"What do you say to a four year old boy who wakes up in middle of the night and refuses to go back to sleep?"
It was at the end of a parenting lecture, as I was putting on my coat getting ready to leave. A husband and wife approached me with their question.
"Well, what do you do when he wakes up?" I asked.
"I cover him with a special blanket, turn on a video, and bring him a cup of hot cocoa," the father replied.
"You're kidding, right?"
The couple looked at each other sheepishly.
"No, I'm not kidding."
"Of course he won't go to sleep, why should he?" I asked. "You're treating him like a king for waking up at 2 a.m. Why are you doing this? Let me ask you something. How do you get him to go to sleep at night?"
"We wait for him to tell us that he's tired."
I paused for a moment before I spoke.
"How old are you?"
A four-year-old is telling two 32-year-olds when he thinks that his bedtime should be?
"We're both 32."
"Are you telling me that a four-year-old is telling two 32-year-olds when he thinks that his bedtime should be? Why do you allow this?"
Husband and wife shuffled uncomfortably. "We're scared."
"We're scared to tell him what to do."
"What do you mean you're scared?"
The father glanced around to be sure that no one was listening to our conversation. He then rolled up his shirt sleeve. I noticed long, red marks all over his arm.
"What's this?" I asked.
"That's my son scratching me when we tell him to do something he doesn't want to do, like going to sleep."
I was speechless.
"But really, he's so cute! I know you'd think he's adorable if you'd meet him."
"Cute?" I asked. "What's cute about scratching your father's arm bloody and not listening to your parents? What you think is cute at four becomes obnoxious before you know it. And what will you do when he's a teen, maybe even stronger that you, and wants the car keys against your wishes? You need to learn how to discipline your child, fast!"
The wife looked at her husband for a moment before speaking.
"I try to tell him that we need to discipline Jack but he just doesn't listen to me. He's always giving him another chance. Tonight you spoke about the rules of discipline, but where do we even begin?"
A Spiritual Standard of Living
Honor and respect are basic foundations of our home. In Judaism we call this concept Derech Eretz, literally 'the way of the land.' It means that we must live with a daily spiritual standard of living. Discipline is the thread that ties honor and respect together. It allows derech eretz to take form as we mold our children's character.
Too often, we think that our children won't like us if we discipline them. We remember thinking as a child, I'll never do that to my kids! So we hold back on discipline hoping that our children will love us more. We want our children to feel that we are ‘best friends forever' and that they can always confide in us.
Discipline means giving our children boundaries to live by.
But discipline doesn't mean that we push our children away. What it does mean is that our children are given boundaries to live by. No scratching. No biting. No hitting. No hurting others, not with your hands nor with your words. Listen and speak with respect. Be truthful. Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. When you do not listen to the rules, know that there are consequences in this home as well as in life. (Of course, we ourselves must live with the standards we teach our children).
Children come to appreciate parent's wisdom and guidance and grow to understand that a home built on a foundation of derech eretz is a home filled with both respect and love.
Dealing with Disrespect
There are times when parents notice that their children continue to misbehave despite reprimands and discussions. They act out though we have made real efforts to speak with them and correct their behavior. Some children test limits by talking back or behaving with extreme disrespect.
When we allow our children to consistently ignore or rudely disregard us, we are neglecting our children's character. Children will certainly not grow more respectful with time. It is only through our efforts that they learn how to live and speak honorably. This is not to say that it will be easy, but the obligation to raise respectful children is ours.
Such moments bring us to consider consequences. I never use the term ‘punishments,' which most people associate with unfairness and suffering. Consequences, on the other hand, are natural aftereffects of one's behavior. If you choose to act in a certain way, you need to know that you will have to deal with the outcome.
Let's say your family goes out to eat in a restaurant and your child misbehaves. You've spoken to him about this in the past but he still disrupts the evening. His behavior has ruined the night for everyone. What should you do?
Speak to him privately and calmly. It would be best if both parents could speak to this child together, with one voice. Be specific but do not debate or argue.
Clearly inform him that if this behavior continues, there will be a consequence. Next time he will stay home. Children who don't appreciate family time don't get to come. This is a natural consequence of ruining the family's time together. The choice is his to make.
Be sure to hold him to his word the next time you go out. Ask him (privately) before you leave what his decision is. And if he breaks his promise, do not look away. Enforce the consequence. Remember, you are molding character for life.
Work as a Team
Discipline can't work if the parents are not united.
I told this couple that they should begin by deciding that it is time to bring discipline into their family picture, and they must discipline together. Creating your spiritual standard of living is a joint parenting mission. When you are sitting at the dinner table and Jack kicks his sister under the table and then answers you back disrespectfully, how will you handle the situation?
If one parent says, "Go to your room," and the other says, "Come on, what's the big deal? Give him another chance, he didn't really mean it," you are undermining each other's authority. Your discipline can not possibly work. Little Jack now knows that you are working against each other. There is no family unity. The parenting team has fallen apart and the parent's have lost the game.
If you can't listen to each other, why should Jack?
You must decide what kind of home you'd like to create. A home where children slam doors, surf the web for hours, ignore you, and destroy siblings? Or a home where parents are united as they live genuine values, set standards for discipline, and embody commitment and faith. The choice is yours.