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Parenting: The Discipline Debate

Parenting is utterly glorious but man alive, discipline is hard, boring and ever evolving, says mother of three Zoe Coyle…

It still makes my pupils dilate when someone with an only child offers me unsolicited discipline advice. Can they really understand the labyrinthine complexity of sibling dynamics? The relentless oceanic swirl of sibling warfare? If you regularly survive hungry, tired, bickering siblings at 5pm, then I want to hear what you have to say. I also want to give you a cuddle and have you cuddle me. Discipline’s effectiveness also seems connected to the child’s temperament, birth order, how much sleep everyone has had and which way the wind is blowing. I want to be clear with you here from the outset, I don’t have any answers, just a few theories, the occasional conviction held with tweezers and lots and lots of questions. My husband and I treat our children with a great deal of respect. A dialogue we certainly weren’t afforded when we were cubs ourselves waddling though the dictatorship model. Now, we talk everything through. The upside of this is the children’s vocabularies and ebullient self-esteem. The price may be that they have no fear of us. Is fear a necessary ingredient in discipline and parental respect? We’ve tried star charts, rewards, time out, loss of treats and privileges. We’ve negotiated, explained, threatened, distracted and ignored. Stay with me! We’ve held the hard line, forewarned, made light and called time on debate with the classic stupidity of ‘because I’m your parent and I say so!’ We are big on manners, positive psychology and resilience. We try try try for consistency. Routine works well for us. We don’t spank and seek to have a peaceful, kind home. I’m laughing myself now. We regularly get down to their eye level and say ‘this is the last time I’m asking you’ and yet daily I think I live in monkey den where amphetamines are sprinkled liberally though the bars. My eldest, Polly who’s 8, can virtually be disciplined with the raise of an eyebrow and a well-placed pause. Our youngest Jack is 3 and he needs the classic round of three warnings then some time on the thinking step. Consistency as we all know is the key with toddlers. There’s one of my convictions by the way. Our middle child Alice is a different kettle of fish. She is an introvert with 2 extroverted siblings. She glides quietly, sensitively though her life until she explodes like a volcano, lashing out with a force that could blacken whole fields of corn. The aftermath of these eruptions is that Alice feels confused and ashamed and I feel exhausted and a bit frightened. Are we letting this child down? If she behaves like this at 6, what will she be like at 16? Is this just a stage? What impact does it have on her siblings? Am I losing her? Why is discipline so complex? Deep breath. Recently when I refused to buy Alice a keyring at the aquarium her fury escalated to her raising her little fists into the sky and screaming ‘I hate the way you parent me! I hate the way you make me feel!’ That’s really something for a 6 year old to say to their mother. She had my attention. The rain poured down and we became drenched as I held Alice in my arms. It was like restraining a small deranged animal. These moments don’t happen often, but when they do it occurs to me this behaviour wouldn’t be out of place in a psych ward. I’ve been assured by professionals, Alice’s school and my ballast restoring sisterhood that there is nothing abnormal about this behaviour. She’s just a passionate person and a child. I thank all the gods for gin and tonic. At home after a bath, cuddles and a cup of warm milk I gently asked Alice ‘what happened my love?’ And her sweet brow furrowed and she said ‘I have no idea. I feel terrible. I need an ice pack for my heart’. I need an ice pack for my heart! Later we cranked some dance tunes. I opened a bottle of wine, for myself not the children, and we four danced. Them in their dressing downs, me still in my rain damp, muddy clothes. Little Jack unleashing some moves on the coffee table, we all laughed and jumped about. My husband arrived home, opened his arms wide and yelled out ‘Look at my beautiful, joyful family!’ I danced towards him and with my back to the children said ‘Ah don’t be fooled, I’m holding on by the skin of my teeth. Today was out of control’ and as my chin began to wobble he folded me into his arms and said ‘ah darling, you’ve kept them all alive, how bad can it have been?’ Image: Thea Courtney from the tale of Carolina Bucci