“The neglect and mistreatment that is part and parcel of poorly structured or even entirely absent disciplinary approaches can be deliberate—motivated by explicit, conscious (if misguided) parental motives. But more often than not, modern parents are simply paralyzed by the fear that they will no longer be liked or even loved by their children if they chastise them for any reason. They want their children’s friendship above all, and are willing to sacrifice respect to get it. This is not good. A child will have many friends, but only two parents—if that—and parents are more, not less, than friends. Friends have very limited authority to correct. Every parent therefore needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken, as the capacity of children to perceive or care about long-term consequences is very limited. Parents are the arbiters of society. They teach children how to behave so that other people will be able to interact meaningfully and productively with them.
It is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. It is not anger at misbehavior. It is not revenge for a misdeed. It is instead a careful combination of mercy and long-term judgment. Proper discipline requires effort—indeed, is virtually synonymous with effort. It is difficult to pay careful attention to children. It is difficult to figure out what is wrong and what is right and why. It is difficult to formulate just and compassionate strategies of discipline, and to negotiate their application with others deeply involved in a child’s care. Because of this combination of responsibility and difficulty, any suggestion that all constraints placed on children are damaging can be perversely welcome. Such a notion, once accepted, allows adults who should know better to abandon their duty to serve as agents of enculturation and pretend that doing so is good for children. It’s a deep and pernicious act of self-deception. It’s lazy, cruel and inexcusable. And our proclivity to rationalize does not end there.
We assume that rules will irremediably inhibit what would otherwise be the boundless and intrinsic creativity of our children, even though the scientific literature clearly indicates, first, that creativity beyond the trivial is shockingly rare96 and, second, that strict limitations facilitate rather than inhibit creative achievement. Belief in the purely destructive element of rules and structure is frequently conjoined with the idea that children will make good choices about when to sleep and what to eat, if their perfect natures are merely allowed to manifest themselves. These are equally ungrounded assumptions. Children are perfectly capable of attempting to subsist on hot dogs, chicken fingers and Froot Loops if doing so will attract attention, provide power, or shield them from trying anything new. Instead of going to bed wisely and peacefully, children will fight night-time unconsciousness until they are staggered by fatigue. They are also perfectly willing to provoke adults, while exploring the complex contours of the social environment, just like juvenile chimps harassing the adults in their troupes. Observing the consequences of teasing and taunting enables chimp and child alike to discover the limits of what might otherwise be a too-unstructured and terrifying freedom. Such limits, when discovered, provide security, even if their detection causes momentary disappointment or frustration.
I remember taking my daughter to the playground once when she was about two. She was playing on the monkey bars, hanging in mid-air. A particularly provocative little monster of about the same age was standing above her on the same bar she was gripping. I watched him move towards her. Our eyes locked. He slowly and deliberately stepped on her hands, with increasing force, over and over, as he stared me down. He knew exactly what he was doing. Up yours, Daddy-O—that was his philosophy. He had already concluded that adults were contemptible, and that he could safely defy them. (Too bad, then, that he was destined to become one.) That was the hopeless future his parents had saddled him with. To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field.
No, I didn’t. I just took my daughter somewhere else. But it would have been better for him if I had.
Imagine a toddler repeatedly striking his mother in the face. Why would he do such a thing? It’s a stupid question. It’s unacceptably naive. The answer is obvious. To dominate his mother. To see if he can get away with it. Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned. (People often get basic psychological questions backwards. Why do people take drugs? Not a mystery. It’s why they don’t take them all the time that’s the mystery. Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery. We’re breakable and mortal. A million things can go wrong, in a million ways. We should be terrified out of our skulls at every second. But we’re not. The same can be said for depression, laziness and criminality.)
If I can hurt and overpower you, then I can do exactly what I want, when I want, even when you’re around. I can torment you, to appease my curiosity. I can take the attention away from you, and dominate you. I can steal your toy. Children hit first because aggression is innate, although more dominant in some individuals and less in others, and, second, because aggression facilitates desire. It’s foolish to assume that such behaviour must be learned. A snake does not have to be taught to strike. It’s in the nature of the beast. Two-year-olds, statistically speaking, are the most violent of people. They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others. They do so to explore, to express outrage and frustration, and to gratify their impulsive desires. More importantly, for our purposes, they do so to discover the true limits of permissible behaviour. How else are they ever going to puzzle out what is acceptable? Infants are like blind people, searching for a wall. They have to push forward, and test, to see where the actual boundaries lie (and those are too-seldom where they are said to be).
Consistent correction of such action indicates the limits of acceptable aggression to the child. Its absence merely heightens curiosity—so the child will hit and bite and kick, if he is aggressive and dominant, until something indicates a limit. How hard can I hit Mommy? Until she objects. Given that, correction is better sooner than later (if the desired end result of the parent is not to be hit). Correction also helps the child learn that hitting others is a sub-optimal social strategy. Without that correction, no child is going to undergo the effortful process of organizing and regulating their impulses, so that those impulses can coexist, without conflict, within the psyche of the child, and in the broader social world. It is no simple matter to organize a mind.
My son was particularly ornery when he was a toddler. When my daughter was little, I could paralyze her into immobility with an evil glance. Such an intervention had no effect at all on my son. He had my wife (who is no pushover) stymied at the dinner table by the time he was nine months of age. He fought her for control over the spoon. “Good!” we thought. We didn’t want to feed him one more minute than necessary anyway. But the little blighter would only eat three or four mouthfuls. Then he would play. He would stir his food around in his bowl. He would drop bits of it over the high chair table top, and watch as it fell on the floor below. No problem. He was exploring. But then he wasn’t eating enough. Then, because he wasn’t eating enough, he wasn’t sleeping enough. Then his midnight crying was waking his parents. Then they were getting grumpy and out of sorts. He was frustrating his mother, and she was taking it out on me. The trajectory wasn’t good.
After a few days of this degeneration, I decided to take the spoon back. I prepared for war. I set aside sufficient time. A patient adult can defeat a two-year-old, hard as that is to believe. As the saying goes: “Old age and treachery can always overcome youth and skill.” This is partly because time lasts forever, when you’re two. Half an hour for me was a week for my son. I assured myself of victory. He was stubborn and horrible. But I could be worse. We sat down, face to face, bowl in front of him. It was High Noon. He knew it, and I knew it. He picked up the spoon. I took it from him, and spooned up a delicious mouthful of mush. I moved it deliberately towards his mouth. He eyed me in precisely the same manner as the playground foot monster. He curled his lips downward into a tight frown, rejecting all entry. I chased his mouth around with the spoon as he twisted his head around in tight circles.
But I had more tricks up my sleeve. I poked him in the chest, with my free hand, in a manner calculated to annoy. He didn’t budge. I did it again. And again. And again. Not hard—but not in a manner to be ignored, either. Ten or so pokes letter, he opened his mouth, planning to emit a sound of outrage. Hah! His mistake. I deftly inserted the spoon. He tried, gamely, to force out the offending food with his tongue. But I know how to deal with that, too. I just placed my forefinger horizontally across his lips. Some came out. But some was swallowed, too. Score one for Dad. I gave him a pat on the head, and told him that he was a good boy. And I meant it. When someone does something you are trying to get them to do, reward them. No grudge after victory. An hour later, it was all over. There was outrage. There was some wailing. My wife had to leave the room. The stress was too much. But food was eaten by child. My son collapsed, exhausted, on my chest. We had a nap together. And he liked me a lot better when he woke up than he had before he was disciplined.
This was something I commonly observed when we went head to head—and not only with him. A little later we entered into a babysitting swap with another couple. All the kids would get together at one house. Then one pair of parents would go out to dinner, or a movie, and leave the other pair to watch the children, who were all under three. One evening, another set of parents joined us. I was unfamiliar with their son, a large, strong boy of two.
“He won’t sleep,” said his father. “After you put him to bed, he will crawl out of his bed, and come downstairs. We usually put on an Elmo video and let him watch it.”
“There’s no damn way I’m rewarding a recalcitrant child for unacceptable behaviour,” I thought, “and I’m certainly not showing anyone any Elmo video.” I always hated that creepy, whiny puppet. He was a disgrace to Jim Henson’s legacy. So reward-by-Elmo was not on the table. I didn’t say anything, of course. There is just no talking to parents about their children—until they are ready to listen.
Two hours later, we put the kids to bed. Four of the five went promptly to sleep—but not the Muppet aficionado. I had placed him in a crib, however, so he couldn’t escape. But he could still howl, and that’s exactly what he did. That was tricky. It was good strategy on his part. It was annoying, and it threatened to wake up all the other kids, who would then also start to howl. Score one for the kid. So, I journeyed into the bedroom. “Lie down,” I said. That produced no effect. “Lie down,” I said, “or I will lay you down.” Reasoning with kids isn’t often of too much use, particularly under such circumstances, but I believe in fair warning. Of course, he didn’t lie down. He howled again, for effect.
Kids do this frequently. Scared parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying. Careful analysis of the musculature patterns of crying children has confirmed this.100 Anger-crying and fear-or-sadness crying do not look the same. They also don’t sound the same, and can be distinguished with careful attention. Anger-crying is often an act of dominance, and should be dealt with as such. I lifted him up, and laid him down. Gently. Patiently. But firmly. He got up. I laid him down. He got up. I laid him down. He got up. This time, I laid him down, and kept my hand on his back. He struggled, mightily, but ineffectually. He was, after all, only one-tenth my size. I could take him with one hand. So, I kept him down and spoke calmly to him and told him he was a good boy and that he should relax. I gave him a soother and pounded gently on his back. He started to relax. His eyes began to close. I removed my hand.
He promptly got to his feet. I was impressed. The kid had spirit! I lifted him up, and laid him down, again. “Lie down, monster,” I said. I pounded his back gently some more. Some kids find that soothing. He was getting tired. He was ready to capitulate. He closed his eyes. I got to my feet, and headed quietly and quickly to the door. I glanced back, to check his position, one last time. He was back on his feet. I pointed my finger at him. “Down, monster,” I said, and I meant it. He went down like a shot. I closed the door. We liked each other. Neither my wife nor I heard a peep out of him for the rest of the night.
“How was the kid?” his father asked me when he got home, much later that night. “Good,” I said. “No problem at all. He’s asleep right now.”
“Did he get up?” said his father.
“No,” I said. “He slept the whole time.”
Dad looked at me. He wanted to know. But he didn’t ask. And I didn’t tell.
Don’t cast pearls before swine, as the old saying goes. And you might think that’s harsh. But training your child not to sleep, and rewarding him with the antics of a creepy puppet? That’s harsh too. You pick your poison, and I’ll pick mine.” -Jordan B Peterson, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos