Dear Lily June,
At five months old, you’re pretty much given carte blanche to do whatever you want. Given that your fingers aren’t coordinated enough to strike a match, nor are your vocal skills developed enough to call me a name you’ll one day, wholeheartedly, regret when I die (mother guilt! It’s never too early to start!), I’m not worried about the penalties I might employ in the immediate, but moreso the future, of your mischief-making years.
I have to admit, I have absolutely no idea what might constitute both a healthy and an effective punishment, so I’m trying to do my research now so that by the time it would be applicable, I can whip out a practiced mommy scowl (that doesn’t cause me to erupt into unprofessional giggles) and say, “Lily, get thee to the nunnery.” Or, you know, whatever the twenty-first century equivalent of that might be. “Lily, givest thine mother your iPhone” comes to mind, though I’ve heard that choice might cause you to both call me the aforementioned naughty word and indignantly set my hair aflame.
The Old Tactics–My Own History with Punishment
Pulling from my mother’s punishment tactics seems problematic for a number of reasons. Though it happened before I can remember it, the family regularly recounts the tale of my sister heroically throwing her body, Pocahontas to John Smith style, over my backside when my mother threatened to swat it–dramatically shouting with as much force as a six-year-old can muster, “She’s only a child!”
Pair that with a therapist telling my mother, “When you spank your child, you’re only hurting yourself,” and she gave up the habit pretty early in my life. As such, I’m willing, as a mother, to spare the rod altogether, not truly believing that violent tactics produce anything but violent results.
When I got a bit older, my mother’s tactics grew more intellectual. Namely, she would make my sister and I write sentences about what we’d done over and over again until our hands cramped and our fingernails bled (theoretically). In the style of Bart Simpson at the chalkboard of Springfield Elementary, we would doggedly scrawl lines like, “I will not mock my mother’s sentence sentence” at least one hundred times.
Considering that, as all those of your generation, you’ll be taught to text a thousand words a minute before you’re even out of diapers, I find this tactic to be outmoded and cruel, like throwing you in the stocks. Though I must admit, with a twist of my imaginary mustache, that the idea of making you try to text me an apology while in the pillory does hold some appeal.
Finally cured of her spanking predilection, and sick of reading a hundred sentences to make sure we hadn’t slipped a sarcastic, “You’re not even reading these are you?” in somewhere around line 87, my mom finally decided the best way to punish was with hyperbole. When I fell asleep as a teenager with a candle burning by my bed, I was banned from the use of candles for three years. I kid you not.
When I snuck out as a preteen to see a movie alone with a male friend, Gareth, (not even a date! seriously! no matter how much I wanted it to be!), I made a rookie’s mistake. I told my mom I was going out with my female friend Mia, but I forgot to tell, you guessed it, my female friend Mia. My mom even gave me a last-ditch opportunity to admit it–asking, “Are you sure you were with Mia?”–but I was cocky enough to lie, a mistake that got me grounded not for a day, or a week, or a month but an entire year.
Of course, my mother’s definition of grounding just meant that she wouldn’t tote my friends anywhere or allow them over, which meant she was more than fine punishing my friend’s parents by making them the sole transportation and location-providers of all of our future “trouble-making.” But I digress. Considering that your generation doesn’t physically interact with people or objects but rather avatars and apps, I think I’m likely in the clear with those kinds of crimes anyway (right? Please? Hopeful smiley emoji 🙂 ?)
The sadder and more serious truth is that there was enough trouble brewing in my childhood home between my parents to mean two things when it came to punishment: 1) I was often too scared to make trouble; and 2) When I did make trouble, my parents were often too focused on their own troubles to notice. Good news for you, Lily: 1) Your parents love each other, so you have no reason to be afraid of how we treat one another, and 2) We’ve got nothing but time to watch your every move like two very loving, very ready hawks. And we’ve got the internet to research new techniques. And in the time it took you to read this sentence, I already found one article to review.
The New Techniques–Your Possible Future with Punishment
I get a little worried that in the battleground between free-range and attachment parenting, what often gets caught in the crossfire is common sense. I can see, for instance, the lovingly crafted motivations behind Ariadne Brill’s article, “12 Alternatives to Punishment That May Actually Work,” but the operative word appears to be “May” because I can picture so many scenarios where the following tactics just won’t produce productive results. Consider the following:
1) Take a break together, 9) Go outside, 12) Chill-out space
In theory, I like the idea of the time-in where you explain to your child what they’ve done wrong on neutral ground, rather than force them to stew in their tantrum’s juices in the solitary confinement of a corner. But I also like, in theory, the idea that prisons rehabilitate offenders before they become recidivists.
In practice, I think a time out accomplishes what prison does: It gives the authority figure a place to prop a criminal temporarily to get them out of circulation and off the streets. If you’re mixing meth in with the paste you’re swallowing in Kindergarten, we’re definitely going to take a time-in where I talk to you, calmly and carefully, about why you might want teeth someday. But if you’ve, as the article suggests, “[hit] a playmate,” I’m going to drag you as far from your victim as possible, so that, if nothing else, they don’t experience further Pre-K PTSD from your actions.
And then I might make you think about what it is to be in a space with no company–no mommies and no playmates–so you understand what hitting accomplishes in actuality. It makes no one want to be around you.
2) Second chances
In the South, they said for every dumb cockroach you spotted in the light of your fridge, there were a hundred smarter bugs hiding. I suspect the same was true of my mother’s punishments: For every one crime she’d actually make me do the time for, there were a hundred other misdemeanors she knew about, but chose not to prosecute.
Lily, I’ll occasionally grant you the gift of presumed ignorance, but if I catch you, in broad daylight, pouring glue onto the kitchen table, I’m tempted to find a plastic cockroach to glue to your Barbie’s back. Now that could produce an interesting behavioral metamorphosis.
3) Problem solve together, 7) Give two choices
I have absolutely no objections to this solution. When you inevitably throw a ball through the neighbor’s window, you and I will sit down and have a thoughtful and rational discussion about how to slip by child labor laws so that you can earn the money to replace the glass. I’ll start: It’s pretty dark down in coal mines, so what if you wore a black sweatshirt to work? No one will see you, but we’ll tell your boss you’re there! Or, as another option, you could learn to pick pockets. But, like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, you’re going to have to sing while you do it. You decide!
4) Ask questions
Again, in all earnestness, I think getting to the heart of a child’s motivations behind their misbehavior is a great strategy. But what do I do, for instance, when you reply that you physically assaulted your bus driver because “He’s a doo-doo head?”
Obviously, I’ll lower the interrogation bulb to blind you and pry like a five year old on the detective force, “Why? Why? Why is he a doo-doo head?”
5) Read a story
Get ready, Lily. As a former English teacher, I have an arsenal of stories to choose from. For instance, did you insult someone on the playground? Get ready to read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” where, in response to an assumed slight, the narrator lures a man into his wine cellar and buries him alive in a brick wall. That will teach you a valuable lesson about not becoming a wine-drinking mean girl.
6) Puppets & play, 8) Listen to a song, 11) Draw a Picture
No. Absolutely not. You do not get to be rewarded for pulling a fire alarm by watching me hose down a sock puppet who was never on fire to begin with. Play is a reward, not a valuable way to reconsider life choices. Unless, of course, you want to use marionettes, music, and pastels to talk/draw about why kissing kids against their will on the playground is wrong, in which case, I will videotape the performance/save the drawing and show it to your first crush over and over, saying, “Isn’t Lily great?”
No. Absolutely not. Breathing is a reward, not a punishment.
Okay, I know from behavioral counseling that taking a deep breath is actually a really good way to deal with anxiety in crises. And I know from 1980s synthpop band Tears for Fears that you can also, “Shout, shout, let it all out.”
In fact, I used to sing that to you while you’d wail unconsolably as a newborn, adding, “These are the things Lily could do without…” I think you get where I’m going here. If you make a mistake, I’ll take a deep breath in, and sing 80’s music to torture you on the exhale out.
Overall, Lily, when it comes to discipline, I promise there’ll be a lot of long talks. There hopefully won’t be a lot of tears or fears. And we’ll get through your childhood like most other families do, with your mother making a lot of mistakes in punishing you for the mistakes that you make. At least you have our solemn promise to never put you on one of those kiddie leashes…unless you really deserve it.
- “Skamvrån av Carl Larsson 1894” by Carl Larsson – Carl Larsson. Skildrad av honom själv, page 167, Stockholm: Bonniers 1952. ISBN 9915140819. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Skamvr%C3%A5n_av_Carl_Larsson_1894.jpg#/media/File:Skamvr%C3%A5n_av_Carl_Larsson_1894.jpg
- “Pocahontas-saves-Smith-NE-Chromo-1870” by New England Chromo. Lith. Co. – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-3368 (color film copy transparency), uncompressed archival TIFF version (4 MiB), rotated, color level (adjust color input levels, pick white and black point), cropped, and converted to JPEG (quality level 88) with the GIMP 2.6.6. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pocahontas-saves-Smith-NE-Chromo-1870.jpeg#/media/File:Pocahontas-saves-Smith-NE-Chromo-1870.jpeg
- “Prisoners whipped” from George Grantham Bain Collection. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b44982.TLicensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prisoners_whipped.jpg#/media/File:Prisoners_whipped.jpg
- “Dunce cap from LOC 3c04163u” by New York : Underwood & Underwood, publishers – US-LOC. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dunce_cap_from_LOC_3c04163u.png#/media/File:Dunce_cap_from_LOC_3c04163u.png