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I Am Not My Mother

It was 8:30 a.m., and my son had already had two temper tantrums, one time-out and to my regret, one spanking on his rear end. With him sitting on his bed in time-out, I took myself into the bathroom with my cell phone to reach out for help. “It’s only 8:30 and I’ve already spanked him. It’s going to be some kind of day.” Shooting this text to his father, I knew the summer was going to be long and hard. I needed help, tools and choices that would empower both my son and me. Spanking didn’t seem like the answer to either of our needs.

I realized I didn’t know what else to do, and I needed to learn fast. School was out for my 5-year-old, but it was in for me—and I was failing.

Before he was born, my son’s father and I determined that spanking was not a disciplinary tool we wanted to use. We were both raised in African-American Christian homes, where it was believed that if you spare the rod you spoil the child. As adults we both recalled the level of fear we had for our parents and how those feelings of terror still influence us today. We did not want our son to fear us. More than anything, we wanted our son to feel safe, something we often yearned for as children.

That morning I had broken our agreement, and the guilt was killing me. When asked to perform simple tasks like brushing his teeth or using the bathroom, Zion would yell, “No”! If I attempted to assist him, he’d hit and kick me. Something in me would rise up and a need to force him into compliance would overtake me. The angrier I got, the more defiant he’d become. Unable to control him or my myself, I spanked him. I also realized I didn’t know what else to do, and I needed to learn fast. School was out for my 5-year-old, but it was in for me—and I was failing.

I realized the guilt and shame of having spanked my son could send me into silence, so I took the opposite action immediately. I started talking with other moms in my life about their methods of discipline and choices around spanking. Here’s some of the advice I received:

Monitor the amount of television your son is watching daily. Television has a way of exciting children with all the sounds and colors being processed by their developing brains at such a rapid pace. I'd seen it with my son. After a bout of TV-watching, he was always less likely to process direction and be redirected with ease. After cutting back on screen time to one hour in the evening after dinner I noticed that he was much calmer and willing to connect with me much more quickly. Saving TV for evening made it much easier to navigate our days.

Keep the lights low in your home and windows open. I saw that changing the lighting and opening the window really helped my son calm down. And there is nothing like a cool breeze streaming through the house to remind me to breathe. Each time I felt a breeze on my face I’d unconsciously take a deep breath, which helped me release stress.

Make sure the kids are fed. As moms, we all observe that hunger is a major factor impacting the moods of our children—it's that drop in blood sugar that can turn them into such irrational beings. Oftentimes, they can be so engaged in what they are doing that they might not recognize or acknowledge their need to eat. And the same goes for hydration, which of course is just as important as food.

MORE: Be Grateful for Your Kid's Tantrum ... Really

Besides feeding my son smaller meals more often, I immediately emptied my refrigerator of all box juices—too much sugar simply got my son more hyped up—and started making fresh fruit smoothies if he requested juice. I loaded them up with yogurt and fruit and snuck in a big collard green. He loved the fresh-made juices and often helped me by peeling the banana, adding the strawberries or pouring the milk. It was great time for us to connect, and the only challenge was sneaking the collard green into the container when he wasn’t looking. There were times when it simply wasn’t possible, and fresh fruit would have to suffice.

Stay Active. This was the best advice I received. I went on a quest to find something that would not only burn my son’s energy right off but also make him happier. One day while watching the Olympics I noticed how excited my son was as he cheered for swimmers. The next day I enrolled him in swim lessons and we spent the next six weeks in a pool. He took to the water like a fish.

Swimming daily changed our lives. I have never seen him more excited and capable as he was in the water. It was enough to make my heart explode with joy. Spending several hours at the pool was a huge sacrifice for me. Being there meant house cleaning, shopping, writing and errand-running piled up. All I can say is my house was often a mess. In the end it was a worthwhile tradeoff.

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Recently my son started kindergarten. I did a happy dance the day I dropped him off for seven hours of school. He’s now in school and all I can say is that this summer I learned one of my greatest lessons as a parent.

Planning to raise my child differently than I was raised is a good idea, in theory. However it’s easy to revert back to what was done by my parents. In the face of my son’s challenging behavior, I did what was done to me. It was the use of tools from other parents, the support of his father and new choices that helped me learn a great lesson.

Also, spending an entire summer home with my son was the most difficult things I’ve ever done. As a matter of fact, I was exhausted most of the time. After putting him to bed by 7:30 p.m., I’d usually fall asleep by 8:30, leaving house chores for another day. Had my budget allowed for camp and other summer activities, I certainly would have made a different choice. The other lesson I learned was it’s always good to make the best of a difficult situation, especially when a 5-year-old is involved.

By the way, the day I sent the text to his father at 8:30 a.m. saying I’ve already spanked him. He responded, “I’m taking the day off work, bring him to me and go have some much needed time for yourself.”

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