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Switch Your Discipline Strategy!

One night recently, my son Zander was having a terrible time falling asleep. He had passed the point of no return, when extreme fatigue manifests as insomnia, and was nearly hysterical with exhaustion. Like a good mother, I sat on his bed listening to him sob about the myriad worries in his 8-year-old life (worries at home, at school, on the playground, on the soccer field...). Unlike a good mother, however, I resented it enormously and felt as if any moment I might jump out of my skin.

It's not as if my motherly presence was providing much comfort. If Zander had been mildly upset when I first sat down, now he was beside himself. "I hate school," he hiccuped. (Not true. He bounds to the bus stop every morning with nary a backward look.) "No one likes me." (A blatant exaggeration.) "My teach-er haa-a-ates me! I don't have any fri-eee-ends!" he continued, collapsing into incoherent sobs.

I knew what I should do. Sit with him, reassure him ("Sweetie! You have lots of friends! Your teacher loves you!"), rub his back, sing him songs, stay right there till his worries evaporated and he relaxed into sleep. Tragically, however, I'd left my wine downstairs. And The Daily Show was about to come on. And I'd been patient and understanding with both my children for more than 16 hours that day, and I'd have to start right up being patient and understanding again in another eight.

Deep down I knew Zander wasn't truly having an existential crisis  -- he was just tired. But even if I were the kind of mother who could leave a weeping child alone at bedtime (I flunked Ferberizing  -- twice), Zander's anguished cries of "Mom! I need you!" would certainly make it hard to concentrate on my nightly tryst with Jon Stewart. So I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and stroked his heaving shoulders. "You're right. You don't have any friends," I heard myself say.

Zander whipped his tear-stained face around and stared at me. I froze. Where did that come from?

"Also, my teacher hates me," he said, watching me carefully.

"I know! She haaaaaates you," I said. What was I doing? The kid was going to grow up and rob banks.

"I don't want to go to school anymore," he went on.

"And you don't have to. Stay home with me," I said.

"I hate soccer," he yawned.

"Soccer is terrible," I agreed, more softly. "Probably you should quit tomorrow."

We sat there a moment in silence. Then Zander sighed. "I'm going to sleep now, Mom," he said placidly. "I'll see you around."

When I got downstairs, my husband, Greg, looked astonished. "I thought you were in for the long haul," he said. "What happened?"

"I  -- um," I said, realizing I'd just done the opposite of what every parenting book, every parenting expert  -- every parent  -- would consider appropriate to the situation. And somehow it worked. "I have no idea," I told him truthfully.

Fernanda Moore, a Parenting contributing editor, has also written for New York magazine.

A new approach

There's a famous Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza, figuring he's got nothing to lose, decides he'll abandon all his regular habits and do everything the opposite way. By episode's end, he's moved out of his parents' apartment, scored a beautiful girlfriend, and landed a terrific job with the Yankees.

It got me thinking.

Of course, unlike George, I have plenty to lose, and I'd never toy with my children's happiness or stability on a whim. If Zander were having a real problem with his friends or his teacher, I'd never act so flippantly. But moms know their kids, and I knew he'd be fine the next day. (He woke up cheerful and happily traipsed off to school, by the way.) I'd never choose the opposite path if it meant confusing or upsetting my kids. But can it be true that sometimes, as a parent, going against the grain works better than your tried-and-true methods?I explained my theory to Greg, who was intrigued. So I decided to spend the next few days going against my original impulses, to see what would happen. 

Monday: Short-order cook (for a day)

My experiment starts with a bang when my younger son, Thaddy, 2½, eats one bite of his oatmeal before feeding the rest to the dog. A minute later he regrets this decision and begs for another bowl. Normally, of course, I'd remind him  -- fairly but firmly  -- of our family's strict injunction against wasting food. Today, however, I head back to the stove. Whipping up more oatmeal isn't a problem (it's not like he asked for eggs Benedict), but I can't help worrying. By encouraging his whims, am I setting the stage for a long slide into domestic chaos and a total loss of parental authority?

Still, it's awfully peaceful in the kitchen as Thaddy wolfs down his oatmeal in happy silence. Fairness and firmness may have a noble pedigree in the annals of parenting, but right now I don't miss their unpleasant side effects (tantrums, hunger, and a miserable start to the day). Nourished and calm, we set off for preschool.

Turns out I needn't have been concerned. At breakfast the next day I brace myself for a repeat scenario  -- but guess what? Thaddy asks for oatmeal and eats every bite.

Lesson #1: Sometimes a whim is just a whim. Indulging a kid's caprices occasionally is no big deal in the long run  -- and certainly makes things much more pleasant in the short run.

Tuesday: Belcher, excuse thyself

At dinner, Zander chews with his mouth open, burps loudly, whines about his broccoli, and demands more milk without saying "please." My natural inclination is to go straight to the mat  -- the words "That's it, young man, no dessert for you" are frequently uttered in our dining room  -- but in honor of opposite week, both Greg and I set our jaws and ignore him.

And what do you know? The rudeness ceases  -- not immediately, but soon  -- all by itself. Zander apologizes for another spectacular belch, clears the table without being reminded, and reads to Thaddy while Greg and I linger over a second glass of wine.

Lesson #2: Kids crave attention, good or bad. Annoying the grown-ups can be as good as pleasing them, and maybe even better (it's more fun, and certainly gets a stronger reaction). There are times when overlooking minor infractions can be the best and quickest way to restore peace.

Wednesday: One (long) day, two lessons

The afternoon finds Zander (in rare form), Thaddy (mimicking his brother's every move), and me (with a burgeoning headache) running errands in town. First stop: the library, where the children dawdle endlessly in the stacks, then take their sweet time exiting the building  -- the wrought-iron railing next to the steps just begs to be climbed.

Normally this is where I snap. I'm about to snatch Thaddy up, bark at Zander to hurry, and hustle us all to the parking lot when I remember my mission. I take a deep, cleansing breath. Okay, it's a little tedious slowing down to my kids' pace, but look how cute they're being! Zander is holding Thad's hand, teaching him how to jump down the stairs one step at a time. Thaddy is rapt, adoring. They're down to the parking lot a bearable two minutes later, chattering amiably as we make our way to the car. "Mom, I'll help you carry those books," Zander offers. "Me too!" Thaddy adds.

Lesson #3: Pretty obvious: I'll enjoy my kids more  -- and they'll enjoy each other more  -- if I stop being so task-driven. If we're not actually late, what's the harm in taking our time?

Our next stop is the grocery store, where the lines are endless and the kids, abandoning their charming personas, begin pestering me for candy. My first impulse: No way. Opposite impulse: Sure. They're ecstatic, jumping up and down  -- and then Zander decides to go for broke. "Whatever we want?" he asks, a crafty look on his face. Behind us in line, a hatchet-faced old lady tsk-tsks disapprovingly.

I'm on her side  -- what do these kids take me for? But I'm in this opposite thing deep now, so, even though it pains me, I grit my teeth and mutter, "Okay. Whatever you want."

I promise that I'm not making this up. Each kid picks out a tiny peppermint patty  -- the kind that costs ten cents  -- and Zander tells his brother, "You know, we have to wait to eat these till after dinner, Thaddy." (Thad, who's no fool, unwraps his and eats it immediately.) I'm flabbergasted.

Lesson #4: Now and then, rules are made for breaking. And kids are capable of behaving in moderation. Sometimes.

Thursday: The big shocker

The following morning I wake up grumpy and decide there's a serious flaw in my experiment. Of course the kids are happy and the days have gone well  -- I've denied them nothing, rewarded bad behavior, and abandoned all our rules. It's only a matter of time before the inmates take over the asylum. Greg talks me down, confessing that he finds my little experiment highly amusing, and encourages me to give things one more day. Easy for him to say. He gets to leave for work every day, whereas I have to spend a tedious afternoon ferrying everyone around to dentist appointments and soccer practice. When we finally get home, my spirits are low. And Thaddy, sensing weakness, decides to harass Zander as a way of killing time until dinner is served.

They're in the next room with Legos, so I can't see them, but this I hear:

"Make me a car, Zander."

"When I finish my spaceship."

"No, NOW." Crash!

"Hey! You broke my spaceship!" Smack!

"Aieeee! Zander hit me!"

"I did not!" Smack! "Thad hit me!"

"MOM!" (weeping)

"MOM!"

I've had it. I slam down the spatula, stomp into the living room  -- and, since I'm still Opposite Mom, stand there sheepishly as I realize what I'm about to do. I, an eldest child who swore she'd never perpetrate such unfairness, am about to side with the baby automatically, simply because he yells the loudest. And judging from the expressions on their faces (Thad is grinning in anticipated triumph, while Zander already looks resigned), this is how things usually pan out in our house. I gulp. Then I shock them both by scooping Thad up, plunking him in his room, and (trying to ignore his outraged shrieks) helping Zander reassemble his annihilated ship.

"I'm sorry I hit him," Zander says after a minute. "He's annoying, but he's little, and he can't control himself."

I've heard those words before  -- coming from my mouth, usually at high volume.

Lesson #5: Though I'm gratified that Zander has been paying attention when I yell at him, it's high time I held Thad accountable for obnoxious behavior.

After coming face to face with my habitual unfairness (not to mention the betrayal of one of my own childhood promises), I'm a bit rattled, so that night I tell Greg I'm officially calling it quits. But over the next few days I realize I'm pleased with the way the experiment played out. I learned that my kids aren't selfish, candy-grubbing ogres. I discovered that sometimes my knee-jerk response  -- berating Zander at the table instead of giving him a few minutes to settle down, for instance  -- may actually work against what I'm trying to accomplish. And I identified a few bad habits I've gotten into, like rushing around pointlessly when slowing down makes everything much more pleasant.

But these lessons pale in comparison to the repercussions of Lesson #5  -- which, if taken to heart, will certainly strengthen my sons' relationship with each other while making me a more evenhanded, less hypocritical parent. My opposite experiment taught me that, sometimes, the inverse of what you're used to doing is the right way after all.

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