If I were to create an online dating profile for my son, it would include phrases like “big personality,” “knows what he wants,” and “strong sense of self-confidence.”
On paper, it looks good, but we can all read between the lines: he’s a dick. Yes, yes, he’s still (at heart) a sweet boy, and of course I love him to the deepest core of his being… but right now, this little being is pushy, argumentative, and oftentimes downright mean.
I knew when I became a parent that discipline was part of the job, in the same way that you know if you join the military, you’ll have to work out. It’s on your radar, but you don’t really get it until you’re staring into it’s two-year-old, knows-it-all, you’re-not-the-boss-of-him face as he’s coloring on your kitchen wall. Again. And I have to admit, it’s jarring.
Almost three years ago, I birthed a warm, soft, wrinkly ball of cuddly cuteness, and my only job in the entire world was to love that thing. At times it was hard, yes. He cried a lot, he pooped a lot, he completely upended my sleep schedule and social life, and still, it was a worthwhile trade. From Day One, nothing about parental love is logical. To willingly give up your life for this newly created bundle, this tiny being who can do absolutely zip for you? It goes against all reason.
And yet, we do. We give, and we sacrifice. We love, and that means giving all of ourselves to our children, asking nothing in return, because they aren’t capable of giving anything. Until, suddenly, they are. All at once, it seems, they’re able to understand manners, the concepts of kindness, fairness, and human decency, only it doesn’t always inform their behavior. Now, we’re supposed to guide them, to enact discipline, but somehow still embody the loving tenderness of a mother. What?
Trust me, I get that discipline is loving my children — of course I don’t want to leave behind a couple of assholes nobody wants to be around — but how on earth do you discipline with love? Where the hell is that TED Talk? Few of us have seen it done well. The rest of us lean too far into anger, retribution, or rely on rote punishments. In my mind, there is discipline, and then there is love, and rarely do they meet.
I suppose I thought that if I loved my kids enough, they would never need discipline — they would always act like sweet cherubs, incapable of wrongdoing. But loving your children hard and strong isn’t enough. They are independent beings, with free wills and curious minds. They test, they wander, and even the best of them go a little “Chucky” on you sometimes. They are wild things, daring us — needing us — to try and tame them.
I know that I’m not supposed to be my children’s friend. I know that I’m not here to make them happy, give them everything they want, or solve all of their problems. But I was handed this tiny baby, asked to hold him close, to attune my body to his every need, and then a day came when doing that hurt him more than helped. Now, I am asked, once again, to revisit my definition of love, to grow it and stretch it a little bit farther.
My son, fast approaching his third birthday, needs discipline now more than ever.
Overnight, it seems, he’s morphed from a tiny, helpless baby boy into an obstinate, stubborn terror.
I know that his sweetness is still in there, but now it’s hidden very deep down, and experiencing it is akin to sighting a unicorn. He knows how to manipulate, argue, and refuse instruction. His only desire in life is to do what he wants to do, no matter the cost.
It is an exhausting battle to shape his monstrous will, to discipline his wayward behaviors, and although I know he needs it (and heaven knows, on his worst days I do delight in it), he is, and will always be, my baby. My whole heart desires to hold him close forever — to love him by keeping him near, always being his friend — but my mind understands that isn’t good for either one of us.
This is the conundrum of parenting, isn’t it? We create these beings who are part of us, who are our literal flesh and bone, and with whom we feel a bond that is unbreakable. Yet, the very definition of our success is that they survive, even thrive, apart from us.
I’m only now realizing that a parent’s love never weakens, it only changes form to suit each developmental stage. My kids are growing, their needs are evolving, and so must my love. Instead of intense, unyielding closeness, I must allow distance. I must care less what he thinks of me, and more about who he becomes. I, in my human frailty, separate discipline and love, when they are one and the same. It is my job to wrestle daily with what that means, and how it plays out in the lives of my children.
I’m not entirely sure where to go from here. I don’t have answers, or suggestions for lovingly disciplining your kids. I do know that the journey requires patience — so much patience! — and that flows more easily for me when I tend to my own needs, eat well, prioritize friend relationships, and take breaks from my children. So, I suppose I’ll start there, taking it one day at a time. In the end, that’s all we’re really asked to do.