Q: My daughter is a healthy, happy 22-month-old and is the star of our world. My husband and I are having a hard time shifting into disciplinary roles when she throws tantrums or exhibits undesirable behavior. My mom, a wonderful mother, who raised children in the '80s, suggests spanking, but I'm not comfortable with this method. I've tried to lean into the hard "no," but this doesn't seem to put my daughter off in the least. I do not want to raise a spoiled, entitled brat of a child. I have friends who make excuses for their children's (now tweens) atrocious, disrespectful behavior and I cringe. ("Sure, my 10-year-old son asked a woman in a checkout line why she was so fat, but he's just a kid displaying a natural curiosity, I can't punish him for that.") Discipline is important to me, but I don't know how to do it effectively! Help! I don't want to wake up 10 years from now and realize I did it wrong.
A: You are not alone in worrying about your child taking a "no" poorly, nor are you alone in worrying that your child will grow up to have "atrocious and disrespectful behavior." Let me take a burden off your shoulders: Your 2-year-old is not meant to take your "no's" in stride, and your tween will eventually horrify you with her atrocious behavior.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's dissect the real problem: You have set yourself up with a false dilemma. A false dilemma is when two options are given as if they are absolutes when, in fact, there are many other choices. On one hand, your mother is offering up the "just spank them" model, a favorite parenting strategy of many people who claim things like "I was spanked and I am fine" or "Kids just need a good whack to set them straight." Well, the studies are crystal clear that children who are spanked — and adults who were spanked as children — are not at all fine. Children who are spanked have an increase in childhood aggression, mental-health problems and negative parent-child relationships. Adults who were spanked as children have an increased chance of being the victim of physical abuse as well as an increase in mental-health problems. So, it is pretty well-decided that spanking is a false option for you, and we don't even need to consider it for your 2-year-old, especially because this age is difficult to parent no matter what.
The other false argument in your dilemma is that if you don't spank your child, you will assuredly raise atrocious children (while also becoming a weak parent). Though I can guarantee that your child will shock and horrify you in ways that you cannot imagine, it is not logical to assume that no spanking equals a horrible tween. Horrible tweens come about for a few reasons: Hormones wreak havoc on their bodies and minds, and it is hard to be them, period. Children who are spanked become hostile tweens. Children who have no boundaries can also become horrible tweens.
Rather than assume that you will become weak and ineffective, you can acknowledge that holding boundaries is a tough but necessary part of parenting.
For instance, why isn't your sweet daughter immediately cooperating with your "no" and obeying you at every turn? Well, that's not how a 2-year-old is built. Pick up any developmental stages book, and you will quickly learn that preschoolers have their own minds, aren't interested in your agenda and are designed to keep going at something until they have mastered it (even if you don't prefer they do it).
This means you are constantly and chronically saying no, grabbing the child off shelves and steps, and taking things away from her. Parenting a preschooler is physically and emotionally exhausting, and that's on a good day. What you cannot see is that each "no," each protection from danger and each reasonable boundary you hold is contributing to her ability to tolerate frustration. Holding boundaries takes some time to yield results.
When will your child become more cooperative? I don't know, but her maturity depends on her temperament, your temperament, what is happening at home, your ability to have fun and say "yes," and her basic genetic makeup. If everything is in decent working order, you will see steady progress in her ability to take no for an answer, become more patient, and govern herself more. But make no mistake; we humans are designed to make some pretty bad decisions well into adulthood, so keep your expectations realistic.
For now, pick up books by Louise Bates Ames and Dan Siegel and look around for some good parenting classes. Your pediatrician and a Google search should yield some options that will offer support as well as show you that you are not alone.
Meanwhile, trust that you don't need to spank, and don't worry about your future tween. Focus on getting through the day with the 2-year-old. Good luck.