We’ve been having some discipline issues around here recently. The girls have been talking back to me in a way that is not appropriate for 5-year-olds. Both M and J have had emotional outbursts that can be described only as tantrums. Age 4 and the first half of age 5 were nearly tantrum-free, so this flashback to age 3 was unexpected and unpleasant. I’d say something innocuous, and see one child or the other go rigid, rise on her toes, and clench her jaw before letting out a shriek. Despite my efforts not to, I would feel my own muscles tense and my blood pressure rise in response.
During the Reign of Tantrum Terror, also known as the Terrible Threes, I prided myself for being unflappable in the face of the girls’ outbursts, trying to show them how calm thought can work in one’s favour. I used to count slowly to 3, using both my speaking voice and my fingers, refusing the temptation to try to raise my voice over theirs. At 3, off the culprit went to time out, sitting on the floor facing a wall for a minute per year of their age. It didn’t matter if we were home or out in the world. If there wasn’t a wall available, a tree would serve just as well for a time out location.
I’ll confess that I had allowed the thick skin I developed during the Terrible Threes to melt away. At the same time, my children had learned to say, “No.” The first time that one of my daughters said “No,” when ordered to time out, I lost it. I yelled at her to go to time out, and this time she followed my instructions. I immediately knew that throwing a tantrum of my own wasn’t going to help things. All I was doing was validating the effectiveness of their unacceptable behaviour.
My relationships with both M and J became increasingly charged over a couple of months. My husband finally had to step in with some very constructive, but painful, criticism. He pointed out that the girls had learned that they could argue with me, and I was failing to rise above. I needed to remind them that “because Mom said so” carried weight.
He was right, of course. I had been so enjoying the recent explosion of both girls’ critical thinking that I had been inviting them to offer their own opinions, and trying to show them, whenever I could, how I reached the conclusions and decisions that I did. In my attempts to encourage them to question the status quo, I had put myself in the position of their friend, not their mother.
I shed a few tears, and slept on it. Once I’d marshalled my thoughts, I sat M and J down at the dining table for a conversation. I told them that I appreciated their ideas, and loved our discussions, but I was the mother. When I asked them to do something, I meant that they should do it immediately. If they had questions about the why of things, they could ask them later, and I would decide whether or not they were open to discussion. I would also be the one to decide when they could be discussed. The girls would go to time out when I told them to, and they would listen to me. Period.
After a week of maintaining my icy calm, and an average of 3 time outs per child per day, we’ve settled back into solid mother-daughter relationships. Much as I hope to be a friend to M and J when they are grown, I am exclusively their mother in the here and now.
Do you find yourself becoming complacent and compromising your parental authority? How do you fix it?
Sadia is a Bangladeshi and British working mother of twins and American army wife living on the Texas-Mexico border. Her thoughts on matters of parenting, twins, and parenting twins can be found at Double the Fun.