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Afraid to Discipline

After spending ten minutes gaily kicking dozens of little wooden blocks into the farthest corners of his bedroom, your 2 1/2-year-old moves on to the kitchen and new frontiers of destruction. "Honey," you call from his room, "if you're finished with the blocks, let's pick them up."

"Mommy pick up," he replies, making no move to return.

"I'll help you," you say, "but you have to help too."


At this point, you can tell you have a better chance of twitching your nose like Samantha on Bewitched to make the blocks march back into their box than of getting your child to help clean up his mess. So you have two choices: You can pick up the blocks yourself, or you can attempt through some sort of discipline to make your toddler cooperate.

Discipline. The very word is cause for uncertainty. You know that as a parent you're supposed to set limits, to establish boundaries, as the experts are always saying. But which limits? What kind of boundaries? Is it even reasonable to expect a 2 1/2-year-old to put away his blocks?

As a matter of fact, experts recommend starting to ask children to pick up a few of their own toys by around age 2. But even if you know that, even if you understand that the main goal of discipline in the early years is to lay the groundwork for a more elaborate kind of cooperation later on, it doesn't really help you figure out what to do if your child refuses to cooperate.

For many parents, however, the hardest question isn't "How?" Instead, it's "Should I?" "If I correct my child's behavior, am I being a control freak? If I punish my child, will I make him feel unloved or alienated? Will he tell a shrink one day, 'My mother was so demanding; even when I was 2 years old, I could never do anything right'"?

The ultimate purpose of discipline isn't simply to gain control over children but to teach them cooperation, accountability, and responsibility  -- those intangible qualities that make someone a good citizen and a good companion. It's an ongoing job, and the job description changes constantly according to the age of your child. If you're anxious about it, you're in good company  -- many parents are. Here are the top three reasons parents feel this way, and how experts suggest we overcome them.

Contributing editor Margaret Renkl lives in Tennessee. She is the mother of three boys.

"I don't know what's appropriate."

Inexperience accounts for a good deal of parents' doubtfulness about discipline: Many first-time moms and dads aren't sure when their child is old enough to learn and benefit from having limits. "It wasn't until Gabriel was 2 1/2 that I suddenly realized I was letting him get away with murder," says Laura Hileman of Nashville. "When he was a baby, of course, he was supposed to get everything he wanted, but that's not true for toddlers. I just didn't notice when it was time for me to start saying no."

No advice book or parenting class can ever completely prepare you for that shift from the "at your service" attitude appropriate for infants to the "draw the line" stance that toddlers need. Even experts who are parents can be caught off guard, as Vivian Katzenstein Friedman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the medical school of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and mother of four, can attest. "Despite my background in developmental psychology, when my first son hit the terrible twos I was unprepared," she says. "Suddenly that adorable baby who molds into your arms becomes a child who irrationally says no."

It doesn't help that there often seems to be nowhere to turn for easy answers. "My husband and I ask ourselves what our parents would have done in a specific situation, but his would have responded differently than mine," says Melissa Lockhart of Monett, MO. And even though most experts agree on what's appropriate behavior for kids at various stages, they often recommend different discipline strategies.

The solution to this quandary is surprisingly simple: Trust your instincts. Make sure your rules and expectations are age-appropriate. (You can't, for instance, expect your 3-year-old to know what to do when you say, "Clean up your room." That's not specific enough.) Then go with those disciplinary measures that you're most comfortable with and that seem to have the best effect on your child.

It's vital that you and your partner use the same strategies  -- consistently. "A number of different discipline techniques work, so the idea is to pick one and stick with it," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Children Will Too! "It's switching around that really confuses kids."

"I'm afraid my child won't love me."

Kids invariably object when parents set limits. When you take away the fork your baby has found on the kitchen floor, she cries. When you tell your toddler he can't have a cookie before dinner, he throws a fit. When you forbid your 5-year-old to watch a PG-13 movie, he's likely to cry or sulk for a while; he may even hurl an insult your way: "You're the meanest mom in the world!"

Let's face it: These responses make us worry that boundary setting will cause our kids to dislike us. But although children react negatively to limits, they really don't want power over their parents. "They realize that they're small and vulnerable, and they're terrified if they don't believe that an adult can keep them safe," says John Sargent, M.D., director of education and research at the Menninger Clinic, in Topeka, KS. "Parents need to remember that part of keeping kids safe is being able to direct their behavior, set rules, and enforce them."

Very busy moms and dads can suffer from an additional fear as well. "I think that being a working parent makes me give in to my kids more than I should," says Sharon Orchard, a mother of three in Thurmont, MD. "I want to be the fun one."

This is a common misperception among parents, says Cynthia Whitham, author of The Answer Is No!: Saying It and Sticking to It. Studies show that children whose parents work love their moms and dads no less than those who have a parent at home full-time. "When a child says, 'Mommy, I hate you,' she doesn't mean it; it's a very fleeting feeling," says Whitham. "The truth is, she's going to love her parents even more when she feels that they're in charge."

Another concern of working or divorced parents is that making an issue of a child's behavior will spoil their limited time together. Actually, the opposite is true. "If you don't discipline your children when they need it," says Dr. Sargent, "the time you have is going to get more problematic."

One way to curb such worries (that, say, taking away TV privileges from a child who's broken a perfectly reasonable rule will cause him to dislike you) is to memorize this statement and repeat it when doling out discipline: "I'm not here to be your best friend; I'm here to be your parent, and that means I sometimes have to say no."

"I don't want to put my child down."

Some parents fear that setting boundaries may stifle a child's creativity, but there's a big difference between reprimanding a child for not coloring inside the lines or for refusing to wear the matching outfit you've selected and, say, asking him to put on his pajamas without making a fuss at bedtime  -- both of those are far too controlling. Expecting the kind of cooperation that leads to a smooth, conflict-limited family life isn't going to damage a child's budding creativity or cause him to feel unworthy.

As a matter of fact, some experts feel that for this generation of parents, there's been an enormous overemphasis on building and protecting self-esteem. Friedman cites a recent study that suggests excessive self-esteem in children  -- meaning, for example, that rather than being appropriately proud of an accomplishment, they brag about it  -- is really a form of narcissism that can lead to aggressive and violent behavior. Parents can help to create this degree of self-importance in their kids by rarely  -- or never  -- correcting them, which ultimately makes it impossible for them to accept discipline without lashing out.

Whitham agrees. When kids routinely get their way through whining or throwing tantrums, when they flout house rules without any repercussions, or when they're allowed to criticize and demean other family members, their parents clearly aren't in control. "A child with that much power at home doesn't necessarily have healthy self-esteem," she says. "He's a very unhappy bully." If you suspect that you've been too permissive with your kids and are attempting to discipline them more, go slowly. Pick your battles one at a time, beginning with the behavior that's most dangerous or disruptive. Resolve fistfights between siblings, say, and worry about bedtime routines later. You don't have to wait until one problem is completely worked out to address another; just don't introduce more than one new rule a week.

Most important, remember that even veteran parents never totally get over the uncertainty that discipline questions inspire. No matter how comfortable you may feel with your own strategies, there will be times when you suspect that you've done exactly the wrong thing with your child. Don't let this haunt you. Instead, remember that in the end, when children encounter firm and predictable boundaries, they don't feel punished. They feel safe, they feel protected, and they feel loved.