When the kids’ discipline is not good, but also not the issue


{NB: I may not be heard from for a while — don’t worry! The kitchen renovation proceeds apace, and I may just be off kilter enough to have to miss a few newsletters. I will probably be able to put up a few posts on Instagram, though! I think I will put the “Corners” there — I don’t have room here today!}


When Discipline is Not Exactly the Issue

The problem with writing about disciplining children is that you have to assume certain things.

Sometimes those things, which have to do with indefinable insights into children’s minds — and one’s own, are not readily assumable.

So I just want to put a note here about that situation, which I have encountered a lot over the years, where the children aren’t exactly undisciplined, but somehow a lot of energy is expended keeping them from melting down, blowing up, or otherwise making life difficult with tears and outright bad behavior.*

*Sometimes this difficulty is due to past trauma of their own, the parents’. I urge them to pray about this, because having had a difficult upbringing of one’s own is something to overcome in order to do right by one’s own children. Sometimes parents can be afraid to act rightly, because they fear the unpleasantness that follows — it makes them feel like failures. I have a quote from Scripture for them, if this is their issue, at the end of this little post.

Not occasionally, which happens in the best of families, but all the time. If you feel like you have to be on high alert at all times lest your young ones, or one in particular, just totally loses it — that your child somehow depends on you for his center of gravity in a way that you sense other children do not, this post is for you. It’s an outline, an indication — it will require you to think and pray.

In this case — the case where your family life with young children feels like keeping many, many balls, emotionally speaking, up in the air at all times, and possibly also navigating your spouse’s* fragility as well, or, to throw in another metaphor, the carefully constructed structure will come crashing down — let’s put a pin in “discipline” for a minute. I say this as someone who has written so much about discipline and considers it extremely important. You know that. Just click on that category or check out the sections in my book

*(I say spouse because unlike most of my posts, I really am writing this for both father and mother. The dynamic that causes this situation is a complicated one in which each spouse has to make an effort for the other, as well as for the children.)

Right now I have two things for you to think about.

Situational Awareness

The first thing is this: instead of thinking “I can’t get my kids to be disciplined,” consider helping them, every day, to have ever more situational awareness. As is age appropriate, of course.

When your eight-month-old starts slapping you in the face or pulling your hair, as they do, don’t just manage the behavior. Say, “Oh, that hurts Mama! Don’t pull my hair. Be gentle.” “We don’t slap Mommy! Give me a nice pat” — and take his little hand and stroke your cheek with it. Then stroke his cheek with your hand.

When your two-year-old bangs his plate on the table, say, “Hey! That bothers your Mom; it’s too noisy.” As you take the plate away. The point is to direct his attention to someone else and that person’s needs. When your four-year-old runs through the door ahead of your wife, sometimes you can say, “Please hold the door for Mama!” (Not always, because it’s okay for children to be heedless; they are children. But little by little, they should become aware that others exist.)

Call their attention to the trees, the birds, the street, the sky. Have them watch the people and their funny or odd ways. Remark on the likelihood that they are in pain, or fairly spry for their age.

When I was a little girl, my Egyptian father and stepmother loved to entertain. They made a point of having the children be present to greet and shake hands (actually, Egyptians are great kissers-on-both-cheeks, and huggers), take coats, pass plates of hors d’oeuvres, napkins, and drinks, and show the way to the bathroom. In this way, I became aware that others are happy to be served and that guests mean a suspension of everyday activity.

Do you get the idea? Your children may feel shy, awkward, and clingy because, well, they have that personality and maybe habit, but also, they simply have not been taught to attend to others’ needs, gradually, in an age-appropriate way.

Instead, the attention is on them, and that is always difficult. It’s much harder to keep it together when someone is focusing on you, but you have no idea what to say and do, than to be given a task, however small. A six-year-old taking someone’s plate for the pot luck is more confident than one wondering why you are not paying attention to her.

Self Control

The second thing is to insist that your children, on a regular basis, wait and also do or endure things that are not comfortable.

This is good practice. Since there are many times in life when we just must wait and/or accept not being perfectly comfortable, it’s best to have practice beforehand so we are not caught unawares and betrayed into a sort of outraged despair, as of a four-year-old.

When your child comes running in yelling at you because he is so thirsty, it is almost never an emergency. Believe me, I too panic at the thought of a helpless five-year-old dying of thirst, but the truth is, there is almost certainly no need for shouting and it may even be the case that a few moments can pass without danger. The child could even get his drink of water himself…

In my father’s Egyptian culture, children bring drinks of water to adults, not vice versa, as respect for one’s elders is a big feature. We want to express our care for our children, but the balance to be sought is to give them confidence in being capable of helping themselves as well as showing respect.

Since it’s a good idea that children arrive at the dinner table quite hungry, it will happen almost every day that they will be dying of hunger, just before dinner. That is undoubtedly very sad. But the best thing you can do is to ask this child to wait. Not right there, next to the tantalizing food that will drive her to distraction, but elsewhere, either finishing chores or reading a book. (Offering a snack then and there of course totally undermines dinner.)

You can also teach the child who has the habit of blasting in at 5:15 (when supper is at 5:30) with a wail of “I’M SO HUNGRY” instead to approach you politely with a cheerful, “How can I help you, Mama?”

When it’s mealtime, gather them, look them over, have them sit, and say Grace (Dad leading). Go here for strategies. Dinner is a good time to practice hierarchical living and pack behavior (by which I mean there is an alpha pair — mother and father — and the betas need to be betas and not run the show). Ten minutes is not too much to ask of anyone over the age of two, most of the time.

Keep your calm grasp of the meal-time scenario even when guests are present. If it makes you nervous, feed the children beforehand. They can join to sit quietly for ten minutes if they like and are not disruptive.

As you walk into a store with them, mention that “we are going into the store now” and “we want to be sure not to bump into people or be too loud.” “Oh, that lady needs a hand with that bag. Can you help her?” “Let’s let this gentleman go first. He only has a few things.” A pep talk in the car is a good idea. Let them know what the consequences are for not behaving, and be willing to leave in order to administer said consequences.

If you are promising a treat — and Auntie Leila is not above bribery, having realized early on the power to modify behavior of something rather modest in absolute terms, where judicious deprivation has been practiced in that area — don’t hesitate to skip it if it’s not been earned.

Also be sure to condition the treat on no requests for any other treats. It’s not necessary to go through a store having to spend most of the time explaining why you are not buying every single thing. Simply tell them that if they ask for anything, they will not get a treat at the end. Instead, teach them to say, “That looks interesting,” or “I like that kind of thing.” Seeing something you like does not mean wanting it, much less getting it. You can simply acknowledge its existence!

A party is not the time for a child to corral you with demands for stories and other one-on-one activities. He has to learn that his world will not fall apart if you aren’t directly paying attention to him at all times, and the only way for him to learn this is to be asked to do it. (As a guest in someone else’s home, your child should be encouraged to make friends with the other children and run along with them. If he needs to be with you, then he can sit beside you quietly, or on your lap without mangling you; he must not interfere with your conversation more than absolutely necessary. It should be brought home to him that he would have more fun playing!)

Once having attended to guests’ needs in the way described above (passing trays and so on), the children can and should be dismissed. They can play if it’s early; they can go to bed, having already been fed, if it’s late. If an adult shows interest in them, they can linger politely, but you, the hosts, should not let that go on too long. It’s good for children to understand that parents have other things to attend to — that they, the children, are not, at that moment, the center of anyone’s attention. When they experience it, that’s when they will learn that they can still be happy!

This is self control. As I have said before, all of life comes down to learning self control! It’s not that your child needs a spanking for these behaviors, though he may; it’s that he needs to believe that you not only do not accept them, you provide other behaviors for him to implement, behaviors that are more pleasant for all.

He will learn the self control necessary for every eventuality if his parents have confidence that he will survive, and if he is encouraged (even if very small) to look around, observe, and attend to whatever needs attending to.

A great thing about the Egyptian culture I grew up with in my father’s house is the reliance on ritual, so sadly lacking in our own society. Greetings are extensive and follow a script. The more you offer your children these scripts, the more able they will be to overcome the awkwardness and, frankly, intolerable burden of spontaneity and direct contact. For us in our less structured condition, “Hello Mrs. Fantasia, how do you do; may I take your bag/coat/dog,” if you know beforehand that it’s expected of you, smooths the way.

Don’t be afraid to coach your children up to the moment of reckoning. “They are coming. I want you to open the door and smile, because I am nursing your sister. If you don’t — if you act the way you did the last time, with that naughty whining and begging for snacks, you will be sent to your room. I am counting on you for hospitality.” “When they are here, don’t ask me to read you a book/go outside with you by yourself, go into another room. We have lots of time for those things when we don’t have guests. When people are here, we want to help them to feel happy that they have come. Will you help me do that? I am going to need someone to pass the nuts and to get things when it’s time to set the table. Here, take this bag of trash out to the garage while we get ready.”

But when the moment comes, let them sink or swim. Afterwards you can say something like “Good work helping our neighbor, she was really staggering under those beetroots; next time I want you to say ‘Miss Prism,‘ not ‘her,‘ because that is really not polite.” At the time, let it go (unless it’s a banishing offense, as warned, and then you will have to make do with an “excuse me, Miss Prism, while I just take little Abysma to her room for a moment”). Too bad if Miss Prism judges you; your loyalty is to your child, not to her.

A Last Word to Fathers:

An occasional sharp but deep-voiced word to your offspring to sit still, answer politely, stop talking, stand up, go do it now, finish that bite, answer your mother respectfully, and go stand in the corner for four minutes, are needed from you. Don’t respond to them when they interrupt, and encourage your wife likewise. Saying, “Don’t interrupt, what is it?” is not effective… make them wait.

Your wife is drowning having to manage behaviors and often to appease you, and even if she gets nervous when you abruptly correct, you must. (Wives, let your husbands administer the occasional smackdown, little or big.)

Listen to what she is saying; don’t talk over her while she’s trying to handle the children, but do lay down the law with them when the opportunity arises. Notice if you are a talkative person. You may not be observing, in silence, what you need to observe in order to lead your family to peace. Parents need situational awareness and self control too, and this is how we get those virtues!

Now all chastisement for the present indeed seemeth not to bring with it joy, but sorrow: but afterwards it will yield, to them that are exercised by it, the most peaceable fruit of justice. ~ Hebrews 12:11


My grandson Patrick on the day of his First Holy Communion!


bits & pieces


from the archives

  • Here’s an older bits & pieces post with super cute fox mittens I made, plus some links that are still of interest, including one to a supplement for those who suffer from migraines. The active ingredient is feverfew, which is not difficult to grow! I have a nice big patch in my herb garden.
  • 9 Hospitality Thoughts


liturgical living

St. Bernadine and St. Mary, Queen of Apostles today! And of course we are now in the Ascension time, getting ready for Pentecost. So many opportunities for prayer and uniting ourselves in the liturgical year!


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