A few weeks ago, my daughter Charlotte hit her friend at the park. Twice. With a stick. I was mortified. I knelt down to her level, grabbed her hands, and asked her to look at my eyes, please. She looked at the sky, at the bushes, at her feet, but refused to look at me. “Charlotte,” I repeated. “I need you to look at me please.”
“No,” she answered.
“I understand that you do not want to look at me,” I said, “but I would like to talk to you about your behavior. Would it be better if we sat quietly together for a little while first?” Her lip quivered. Tears fell. She started wailing and threw her weight on the ground.
So I took her in my arms and I walked to a bench nearby. I explained that after we talked she could return to playing and I could return to chatting, but until then we were just going to sit here. So we sat.
Minutes ticked by and still we sat. I sang. Charlotte fussed. And still we sat. Until finally Charlotte said she was ready to talk. Then I held her hands and I looked her in the eye and I explained that WE do not hit. In our family, behavior is almost always ‘we.’
I explained how hitting can be painful and how the stick she used could have injured her friend if it were to strike his eye or his throat. I reminded her of how she feels when other children hit her.
She didn’t know what I was talking about. “What does, what does ‘hitting’ mean?” she asked me. So I explained what hitting was.
Then I gave her options. I listed off some phrases she could repeat to her friend if his behavior was frustrating her. I told her that if she could not find the words to convey her anger, she could call for me to help her. And then, I said, if she really just wanted to hit something, here were some things that she COULD hit: trees, the ground, and the big boulder at the edge of the playground.
I told her that I was not angry or disappointed. I empathized with her emotion. And I explained that although I did not want her to repeat the behavior, how she behaved had no influence on how much I love her. Then I explained that because her behavior could have hurt her friend, she needed to apologize to him. And I explained that because my behavior had caused him angst, I told her that I would apologize too. We could apologize together, I said.
So we went to her friend. I told her friend that I was very sorry to take Charlotte away so abruptly and for such a long time. He said it was okay. Then Charlotte whispered that she was sorry and they hugged each other. She needed a little reassurance from me that everything was okay and she could continue playing.
Then I went back to chatting with my buddies.
Four times that week, Charlotte hit someone. Four. Times. And each time took somewhere between five and twenty minutes for me to resolve. Each time I did the same thing: I removed Charlotte from the situation, gave her time to calm down, talked to her about her behavior, asked her about her feelings, gave her options, reminded her that I love her unconditionally, and helped her apologize. And each time I wondered: is this working? Am I being stern enough? Is she getting the message? Would something else be more effective?
Every few days, I receive an email from a reader asking me how my husband Donald and I discipline Charlotte. I almost never answer them because, quite frankly, I don’t know how to talk about discipline. For starters, I have only one child. Taking twenty minutes out of my day to talk to my child about hitting in an age-appropriate way is 100% doable because I am not parenting any other children simultaneously and we rarely have restrictions on our time. Second, my child is only two. She cannot lie to me or take drugs or shoplift. Our gravest problem is that she likes to sample dinner while we’re preparing it and that she isn’t that keen on bedtime. It’s not like there’s much to discipline.
But for a couple of days, there was. And I followed my gut. And it worked. And I know that tooting your own horn on the Internet makes you a narcissistic jackass, but right now this narcissistic jackass is feeling very very proud of herself. The end.