Fear, Power, and Parenting

I just spent a half hour trying to wipe my daughter, V’s, bottom.   It was an uncomplicated task, but she was having none of it.  She has a little rash, and it probably felt irritating to her, so she resisted.  Resistance with a poopy bottom definitely gave her the advantage in the ensuing battle of wills.  Not wanting to hold her down and force wipe her, which felt too brutal and invasive, I tried talking with her, reflecting to her, reasoning with her.  I tried wiping her while she was standing, but she wiggled and twisted so the more difficult bits held fast.  I carried her to the bathtub and stood her inside so that if she smeared around, the carpet wouldn’t be a disaster.  I set her on her little potty and read a book, hoping she’d be calmer when she was finished.  I told her I was feeling sad and frustrated that she was not helping mommy wipe her butt.  “No, no!” and more writhing and flailing continued.  Finally, tears of frustration building, (on my part, not hers) I called my husband to clear my head and bring my rage to a reasonable level before trying to figure out the next step.  Little toots hopped her poopy butt off the potty and onto the changing mat for me to finish.  A few more minor wrestling matches and some diaper cream smears on the floor and she was poop free (relatively) and encased in her PullUp.  I, however, felt wretched.

These types of battles have become a daily occurrence in our household this week as V is teething with 4 molars at once, has learned the word “no” in the past two days, and is feeling just generally testy.  It is moments such as these, when my emotions are high, when the house is a disaster, and I haven’t eaten, showered or brushed my teeth, when I have planned to build some fun play activities into the day which cannot happen unless cooperation occurs, that the use of physical force seems so tempting.  I could have sat on her flailing arms, pinned her kicking legs, and wiped up the mess in a few minutes, but at what cost?  Sure, it could be a short term win in terms of time and frustration.  However, I wonder what would be the long term effects of using my larger physical size to overwhelm and control my daughter.

In our house, some disciplinary measures have already been ruled out.  We do not name call or spank.  We try our best to use nonthreatening and firm tones, but there are times when both my husband and I have upped the volume out of frustration.  Even still, there remain so many instances where I question the use of our power (physical and the power of choice) over our daughter.  There is always the struggle to brush her teeth.  There have been many diaper change wrestling matches where for her own health and rash prevention, she just has to have her little bummy wiped clean.  There are times when time constraints demand that she gets into her carseat.  And the dreaded trips to the doctor’s office where it takes two of us to hold her while she receives the necessary vaccinations.  There are clearly instances where some level of physical restraint is essential to parenting a toddler who just cannot make these sorts of decisions for herself.

I did, however, change doctors after I was guilted into having four people restrain my daughter for an unnecessary and ineffective blood draw.  And I have compromised my schedule and my wishes more times than I can count when the choice was between a physical wrestling match (for dressing, bathing, teeth brushing) and task completion.  I have cracked bad jokes, sung songs, reflected feelings in situations where physical force would have been the more efficient option.  I do this because I want my daughter to learn she has the right to make choices about her body.  I want her to be able to stand up for herself if someone is controlling her in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable. I am teaching her to say “no” when she doesn’t want to be tickled, hugged, or kissed and asking others to respect her (adults do not often respect the feelings of toddlers in these matters).  I think these are lessons that have to begin from the beginning in order for her to feel her physical person is respected.

In a world where so many women still live in societies where they have little power and control, I want to give my daughter a sense of power over herself.  If that means I am inconvenienced sometimes or that I have to master my frustrations, those things are a small price to pay.  This is not to say that she gets free reign.  Her bottom still is wiped.  Her teeth are still brushed, albeit with a little song and dance.  Her clothes are still on, although I might let her choose ill matching outfits to give her some sense of control and may from time to time let her run around in a diaper rather than jam her legs and arms into pants and tops when she is resistant.  I pick my battles, and limit physical wrangling whenever it is possible.

There are times when I am overwhelmed emotionally dealing with toddler tantrums and feel probably a bit like V does when she wants to hit and bite.  I just want to put that shirt on, or swat the hand away from a “no-no.”  But I check myself; how can I expect her to learn self-control if I do not model it in frustrating situations?  It is important for parents to examine their own feelings and motivations when addressing difficult behavior.  If you discipline your child from a place of anger or frustration, you are unlikely to respond in a respectful way (much like it is best to get control of yourself before resolving a conflict with an adult).  If you cannot master your own emotions, you are controlling your child with fear rather than teaching them the lessons that allow them to develop more intrinsic motivations for good behavior.  Kids tend to behave better for adults who show them respect, set reasonable limits, create an environment of care, and give them opportunities for power and control over themselves whenever possible. Creative problem solving, time-in, positive and specific feedback for good behavior, are much better long term disciplinary solutions even though they require more energy and commitment from a parent.

I can sit here and write all of these strategies down, but I know how hard it is to get a grip on emotional flooding when you are in a rush, have a list of things to accomplish in a day, and your toddler is throwing the umpteenth tantrum in an hour.  Strategies that I am trying are: to take a deep breath, look at how tiny my little person is, think about her perspective, consider how many times I’ve said “no” to her that day, remember a fond moment with her, depersonalize the situation, and if all else fails, walk away until I can get a grip.  I have to remember that the priority is often not the task to be accomplished in the moment, but the long term lesson about respect and values that I am trying to teach her.  Wrangling your own feelings is often more challenging than wrangling a child, but it is a challenge that every parent should place as a high priority.  Our children’s respect for themselves and for others starts in the home and societal issues involving power, control, and conflict will continue if we cannot teach the next generation to discipline themselves through example.

Some resources for those who are interested are listed below:

*Loving Without Spoiling by Nancy Samalin

*The Discipline Book by William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N.

*Redirecting Children’s Behavior, 3rd Edition by Kathryn J. Kvols

*Parenting Young Children, Don Dinkmeyer, Sr.; Gary D. McKay; James S. Dinkmeyer; Don Dinkmeyer, Jr.; Joyce L. McKay

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