I was standing on a street corner with my wailing toddler as a smiling woman shouted at me from across the street.
Naughty? Was my daughter being naughty because she was crying? Was I being naughty because my child was visibly upset?
The stranger had just witnessed a scene between 18-month-old Julia and me. Julia had wanted to cross the street to get to the toy store, but she wanted to cross independently, without holding my hand. After I’d explained the options for safely crossing the busy street, she sobbed hysterically in protest. The enthusiastic cries from across the street commenced shortly thereafter.
“Naughty chair! Like magic!”
Ah. Naughty chair–a seat for a child to sit in as a time-out, following an act of misbehavior or an emotional outburst. The stranger smiled brightly at her own toddler, who, I now saw, was holding his mother’s hand in anticipation of crossing the street.
The light changed, and the mother and her son rushed over.
“Sorry! I’ve just been in your shoes, and wish someone had told me about the naughty chair earlier! Believe it or not, discipline starts this early–these kids are already learning about right and wrong!” She flashed a cheery, hopeful smile, and we parted ways.
I agree with her last statement. I do believe that the foundations of morality begin in early childhood. I just don’t believe that punishment is the best way to build these foundations.
It comes as no surprise that discipline typically begins in earnest during the toddler years. Toddlers are fearless explorers who need much direction in order to stay safe. However, as we limit their more dangerous behaviors, they often experience a loss of power, control, and independence. In my family, my fierce desire to protect my daughter often clashes with her own equally fierce desire to assert her independence. I used to believe that conflict could be virtually eliminated though such positive parenting tools as redirecting or labeling feelings. I have since discovered that even gentle methods of discipline prohibit my toddler from fully satiating her curiosity about our world. It is unfair of me to expect her to be content with that, even if the limits I set are reasonable ones.
Often, my adult logic seems completely arbitrary to Julia, and it infuriates her. She can’t fathom why striking my palms in a high five or a game of patty-cake is acceptable, whereas hitting my face is not. She is heartbroken at my suggestion that cups of water can be poured into the sink but not onto the carpet. She is perplexed by my insistence that knives can hurt–after all, she’s seen me use them to dice carrots without any harm coming to me. And I’ve had to halt some of her most eager explorations because of dangers that she did not understand. Julia can often predict my responses to her age-appropriate but undesirable behaviors, but she’s still a long way from understanding my reasoning, much less internalizing that thought process.
Life has certainly become more challenging. Julia perceives my most innocuous acts as threats to her autonomy. If I try to pick her up, forgetting that she’s been walking for months now, I’m met with a shockingly effective self-defense move: She falls to the floor, both arms raised in the air. Such common activities as putting on her coat or brushing her teeth involve unbelievable amounts of patience and creativity. I find myself brainstorming ways to make necessary but unpleasant occasions, such as diaper changes, less threatening and more enjoyable–but my efforts get me only so far.