The other day my husband visited a Dunkin’ Donuts. Inside the store was a class of preschool kids who appeared to be around three years old, accompanied by their two teachers. The kids were all sitting very quietly, apparently waiting patiently for their treats, and my husband was impressed by their good behavior.
“Lucky group of preschool kids, getting donuts during class!” my husband commented to the cashier behind the counter.
“Um, I don’t think the kids are getting any donuts,” the cashier whispered. “The teachers only ordered for themselves.”
Just as the cashier finished speaking, the two teachers, balancing their donuts and coffee, ordered the kids to follow them out the door. As they were leaving my husband heard one of the teachers say, ever so sweetly, “And maybe next time you’ll remember to listen during circle time so you can get a donut too!”
The three-year-olds obediently followed the women out the door, never making a peep. Quiet, chastened, and utterly donut-less.
Compared to some of the truly horrible things inflicted on the children of the world in the name of discipline, this particular example of public humiliation and rubbing-your-nose-in-it donut withholding seems pretty mild. Yet this story has bugged me ever since my husband relayed it. I’m sure these teachers convinced themselves they were doing the right thing: the kids probably were naughty during circle time, and how are kids supposed to learn if there aren’t consequences for their bad behavior? And hey! The disciplinary strategy worked: the kids had become docile and complacent. But I can’t help wondering if underneath the surface of all those justifications, those two women felt a little tug in their heart that said, “No. Nope. Not the right way.” I wonder if those donuts felt a little dry in their mouths.
As a mother, I have plenty of my own “No. Nope. Not the right way,” experiences as I seek to parent my own kids. Implementing consequences for bad behavior is a particularly tricky skill to master. I’ve never been very good at being letter-of-the-law strict, even before I became a mom. During my first year as a high school English teacher, my supervising teacher wanted me to implement a “check marks on the board” method of discipline (it worked for her), but I found it frankly exhausting and not in keeping with the kinds of interpersonal relationships I wanted to develop with my students. Instead, I adopted a kind of “Hey, let’s get to know each other and trust each other and respect each other and hopefully that will work, but if it doesn’t I reserve the right to briefly lose it, and then we can get back to trusting and respecting each other again.” For the most part, this strategy worked for me. Except when it didn’t.
With my own kids, I function in much the same way. I’m no good at job charts or making my kids earn screen time coupons they can exchange for computer privileges. I’ve had good intentions (over and over again, I’ve had good intentions) but then the job chart gets compromised over spring break and it becomes such an incredible hassle to keep track of the screen time coupons, and I slide back into my regular MO: trying to maintain an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in my home, interspersed with random shrieky demands that the TV be turned off immediately and not be turned on again for 24 hours (“But why?” “Because I said so!”) and the occasional eruption of ill-considered in-the-moment consequence making that NOBODY benefits from. (Have you seen the episode of Modern Family when the parents threaten to cancel Christmas unless somebody confesses to burning a hole in the couch? Like that.)
Sometimes I worry that I’m too easy on my kids. Sometimes I worry that I’m too hard. The truth is, there is no perfect way to parent. There’s no perfect “choice and consequences” scheme that will ensure that our kids will grow up disciplined and unscathed by serious sin while still providing ample opportunity for them to exercise their own agency, all while enveloped in the sturdy embrace of unconditional parental love and acceptance.
We will all make mistakes as we seek to train our kids up in the way they should go. I just hope that when I get that little tug in my heart that says, “No. Nope. Not the right way,” I’ll be sensitive enough to listen to it, and strong enough to change.
And for Pete’s sake, everybody. Don’t eat Dunkin’ Donuts in front of the 3-year-olds as a disciplinary tactic. That’s just egregious.
How do you navigate your responsibility to provide consequences for your children? What worked and didn’t work when you were a child?