When the boys were babies I often wished for an instruction manual that would make my parenting decisions easier- one full of if-then statements, like “If your six month old wakes up crying hourly in the middle of the night, then give him at least five minutes to figure out how to get back to sleep before going into his room. You won’t be warping him for life.”
I read tons of articles and parenting books and studied developmental charts to figure out where they should be, what I should expect, and how I should handle things. What I eventually figured out- and what I wished I had listened to from the beginning- is that I’m best off when I trust my instincts. Who knows the boys better than I do? And who can see their differences better? When I was pregnant the first time, I read all about parenting strategies, took every class the hospital offered, and agonized over too many decisions. I followed the advice I’d been given, and mostly it worked- especially the swaddling, holding, patting the back method to get him to sleep. But then my younger son came along, and rewrote the manual. Swaddling was not his thing. He loved soft, fleecy textures, though, and if he had something like that near his face he’d sleep calmly. Also, he tricked me. Until he was five months old he practically slept through the night (from midnight to 6 AM. I slept those six hours, too, and felt like I was cheating.) But then at five months he decided sleep was overrated, and the only way to get him back would be to hold him tightly and sing soft lullabies. No easy feat, as he was a solid 20+ pounds and I have a terrible singing voice.
Now, nine years later, I still read all kinds of parenting articles and blogs and look at developmental charts to figure out what to expect socially and emotionally from the boys. I’ve read about mindful parenting, and helicopter parenting, and precious parenting. But when it comes to making disciplinary decisions, I go with my instincts and generally give it little fore-thought… which brings me to a recent Saturday morning.
The boys went outside to play catch (baseball season is finally here, and they’re both determined to be ready for it). At first it was a heart-warming sight. They stood far apart, making clean throws. They chatted, threw the ball back and forth, I heard the thwack! as the ball hit the glove. Gradually, though, the throws became more erratic. I heard less laughter. And when I looked out, I saw one sitting in the swing set fort, and the other on a chair across the yard, both of their gloves on the ground. Then the older one came onto the porch, yelling, “I’m not getting that ball, you are!”
I stopped him in kitchen the doorway. “What’s up?”
“He threw a wild fast ball past my head and it went over the fence, and I’m not getting it!”
“Why not? He gets them when you throw over the fence.”
“Yeah, but he did it on purpose. He even said, ‘Ooh, here comes a fast one at your head!”
“You still need to get the ball. Go back out there and work it out.”
“No. I’m not getting it.”
“Well, you’re not coming inside until you do.”
He went back outside and sat in a chair on the patio.
I locked the door.
A few minutes later the younger boy tried to come inside.
“Hey!” he yelled through the window, “My shirt got wet. I need to come in to change it.”
“How did your shirt get wet?”
“There was water on the swing and I stuck my sleeve in it.”
“Too bad. You can’t come inside until you work things out with your brother.”
He sized me up for a minute, then changed tactics.
“I have to go to the bathroom!”
“Well, then, you’d better work things out quickly!”
“Why? He was being a jerk.”
“He said you threw a fastball at his head.”
“Yeah, because he was taunting me. I hate when he does that.”
“So go tell him you hate it when he taunts you. You aren’t coming in until the two of you work it out.”
“Then I guess I’m spending the day outside!”
With that he went back to the fort, letting the porch door slam behind him. I continued to clean the kitchen, glancing out the window every few minutes. Eventually, I saw the older boy get out of his chair and disappear. Then the porch door slammed, and the kitchen doorknob rattled.
“I got the ball. Now can I come in?”
“No. You still have to work things out with your brother.”
“Why? He isn’t even mad at me! He’s the one who threw the ball!”
“Yes, but he says you were taunting him. So go work it out with him, and then you can come in.”
He glared at me through the glass, then went back outside.
My husband yelled from the living room, ”What’s going on? I hear a lot of door slamming!”
“The boys are having a standoff, so I locked them out until they resolve it.”
“You LOCKED THEM OUT??”
“Yeah. They’ll figure it out.”
“Wow, you’re playing it tough today.”
Tough? Probably. More like fed up, and ready to push them to solve their own problems. And, by the time the dishes were done and kitchen was cleaned, they were talking to each other. I have no idea what they said, or who made the first move, because they worked it out themselves. They did try to break in through the front door, but I wouldn’t let them in until they showed me that they could play nicely together. Once they did, I unlocked the door… but they didn’t realize it, so when they tried the back door again they literally fell into the kitchen together because they’d pushed the door so hard… and we all had a good laugh.
I have yet to find an article or a book or a method that recommends locking children out of the house to resolve their differences. I do recall it was something David Sedaris’s mother did (see related post here), but that was because she wanted to sip a cocktail in peace. I’m sure most methods would recommend against locking the door, offering some sort of hands-on, parental intervention solution instead. But, it worked. Hopefully the lesson will resonate- because in life, we’re forced to handle difficult situations without a mediator, and the boys will need their conflict resolution skills to be instinctive. Granted, few people will be as quickly forgiving as a sibling, but they will still gain the foundation of the skill. And even in a screens-up, texting-centric society, they will need to know how to forgive and move on.
There is no one method or manual that has all the answers. There never will be. Again, that’s life. We each have our own path, and need to trust our instincts as we make decisions- and guide our children- along the way.