When I was a young mom, a mentor told me that disciplining children was a lot like a pyramid.
When they’re small, you provide a lot of guidance and discipline. You train them constantly. You follow through with consequences. You’re consistent. You’re persistent. It’s exhausting.
But because you have put in the hard work when they are two, three, and four, they have learned to obey. They have learned to listen to you. They have learned that you love them, and so they tend to be easier to manage. And thus you can relax the rules a little.
By the time they’re teens, you’re relaxing your boundaries around them quite a bit, until you have no real rules at all. You’re preparing them for the real world where they will have to be responsible for themselves. And they can handle it because they have the foundation of learning a moral code, learning to love God, learning to listen to you, and learning responsibility.
That’s how discipline is like a pyramid: you start out with a base of a lot of rules and boundaries, and you have fewer and fewer and the pyramid gets narrower and narrower until you reach the top, when the rules disappear.
And the child is now ready to fly out of the nest.
That’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. What happens, though, if you don’t have a lot of boundaries when the kids are little? You give in to their temper tantrums. You don’t enforce bedtimes. You let them yell at you and disrespect you. You let them eat whatever they want for dinner, even if it’s not what you made. You let them snack constantly and then refuse to eat the yucky stuff that’s on their plate at mealtime. You buy them everything they want.
When you don’t discipline toddlers, you invert the pyramid.
You’ve given them very few rules when they’re little, but the concept of the pyramid doesn’t change. It just turns upside down.
When you don’t stress disciplining toddlers, giving them rules and structure when they’re small, then your kids will need increasing intervention from parents as they get older.
They have not internalized self-discipline, or values, or even simple politeness. While you can get away with this when they’re small, when they’re older you’ve created a monster, because when they make bad decisions at the ages of 11, or 13, or even 16, they can get in a lot of trouble.
That’s why some parents don’t really start disciplining until the child hits the pre-teen or teen years and starts causing real trouble. They fail at school. They start drinking. They start taking drugs. Or maybe it’s not something self-destructive; it’s simply that they’ve tuned out of the family. They’re rude, they glare and barely talk to you, and they complain constantly. That’s very hard to live with from someone who is 15. You think they should be helping with dishes, or cleaning up the living room, or at least doing their homework, but for some reason they don’t. And that reason is because they never learned the importance of it earlier, and they don’t want to listen to you.
Now, this isn’t entirely true, because some children will be trying as teenagers even if they’ve been given great, consistent discipline from the time they were small children. They might just have that sort of personality. But on the whole, this is what happens.
One day, a parent wakes up and doesn’t know who this teen is, and is totally at a loss as to what to do. And so they slam down hard. They ground them. They take away TV. They take away their phones. They don’t let any friends over. They become super strict, and the child rebels even more. If you’re in that situation, Kevin Leman’s Have a New Teenager by Friday, that I reviewed here last month, can really help.
But the point is that you’ll be dealing with a pyramid regardless.
You either put in the work disciplining toddlers, when it’s easier, or you’ll have to put in the work disciplining teens, when it’s harder (with more serious consequences for bad choices).
The encouragement is that if you readers currently have small children, and you’re utterly exhausted, be assured that the work that you’re putting in now means that less work will be necessary later. Keep going. Keep at it. I know it’s tiring, but you’re saving yourself a lot of heartache later.
The whole reason that I’ve written this post, though, is that I’ve had a close up look at different parents of teens’ discipline attitudes lately, and I’ve started to feel like I’m a little alone. I do not believe that we should relax all rules and stop trying to discipline if our kids are making bad choices. We must still institute consequences for actions. But the ideal is that as teens grow, we won’t need to as much, and we’ll take a step back.
That’s why I told my oldest daughter last night that as of this summer, she no longer has any rules. She does not have a curfew. I will not wake her up in the morning to start her schoolwork. I will not make her go to bed. I will not limit her Facebook or anything. You see, as of this summer she only has one more year at home, and I believe (as Leman also says), that that final year should be free of rules, because as soon as she moves out she won’t have rules. And I would rather she get used to that while she is still under our roof than that she only experience it when she moves out.
Now she will still have to act as part of the community. She will still have to clean the bathrooms and do dinner occasionally and wash dishes, because I am not her maid. And when she lives with housemates at school she’ll have to be doing housework and dividing up the work there, too. She also will have to carry a cell phone and text or call me and tell me where she is and who she’s with and when she’s expected to be home. This isn’t because I’m her parent; that’s simple safety. When she’s living out of the house she should be doing that, too. Someone should always know where you are and who you’re with, and so that will still be in effect. But the difference is that I do the same thing. When I go out, I report in and tell them where I am, too.
I don’t think I would relax the rules like this if Rebecca were acting up, but she’s a very responsible girl, and I don’t have a lot of concerns. But part of that is because we put in so much work in those early years.
If you didn’t, you can still catch up! Read the book. But remember, a teen will experience total freedom when they do move out to go to school (if that’s where they’re heading) or to get their own apartment. It’s better that they experience a taste of that freedom when they’re with you. They’re less inclined to go all crazy then.
Other Posts on Disciplining Toddlers:
What do you think? Where are you on the pyramid? Let’s talk about it!