Our boys have been into playing with little robotic creatures called Hexbugs, lately. When you switch these caterpillar-like critters on, they vibrate and scurry around in random directions. When they hit a wall or a barrier in their path, they immediately change directions. The boys like to place their Hexbugs inside self-contained mazes we bought to house their bugs. They like to put several in at a time to race each other. We've laughed hysterically, watching them as they've bounced around the various routes, often colliding and landing in piles of entertaining chaos.
The Hexbugs in those mazes remind me of the days I watched Elliott and Ian bounce from one locked cabinet in our house to another. Endlessly curious, as little boys are, they'd dash around the house dying to know if today they'd uncover the secrets of the childproofing Gods. They'd give a fruitless tug or two on a cabinet door or a dresser drawer, then like Hexbugs, they'd ramble ahead to the next disappointment.
Those were the days - teaching the boys from the bleachers. Lock a few doors, tether a chest or two of drawers to the wall, then kick back and take it all in as a spectator. But there comes a day - and dads don't miss this critical day - when our kids will pick the locks and cut the tethers depriving them of a satisfied curiosity. That day, go ahead and throw away all those useless locks. You're now in charge.
In the previous part of this chapter, I asked you to build four walls around your kids. Inside them, I said, the white noise of the world is muted, and you have the safest and healthiest environment possible to be a teacher. The challenge is our kids grow older and want to know what's outside those walls. You tell them to play in their own yard, they begin to wonder what's happening in the neighbor's yard. It's only a matter of time, I promise you, when you'll look out your window and see your kids dancing around on the greener grass of the Jones' lawn. They'll be waving their hands high above their heads, their voices full of excitement. You won't recognize it then, but you'll be witnessing your first box escape victory dance.
The only thing to do now, dad, is take up your position inside the box and wait for their return. Now that the little Hexbugs believe it's more fun to scale walls than spring about inside them, they've begun to dream of life without them. Remember, I previously told you a child's brain makes decisions based on comfort and fun. Well, right now, your kid believes disobedience is fun. And if he brings that belief back into the box, and you don't alter that belief, your box will be tainted with as much white noise as the outside world.
Defending the integrity of the box is better known as discipline. Discipline begins with the first consequence we impose on our kids for straying outside the box. And we hope it ends with young adults making healthy decisions based very little on chasing fun. But here's the key dads. It's highly unlikely our kids will one day make wise choices without being disciplined along the way for the poor ones. To disagree with that is to believe wisdom simply comes with growing older. It's to believe toddlers and adolescents can figure out the difference between right and wrong on their own.
Many dads are uncomfortable now. The sound of discipline - punishment - makes us uneasy. I think that's because society has spent the last couple of decades debating to death the right and wrong ways to discipline a child. Meanwhile, we've completely lost sight of the importance of discipline in and of itself. One side argues if you aren't spanking your children you can't possibly be disciplining them. The other side believes if you're spanking you're children you're abusing them. And a bunch of undisciplined children are taking in the whole debate.
Katie and I don't spank our boys. It's not a stand against spanking; it's just the discipline route we chose to go. Instead, we choose to deny our kids privileges and activities as punishment. The important thing you need to hear from me, though, is I don't think the means of discipline is as important as the following considerations:
- Discipline has to be timely. If my kids go into the neighbor's yard after I told them not to, I need to punish them the first time I see it. When my kids know I know they've disobeyed, and I don't address it, they decide the neighbor's yard rule isn't important to me. Eventually they'll decide no rules are important to me.
- Discipline has to be consistent. If I punish my kids half the times they go in the neighbor's yard without my permission, they'll begin trying to figure out which times they have listen to me. I insist my kids listen to me all the time, so inconsistency is not my friend.
- Discipline has to be fair. If I took screen time away from my kids for a couple of days for going in the neighbor's yard without my permission, they'd think hard about their mistake. If I took screen time away for a year, they'd think they were being raised by a lunatic. When my punishment overshadows the mistake, my kids begin to think the punishment is the mistake and not their actions. I don't need my kids figuring out ways to fix the punishment.
- Discipline is always about teaching. If you've paid attention to nothing else, pay attention to this. I don't discipline my kids because I'm mad at them, even though I have to frequently remind myself of that. But my kids' mistakes aren't personal attacks on me, they're personal attacks on their futures. If I fail to discipline them when they make mistakes, I fail to defend their future. It's easy for me to lose sight of that. And the quickest way for my kids to lose sight of that is when my anger over their actions is stronger than my concern for their future. I've never apologized to my kids for being disappointed by their mistakes, I have apologized for losing my temper over them.
Much of this chapter on teaching has focused on how to teach your kids and not what to teach them. More of what to teach them will follow in the chapters ahead. Here's the thing, though. Teaching starts with creating an environment where kids feel safe to hear you and obligated to listen to you. The lack of either increases the chances of having kids who think they can ignore you. And a teacher ignored makes a rotten teacher.