he gets scolded, he puts the maliciousness behind his actions. Once he gets in trouble, he decides to make it worth his while.
Here is how it went down the other night:
We were all in the living room, and he was running back and forth between his mother and I, laughing, squealing, playing…having a good time.
At one point, he ran over to me and for no apparent reason, paused just long enough to slap me in the leg.
“Hey, buddy,” I told him, “We don’t hit.” I didn’t make a big deal out of it, I just wanted him to know that he shouldn’t do that. Instead of agreeing with me, or even just ignoring me and continuing the nonsensical game we were playing, he stopped in his tracks and looked at me.
He walked the three or four steps back to me, holding eye contact the entire time. And then he smacked me in the leg again.
I sighed, because when he’s blatant about it, you have to do something, right?
I picked him up and sat him on my lap and held him steady so we could make eye contact.
“Hey,” I told him, holding his arms down so that he couldn’t move, “We don’t hit.”
He tried to squirm away, but I held steady, waiting for him to settle down. I continued to hold his eyes. “We don’t hit, okay?”
He stopped squirming and looked back at me. “Okay.”
“Okay, good,” I told him, setting him on the floor. “I love you.”
The second I let go of him, he smacked me again.
I picked him up again, sat him on my lap, held his arms so he couldn’t fidget, and looked him in the eyes.
“Atticus,” I said, using my very serious voice. “We don’t hit. We don’t hit.”
He looked back at me. “Okay. Yeah, okay.”
“Okay,” I said, placing him back onto the floor. He turned to face me, grinned, and slapped me on the leg again.
“No, sir,” I said, picking him up yet again. “We do not hit!”
“We don’t hit,” I repeated, because like I said, I don’t know how to dad at all.
“Okay,” he said again.
Unconvinced, I decided to take it a step further. “Do we hit?”
He glanced at the floor, obviously mulling it over. “Um. Yeah.”
“No,” I said, doing my best to keep the exasperation out of my voice. I glanced over at his mother, hoping to get some help. She had pulled a blanket over her head, and I saw it shaking as she laughed silently beneath it. Lots of help, that one.
“No,” I said again, “We don’t hit.”
My son, tossing out a performance that honestly could have won him an Oscar, nodded slowly, saying, “Ooohhh,” like he was confused before, but it was all clear now. “Okay.”
I slowly put him down. I let go of his arms.
He smacked me again.
I picked him back up, held him steady, and gave him the most steely-eyed look I have. Which, honestly, isn’t all that steely-eyed at all. I’m pretty sure it just looks like I’m either very tired or have eaten way too much sugar. I don’t know, man, it’s not like I practice this stuff in the mirror. Although I probably should start, because my looks are humiliatingly ineffective.
“I need you to listen to me very carefully,” I told him. “You are about to be in serious trouble. Do you want to be in trouble?”
“No,” he said, not missing a beat.
“Okay. So do we hit?”
“No, not okay. We don’t hit, do we?”
“No. No hitting.”
“Okay,” I told him. “I’m going to put you down, and you will not hit, right?”
“Okay, no hitting,” I said. I put him down, let go of his arms, and did my best to give him another scary look.
It didn’t really work, but at least he noticed a toy on the floor and got distracted. He ran over to get it, which saved me from both getting hit again and running out of breath by giving him the “no hitting” speech again.
It’s not a solid victory, but I still count it as a victory. I feel like I’m going to need to take my victories where I can get them, in the upcoming years, no matter how small.
Hopefully, all the small ones will add up to a big one, and by the time I have this kid raised, I’ll have done it right, and he’ll be one of the good guys. That’s about all we can hope for, as parents, right?