My mom gave Chris and I the very best piece of parenting advice ever when the kids were about two and three years old. She said that she and my dad spent a whole lot of time teaching and disciplining when Ginny and I were really young so that they could enjoy the time with us when we were a little older. Chris and I took that advice straight to heart and it became our mantra through the really tough ages and stages of having two little kids. We were hard on our kids – we still are – but we knew that if we raised them early on knowing how to behave and how to treat others, then we would reap the rewards of having well-behaved children. And we do.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Bean and Gracie are no angels. We caught Bean with a bed full of Sour Patch Kids that he snuck into his room after bedtime a few weeks ago and he still pushes the limits like a normal 8 year old boy with lying, laziness, and the occasional temper tantrum. But overall, Bean is a really good kid. He knows his boundaries even when he pushes them, and above all else, he is kind. And that makes me so very proud of him.
Gracie Girl on the other hand… Heaven help us.
Gracie is still in the heavier discipline stage. She gets in trouble more often and for very different reasons than Bean does. Bean most often gets in trouble for testing his boundaries. He pouts when he doesn’t get his way to see if that will change the outcome (it doesn’t). When he thinks we aren’t watching or listening, he can say some unkind, very big brother-like things to Gracie. He occasionally argues or backtalks, but is quick to shut it down the minute he knows he has stepped too far. His discipline these days most often comes from trying to define his boundaries within our family, which is perfectly healthy and normal at his age. And, to be honest, I love seeing him explore the world this way, where he can safely test boundaries within our family safety net. It build confidence in him and respect between he and Chris and me.
Gracie is not so much testing limits as she in trouble because she is stubborn. I love that child and can’t fault her a bit for this because she gets it from her momma, but she is damn near impossible to force to do anything. She will wait you out like no other child I have ever seen. You know how when you have a toddler, you should just let them cry or pitch a temper tantrum when they don’t get their way because “they’ll get over it?” Yeah… Gracie NEVER got over it. She could pitch a temper tantrum for HOURS, and I do mean H-O-U-R-S. I used to joke that she had colic until she was four years old.
When both our babies were infants, we did the infant survival swimming lessons with them. You have to take them every day for 10 minutes for two-three weeks. Bean took the class first and passed his test in about 12 days. Gracie on the other hand? 18 WEEKS, PEOPLE. 18 weeks. 18 weeks of 10 minute swimming lessons EVERYDAY. Her swim instructor told me she’d never seen anything like it. Gracie refused to float. Absolutely refused to float. And what does it look like when an 18-month-old child refuses to float? Well, it looks a lot like a very angry drowning wet cat. Finally, the program said she should just take swimming lessons in a few months when she was old enough (because by the time we “finished” the infant survival program, Gracie was almost three years old). So, we did. And she cried through that, too. Never got over it. Never STOPPED crying, like her new swim instructor said she would. Instead, she jumped in the pool the following summer and swam like she had been swimming all her life.
Dinner is another example of Gracie’s stubbornness. For SIX YEARS now, Gracie has refused to eat dinner. At first, I tried every parenting trick in the book. We tried feeding her at different times, breaking up her meal into two “snack” portions, letting her fix her own plate, having her help make dinner, taking away her chair, moving her to eat in a room by herself, letting her snack through the day, NOT letting her snack through the day, saving her plate and making her eat it at the next meal, letting her choose when she was full, allowing her to only eat one or two of the items on her plate instead of a clean plate, and just plain not caring if she ate at all. You name it, we tried it. And still, the child would not eat dinner.
Now, here we are at age six, and Gracie is still the last person at the table every, single night. The rule for the kids is that they have to make a healthy effort to eat dinner, but they don’t have to clean their plates. Unless they want dessert. If they want dessert, they have to clean their plates. Sometimes Bean gets dessert and sometimes he is full and chooses to skip it. Whatever his choice, though, he is in and out at the dinner table, like all the rest of us. But Gracie? Not a chance. Gracie sits at the table with the rest of us and eats one pea at a time whenever you remind her to take a bite. And she will only eat that one pea if you actually remind her to take a bite. Otherwise, she just sits there and talks or piddles around while we all eat and her plate stays completely full. Once the rest of us are finished, everyone scrapes their plates and puts them in the sink for me to do the dishes. I can get the entire kitchen cleaned up after dinner and the dishes done and Gracie will STILL be sitting at the kitchen table, rolling around in her seat.
(This is my new favorite picture of Gracie. If I had to choose one picture to represent what it is like parenting her, this is the one. This is after dinner one night a couple weeks ago. Chris was getting onto her for not eating and in the middle of it, Gracie pulled her nightgown up over her head and said in her little singsong voice, “I can’t hear you, Daddy!” I almost lost it and had to leave the kitchen so I could snicker quietly in the living room…)
And it’s not about the food. She’s a healthy, happy six-year-old who loves all kinds of foods and never goes hungry. If she doesn’t want to eat, fine. Don’t eat. But it’s the stubbornness that drives me crazy. It’s the fact that she won’t eat because I’m telling her to, not because she isn’t hungry. Again, though, my mom gave us great advice for dealing with Gracie’s behavior like this (because she raised two “spirited” girls herself…). Mom said to remember that there is a consequence for the behavior – no matter what the reaction is from the child. Our consequence for not eating dinner is that you can’t have dessert. If Gracie CHOOSES to not eat her dinner and, therefore, not get her dessert, I can’t get frustrated because that doesn’t seem to bother her. I can’t discipline out of vengeance. As a parent, my discipline needs to stay reasonable and constant.
Gracie’s stubbornness is a character trait that she has. While I hope she grows out of it or at least learns to balance it with more flexibility over time, it is not my job to discipline the stubbornness out of her. It is my job to set the consequences for her actions and then follow through when those actions are taken. And I’ll tell you something, when I shifted this mindset in parenting Gracie, our relationship blossomed. She knows the rules and what is expected of her and if she chooses to not follow those rules, she knows what those consequences will be because Chris and I are nothing if we are not consistent as parents.
The other day, the kids were swimming in the pool and Gracie got mad at Bean for something silly and she grabbed his goggles off his head and threw them into the deep end of the pool (not a very big deal to Bean, but definitely a temper tantrum for Gracie). I had already warned her about playing nicely and so when she threw the goggles, I said sharply, “That is not playing nicely, Gracie. You need to apologize to Bean and take a ten minute break from the pool,” and she hung her head, told Bean she was sorry, went to get the goggles, and then sat on the chair beside the pool until I told her she could come back in. And when she got back in, it was like that incident had never happened. She jumped back in and she and Bean picked right back up where they left off, only Gracie played much nicer after that.
I’m learning that disciplining Gracie isn’t about breaking her. It’s about teaching her. And that requires many of the same traits I have to demonstrate in my classroom – patience, consistency, and love.
People have asked me before who is harder to raise – Bean or Gracie; boys or girls; oldest or youngest – and I really don’t know that one is necessarily harder than the other. I think it’s more about being able to understand why they are acting up, teaching through the behavior, and staying consistent with our expectations. That process looks different for Bean and Gracie, but the outcome is the same. (Mostly…) Well-behaved children who have a healthy respect for their parents, family, and others.
“Train up a child in the way that he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6