If Disciplining Your Kids Feels Kind of Impossible


January 4, 2019

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I have read more books and articles on discipline than I can count. I’ve listened desperately to podcasts and the advice of friends, scrolled through forums and Facebook groups ad nauseam, searching for new strategies, scripts, and approaches. I thought that if I could discover some kind of magic solution and implement it correctly, then I could single-handedly stop my very choleric daughter from ever misbehaving again.


I’d always had high expectations, and I thought I’d meet the ones I brought to parenting if I just did the right thing in the right way. Kind of like a formula: Put in, get out. So as I began the search for “x”, or the set of maxims that when applied would procure magically obedient children, I was surprised to find so much discord in the parenting literature. 

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From one book, I learned that children will only obey you if they feel securely attached. To best foster this attachment, it advised co-sleeping, nursing on demand, and being in constant close physical contact. 

Another said that children will only listen if you have them on a strict schedule, because met expectations and set routines remove opportunities for disobedience. 

A third explained that kids actually can’t be expected to obey at all because their brains aren’t developed enough for self-regulation or for understanding the “why” behind adult rules and boundaries. Best just to shower them with empathy and redirect. 

This doctor said only natural consequences work. That author said never punish at all.

This mom spoke of immediate timeouts after each transgression. That podcast warns to never raise your voice.

Rules, rules, rules. Complex script after complex script. Abstract assessments of what is best based on what virtues the author holds dearest, always applied to these imaginary children in imaginary households with parents who never get angry, tired, or have other things to do, apparently.

Every day I faced challenges with my oldest, and every night I pored over those “guaranteed” methods of success.  What was I doing wrong? Where was the “x” I was searching for?

Maybe this all sounds bananas. Maybe you have it all figured out. Maybe one of these parenting styles so suits you and your offspring that life is smooth sailing. If so, GOOD. You can ignore what is coming next. 

This is for all you mamas struggling with difficult-to-discipline children, who feel pigeonholed by the literature and advice out there. This is for those of you who feel like nothing is “working,” who are wracked with guilt and worried you’re not doing it right, because your kid is acting like a drunken banshee for the 800th time. 

Drumroll, please…

There is no “x”.

I read somewhere in one of those dang books that the word discipline is derived from the Latin word for teaching. I breezed right over that etymological lesson to get to some of the nitty gritty “good” stuff, and it took years (yes, years), for that quip to resurface and mean something.

When it did, everything changed. I scrapped the formula and fell back on the basics: Discipline. Is. Teaching. I try to operate from that maxim. It has liberated me from the endless quest to find the one parenting style that “works,” from those ridiculous parenting scripts, and from the expectation of perfection.

Teaching. This looks different for different kids, even in the same household. I have to teach my phlegmatic son differently than my choleric daughter. They have different struggles, they respond differently to confrontation, and they have different needs.

Even for a specific child, discipline looks different depending on the scenario at hand and what virtue you’re trying to teach. For instance, proper discipline probably doesn’t include yelling if you’re trying to teach your kid about patience. (I laugh at how many times I’ve shrieked “BE PATIENT!” when I don’t have a lick of patience left.) But proper discipline CAN involve yelling if you need to stop your emphatic two-year-old from darting into the street. 

  • What do I need to teach now, and how do I teach it BEST? 
  • What is this specific child’s temperament? 
  • What do they respond to? 
  • What’s their current mood (and what’s mine)? 
  • When did they last sleep or eat? Is this taught best by laughter or sternness? 
  • Do I have time for a lesson now, or are we late to school (again)? 
  • Is this message communicated best by ignoring the transgression or by a swift response? 
  • Will my child learn best by dealing with the consequences of his choice or by my giving him an out? 
  • Does this problem matter in the long run? Does it matter in the short run? 

I could never find one parenting style that answers all of those questions for each parental temperament in conjunction with each child’s temperament, whilst accounting for all the variables in every kind of scenario that each new day can present. And no wonder. We are human beings.

We are exceedingly complex and interact with others in a myriad of situations with differing factors. We aren’t formulaic. There is no “x” because there is no universal “y”. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and so do our children. We have to parent and teach them according to their individual needs so they can become the best versions of themselves. 

This realization was freeing. I could shake off the constraints of a certain method’s right or wrong and see what was best for my particular child in a particular moment. 

With any luck and with a lot of grace, I’m planning to hold onto this baseline through these trying toddler years and beyond, abandoning for good the search for “x”. And mama, I hope you will too.

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