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Who Are We Really Disciplining Our Kids For?

My friend Kelly was over with her daughter a few weeks ago and when her daughter and my son Paul started squabbling over some toy that they didn't want to share, our combined reaction made me laugh. Kelly tried to get her daughter to surrender the toy to Paul and I tried to convince Paul that his pal should get a turn. We were basically turning on our own kids.

"You know what," I told Kelly, "I think they'll figure it out." And they did, because the children are basically good kids and also they have the attention span of gnats.

When it comes to teaching my toddler manners, I obviously want him to be a good person for the sake of being a good person. It kills me when I go to a restaurant and I hear people ordering waiters around without so much as a "please" or "thank you" so I'm doing my best to raise a human who is courteous and doesn't have an over-inflated sense of his place in this world.

But also? I'm doing it so I don't look like a total jerk.

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Most people with an ounce of perspective know that a poorly behaved kid is not typically bad on his or her own, but (barring tiredness or sickness) the result of disengaged or indulgent parenting. So when Paul acts up, I realize I'm disciplining him in part to put on a little show for everyone around me to make sure they understand that I'm not one of those parents, the ones who don't follow through with their threats to pull the plug on bad behavior, thereby spoiling everything for the people around them. I'm one of the good ones! Even if my kid is not 100% of the time.

Then again, the heartbreak of seeing your child be upset is maybe preferable to that of seeing your child be an unpleasant human being.

There have been times when my kid has been the victim of somebody else's rude kid. There was the time at a party that Paul got smashed in the face with a toy train by an angry child that didn't want to share whose parents were nowhere in the vicinity. Even though you know it's essentially meaningless when a child is forced to apologize, getting the message through to the parent is still meaningful. Even if my child is not sorry, I am. Without that little puppeted apology, the lesson you then need to tell your distraught child is the depressing "sometimes people are just mean and there's nothing we can do about it" and/or "sometimes you just need to wipe your tears and move on."

Then again, the heartbreak of seeing your child be upset is maybe preferable to that of seeing your child be an unpleasant human being. Last weekend at the pool Paul started demanding that I take some toys of his away from some kids who were eyeballing them while he was busy eating chicken fingers. I tried to explain sharing to him and that if he wasn't using them it was fine if someone else did. However, he wouldn't stop screaming and sobbing as he tried to boss me around into being a jerk on his behalf. It was embarrassing. I know most parents have been there, but I didn't want to be there.

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A wise mom told me recently that it's important to let go of the idea of children as an extension of you. Of course I want my son to be a good human being, to reflect my efforts of making him be one. Nothing I can do, though, will ever force him to behave or be the person I want him to be, nor can I make other people see my son or me the way I want them to. So disciplining my child, while aiming to make sure he's a good member of society, should be about him, and not me, or anybody else.

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Photo via Twenty20/Ingrid Nagy

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