Punishments: Making Rules Real

First time experiences are always remarkable.  People think of their first sleepover, first puppy, first crush, first kiss, first time driving their car, first beer. The list goes on.  Issuing punishment certainly falls in this category.  I think less of it now, but I do recall the very first time.

Paul was nearly 3. We had just learned about using rules versus negotiating with our boys.  And he had hurled a heavy toy against the wall with gusto.  Big laugh, and the prospect of a repeat performance.

So here we go, I thought…

I pulled him aside, "Paul, the rule is we don’t throw things in the house.  These are 80 year old walls and that truck will put a boo boo in the wall.  So repeat after me, ‘the rule is we don’t throw things’ ." He hesitated, looked at me long.  I was not sure what that meant.  "The rule is we don’t throw things, daddy," he mumbled.

Then a big smile swelled over his face, he ambled over to the truck and wound up like an Olympic shot putter for another righteous release.  "Paulito, the rule is we don’t throw things.  Do you understand what that means?"

He paused, the smile subsided.  For a moment.  Then, with teeth clenched, face screwed up seemingly to help concentrate very ounce of strength, he catapulted that unfortunate truck against the even more unfortunate walls.

I was annoyed, but more nervous as this was forcing my hand.  I was at a new frontier – -  of taking punitive action. 80% of me felt Paul was too cute to ever receive any manner of punishment.  But the idea of feckless rules ran in parallel and was overtaking his cuteness.  Sorry dude.

"Paulito, come here.  Okay let’s repeat the rule…. Now if you do that again, you will get a timeout."

A VERY BIG laugh from him. For all I knew, perhaps "timeout" sounded as appealing as his favorite, a snack of cantaloupes. Damn, did it sound like a reward?  Again, that poor truck, and our even sorrier, ancient walls met again.

More than anything, it was a battle of perseverance.  I scooped him up, "Paul, you broke the rule of not throwing things in the house.  When we choose to break the rules, we get a punishment," and plopped him on a side chair.  “Now you need to sit here for 2 minutes because you are 2 years old.  One minute for each year."

My son delivered a long, unblinking stare. 

Hmmm, I am wondering, what did this mean?  Just then, he twisted on to his plump tummy, slid off and started walking away.  Nonchalantly at that.  I am incredulous.  WTF, little brother man!  No way, no how was it ending like this.  I was bigger, faster, more stubborn than him. I scooped him back up, back on the side chair.  I am thinking, you little butt head, but in as calm a voice as I can muster, I say, "Paul, when you break the rules you get a timeout.  You need to stay here." 

A shorter stare, then he slides off.  I plop him back on the chair.  This repeats another 6 times, but I see he is now visibly frustrated.

Then a long stare. He does not move.  He has recalculated and this avenue of action no longer seems worth it.  Kids are extremely pragmatic, in reality.

But he’s thoroughly steamed.  I recalled how my Uncle Abe used to simultaneously hug and spank his son Peter, as if to say, "I love you, so I am spanking you."  I grabbed the Visual Dictionary, and plopped it in his lap.  My goal is NOT to be punitive really, but to clarify the concept of rules.

2 minutes later, I came back, "Paulito you can go now."  But he mumbled something about an elephant in the book and remains.  Fine by me.

That first time did nearly kill me.  I felt I was being mean to him. It was the first instance of taking an action that did not improve my child’s near term disposition.  But as the months and years passed, it’s made rules as apparent as concrete. More important and less obvious back then, I think it has helped from a young age to convey the value of making wise choices.

One afterthought – a former boss, Dennis Reilly, commented that younger siblings embrace good and bad habits.  To that end, Sidd, the younger bro, visited Paul on a number of timeouts before "earning his own".  But he was more aware, at a younger age, of the outcomes of rules.  A good thing.


Detention For One of the Boys, © 2005, Abe Pachikara (Click for larger images)

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