learning discipline.

by Liz on 01.12

If I were to categorize myself, I do NOT think that the word “patient” would be in the top ten. Nope. Not even the top 100 words.

Raising a son has definitely pushed the limits there.

I mentioned before that a giant step in teaching my son obedience has been trying to help him understand the word “no.” Little Josh is mostly nonverbal. He learns a word, uses it for a day or two, but uses his facial expressions and physical movements to convey what he wants to say. So it’s really, really tricky to know if he even knows what I’m saying when I say, “No, Joshua.” I THINK he knows what “No,” means. In fact, sometimes I’m sure he does. When he knows something is wrong, he’ll be very sneaky. He sometimes cries when I tell him, “No” to something he really wants. (“No cookies, Joshua.”)

It’s been a multifaceted process. I want him to learn what the word itself means, sure, but also that disobedience has consequences and obedience has rewards. And more than that- that Mommy is saying “no” not to be mean, but to protect him from bad things. Maybe a stretch at this point, but WE’LL GET THERE.

That’s where the patience comes in.

Instead of blocking him into a safe little corner, Josh has free reign of the house and I keep a watchful eye. He’s not allowed in the kitchen- glass! knives! delicious cat food!- but we don’t have a baby gate or anything of the sort. Just my mom eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head (I’m pretty sure I have this super power x2 as a result of teaching).


So let me tell you about a typical, daily interaction…

Little Josh moves toward the kitchen and I say, “NO. No, Joshua.” He stops, looks up at me quizzically and sits by the entry of the kitchen. Then we both sit there for as much as an hour. A few more times, he’ll move to go into the kitchen, and I’ll say, “Joshua, NO.” And he’ll stop. On and on.

Now clearly, it would be way easier to just pick him up and take him out of the kitchen after the first one or two times. It would be EASIEST to buy the damn baby gate. But, I want him to have the opportunity to process what I’m saying, understand the instruction, and choose to obey. I want him to learn.

Here’s the hard part- the part you might be mad about. The part that will fill my inbox with angry emails. Sometimes, I let him make bad choices and get hurt. NEVER anything dangerous. Our house is “babyproofed” in the sense that nothing glass or sharp or electrical is within his reach (except in that dang kitchen!). But, if he’s trying to pull something off the table and I say “NO,” and he chooses to anyway, sometimes he’ll end up with that something from the table landing on his toe. I won’t rush in to grab it first. But I will hug him and console him as he points at his toe in horror. Is this horrible parenting? I’m not sure.

Of course those other times when he’s going to do something that will really hurt him, I’ll intervene – but only after sitting there for that long process of, “No” stop, look, inch, “No,” etc, trying to give him the opportunity to make the right choice.

Does this sound time-consuming? Because it’s TIME CONSUMING, yo. I’m hoping it’s a bit like an investment. We take the time to figure this stuff out now, and maybe I’ll be spared some rebellious teen years? Maybe?

So, the fun part! When he does listen- when he stops and turns and follows my instructions- we clap our hands and hug and kiss and dance and yell, “Yay! Good job!” He smiles SO BIG and blows me kisses.

It’s a scary thing, trying to decide how to create a structure of discipline while still allowing him to learn and make choices and experience mistakes. I’m not convinced that the way I’m doing it is right, but I imagine there are worse ways.



I know many of you guys aren’t parents- but is this something you’ve ever thought about? How to instill discipline but still let kids make their own choices?


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Your Comments | Add a Comment

Kristin says:
Jan 12, 2012 1:28 pm

No children yet, but I’m a big fan of letting people make their own mistakes. I’ve been training one of my coworkers, and while I’ll intervene if I see something going really wrong, if she’s about to make a small mistake I’ve already corrected her on, I let her do it. Making the mistake once can be a better teacher than constantly correcting someone. It also gives them ownership over their fate.

(But, maybe I’m not a good manager? Anyway, I think you’re doing a great job with Joshua!)


Sharon says:
Jan 12, 2012 1:41 pm

Not a parent yet, but I like your approach of warning/saying no and then (watchfully) letting him make his own mistakes if he still doesn’t listen. And I love that you reward obedience with hugs and kisses and celebration – too often people (not just parents) are all no-no-no and not enough yes.

Jason and I were just having a conversation last night about how difficult parenting is in regards to discipline – how do you instill a sense of right and wrong in your kid or teach them obedience without turning everything into legalism? How do you make sure they know they are still loved so that they aren’t terrified to make mistakes. In our case, as Christians, there’s the added pressure of knowing that our interactions with our kids will inform how they relate to God. It’s scary!


craftosaurus says:
Jan 12, 2012 1:52 pm

Ok, I don’t think you’ll be offended by the comparison, but I’ll stiil include the caveat that indeed, dogs and children are not the same thing.

With that said, we’re totally using a similar philosophy with Mr. Cecil. There’s not a heck of a lot of consequences that we can effectively use to our training advantage, but we use what we can. If we’re out on a trail and he decides to sniff some tree trunk instead of sticking with us, we keep walking, and if he gets concerned that we’re leaving him behind, all the more incentive for him to listen next time.

We also use tons of positive reinforcement, especially, like you said, when he’s chosen to do the right thing. When he ignores the cat he’d like to chase because we’re going in the other direction, he gets treats and we throw a happy-voice party.

It’s very effective, so I think if we become patrents, we’d use a similar approach. Probably with less kibble, though.


d-day says:
Jan 12, 2012 2:08 pm

I’ve definitely Thought about these challenges, had not really come to any conclusions. I really like the rewards for obedience, and letting them learn consequences the way you’re doing it. thanks for giving us a little insight into your parenting philosophy! I loved this post and the comments.


Melanie says:
Jan 12, 2012 2:19 pm

No children yet, but I do have advanced degrees in School Psychology, where the coursework leaned heavily towards behavior modification. That said, it sounds like you’re doing a great job and a similar to what I hope to do with my own future child(ren). “No” sometimes does not mean much if we have no understanding of the why and that’s why I love that you let him make mistakes and learn from experience as well as you. My sister will ask me similar questions about letting her children make mistakes and learn from them and I joke that they’ll only do that once before they learn that books on the toe hurt and to listen to Mommy.


Rob S. Parham says:
Jan 12, 2012 2:22 pm

Excellent work. You are also teaching him the value of your advice.


Liz says:
Jan 12, 2012 4:47 pm

That’s what I was just thinking! You’re building trust too, which is oh so important and may actually save you from some degree of teenage anxiety.


Bridey says:
Jan 12, 2012 2:53 pm

That sounds so smart and sensible. I’m also not a parent yet, but you better believe I’ll be rereading this post multiple times when I am and need good advice!


meghan says:
Jan 12, 2012 11:56 pm

I hope to be brave enough to do this.


Colleen says:
Jan 13, 2012 1:03 am

I think about this daily! I have a 17-month old daughter (as well as a 13 year old dog, a master’s in special ed that had a big focus on behavior disorders, and a handful of years teaching kids with autism). I totally agree with what you’re doing, and probably moreso since my kid’s really gotten into toddlerhood (and realized today I’m not praising desired behaviors as consistently as I ought to be). Multiple times every day she checks to make sure that the rule is still Sit on Your Bottom on the Couch. She gets a particularly defiant look on her face as she checks. One thing about it for me, is that I kind of admire her defiance and confidence. And *particularly* because she’s a girl & I know what’s potentially around the bend for her confidence-wise, I want her to retain as much as she can before the world tries to quash it out of her, you know? She definitely doesn’t rule the roost or anything, and like you, we have some rules that are more set in stone. At the same time, one of the most valuable things I learned teaching autistic kiddos was to choose your battles & not get into power struggles over less-important things. Anyhow, those are my thoughts on it at the moment.


Maggie says:
Jan 13, 2012 10:02 am

[Caveat: I have no idea what I'm talking about, esp. when it comes to babies and I have NO CLUE how to parent...]

I think letting someone make a bad choice (relatively–not like, life-threatening, of course) and deal with the consequences is really difficult, but important… especially as I watch my mom parent through the teenage years. “Because I said so” only works for so long; if they understand why from experience, it seems to make a bigger impact.


lyn says:
Jan 14, 2012 1:23 am

As our dreaded babymaking deadline draws closer, I find myself thinking about this a LOT. We find ourselves talking about it, too — actually, we’ve been talking about hypothetical baby-raising for years, which is probably a good thing to get ironed out BEFORE the hypothetical baby arrives.

Opinions aren’t worth a halfpence, but I’ll share mine anyway, since you asked. I think this is a great way of disciplining. It’s all about structure, and boundaries, and choices — even in babyhood. You gotta start early. I mean, even the second you first hold your baby in your arms, it’s already moving away from you, slowly, towards independence. And that’s the ultimate goal for any smart, loving parent: a balanced, happy kid who can make the right decisions for him or herself. I think Little Josh is in the right hands.


tirzahrene says:
Jan 17, 2012 6:53 pm

With my ex-stepkids, I remember having plenty of times where I would say, “Hon, I’m pretty sure that if you keep doing that, you’re going to hurt yourself. Are you okay with that, or do you think you should stop?” (Or the grouchier version of “I think you’re going to hurt yourself and I don’t want you to be fussing about it if you do, because I warned you!”)

I think it helped them learn to think about what they were doing and what they were willing to pay for what they wanted to do. It also helped them to learn that I am very often right. LOL.


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