Man of the House
Wait 'Til Your Mother Gets Home
Having never had much success with self-discipline, our favorite stay-at-home dad tries a number of different strategies to get his kids to behave.
Discipline for young kids is largely about keeping them safe, e.g., “Don’t jam a key into that light socket because you will die.” As they get older, discipline evolves into helping them navigate the social norms of your community. I am not good at this; I grew up stealing my parents’ cars. I was recently summoned to a fellow parent’s house to address my daughter’s misbehavior at a slumber party, and I had to warn them that when I was Georgia’s age – 11 – I broke into my neighbors’ pool house and drank all of their vodka. “So, go ahead and tell me what she did,” I counseled. “Just don’t be surprised when I’m not upset.”
Somewhere, someone is laughing at the fact that since my wife’s career as an Emmy Award-winning costume designer has taken off, I’ve become not just our children’s primary caregiver but also their primary disciplinarian. For years I had next to zero self-discipline, so figuring out how to get our children to behave has been a journey.
Like many new parents, we started off with a system to bring order to the chaos of raising kids. In our case, the first attempt to master the disciplinary arts took our family to the cultish child-rearing movement known as RIE. RIE stands for Resources for Infant Educarers because, of course, most parents think of themselves if not their children’s friend then definitely their “infant educarer.”
RIE was developed – I shit you not – in a Hungarian orphanage during World War II. There they discovered (and I am paraphrasing) that children who were wildly neglected often turned out better than those who were doted on and punished. Much of RIE parenting involves simply telling your child what you are observing. For instance, if you notice your child stuffing their face full of cheese to the point where he or she will almost certainly spew all over your new curtains, you might say, “I see you like cheese!” Or, if at bath time he or she tries to kick you in the head with an infant Krav Maga technique that makes you suspicious of what’s actually going on at pre-school, you might say, “I see you don’t like the bath!” It is hard to believe, but RIE is surprisingly effective … to a point.
That point came when the kids were obliviously hurtling down the sidewalk towards a busy street full of traffic, and I shrieked, “Hey! HEY! HEYYY!!!!” The RIE instructor admonished me for projecting my anxiety onto my kids’ actions. Her solution was to explain in a calm voice that their actions would have consequences. To me, vehicular homicide was an extreme consequence, so we moved on.
"After Resources for Infant Educarers my next concept was something I called Trouble. Unfortunately, curious kids will relentlessly forge on until they encounter the unknown."
After RIE, my next concept was something I called Trouble. Unfortunately, curious kids will relentlessly forge on until they encounter the unknown. “What’s Trouble?” my kids wondered. They were determined to find out.
Once when Georgia was about 4 years old, we were desperately trying to get out of the house to go to dinner, but she refused to put on her socks. It was cold and she was little. She needed to wear socks, and I needed to eat a nice meal somewhere civilized. What to do?
“I see you’re not putting on your socks,” I say in my most neutral RIE voice. “We cannot go to dinner until you put on your socks.” She dances around the room, feigning oblivion until I snap. “Georgia! Put your socks on. NOW!” She keeps dancing for a beat then stops, turns to me and screeches like a Ringwraith, “Nooooo!” I am appalled and quickly order an escalation. “Georgia, if you do not put on your socks this instant you are going to be in Trouble.” She studies me a beat. I’m sitting in her desk chair, my head at toddler height. She takes one step in my direction … and then smacks me across the face. It’s an affront that astounds me, and when I look at her, she defiantly raises her chin and says, “I’m already in trouble.” Checkmate.
There is yet one escalation beyond Trouble: You can spank your kids. There, I said it. It’s the third rail of modern parenting, and I have touched it and survived. The truth is I spanked them each once. Two ugly brutal moments in which I was so overwhelmed with rage and frustration, so disappointed by my own inadequacy to affect any kind of real change, so disenfranchised by my lack of agency in this role as the primary caregiver that I lashed out. The first time was so totally ineffective that it took a whole two years before I tried it again, this time on the other kid. In both instances, I was immediately subsumed by a wave of regret so deep and unnavigable I nearly drowned.
My son, a supernatural empath, quickly intuited that there is no more powerful way to hurt a parent than to hurt yourself. Even the gentlest disciplinary action quickly devolved into him pounding his head against the wall. Send a sharp word his way and he would take his beloved stuffed animal – a light-blue elephant named “Hey, Baby” – and hurl it on the ground, stomping it with both feet. Then, heroically holding back his tears, he’d stare defiantly as if to say, “Look what you’ve made me do.” He always brings a gun to a knife fight.
In the aftermath of the slumber party incident and my collective failures as a disciplinarian, I felt like it was time to try something new. I asked my 11-year-old daughter what she felt an appropriate punishment might be and we agreed on a course of action that seemed fair to us both. We became a team. And this is now the tact I take when faced with an insurmountable disciplinary challenge – we are in this together.
So imagine a lazy Sunday afternoon during which I have let my kids gorge themselves on Joe’s O’s and melt their brains with six hours of Fortnite and YouTube videos until the living room floor is covered in puffed-corn crumbs and Nerf darts and the air is thick with fetid kid-funk. When the phone rings and my wife informs us that she is on her way home, I turn to my kids and bellow, “Get up! Get up! Get up! Get off your asses and clean the floor! Do the laundry! Put the dishes away, and turn off the TV! Don’t let your mother know that we have done nothing all day. If we don’t get our act together before she gets home, we will ALL be in deep shit.”
That’s it. We’re a team.
Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.