"Big Four" Highlights


Two Rules for Parents

Children learn limits from consistent discipline

By Gabriel Somarriba

Recently, my family and I were in northern Texas for a Baptism. Toddlers, as everyone knows, make for memorable travel companions, especially on a plane. After enduring a flight delay, a bumpy landing, dirty diapers, and a near mutiny over a misplaced snack bag, we finally huddled into the hired car that would take us to our hotel.

I sat in the front while my wife and two kids were in the back. The driver was a well-mannered fellow with an easy-going demeanor. A few minutes into the drive, my 3-year-old daughter started to tease her younger brother with the pen she held in her little hand. My wife quickly intervened, took the pen out of our daughter’s hand and placed it in her purse. True to form, my daughter cried and whined at the loss of her new favorite torture device.

My wife and I had long ago established rules for handling such a situation. We never “give-in” to the preposterous demands of a petulant toddler. However, our driver expressed discomfort with the crying and kindly offered a solution. “Would you like to use my tablet?” he said. “Your daughter can watch videos until we get to the hotel.”

I politely declined the first offer, and more frankly declined his second offer. Why did I refuse to hand my daughter a tablet, to keep peace on a late-night drive in northern Texas?

Parental Rules Need to Apply Everywhere

First, my wife was in the middle of disciplining our daughter. Taking the pen was the right thing to do even though it upset our sweet 3-year-old. It was understandable why she was crying in the backseat: mom not only took away a toy, but daughter was being reprimanded as well. Given the tantrum, it would have been easy to calm our daughter by caving in. It was a long flight, we could have said to ourselves. It’s way past her bedtime. She might be hungry. She is embarrassing us, and so on. However, I don’t want somehow to “reward” our daughter for bad behavior, especially when my wife is in the middle of exercising her parental authority.

As I mentioned in a previous article, undermining a parent’s authority is a huge mistake and will lead to turning mom or dad into a paper tiger. My first reason for declining the kind stranger’s offer for a quick fix was that I did not want to undermine my wife’s authority. She was setting a firm limit that could be potentially undone by giving our daughter access to videos. Thanks to our consistency, our daughter learns and re-learns that mommy and daddy’s rules apply everywhere. It does not matter if we are at Nana’s house, in the middle of Mass, or on a trip, we have expectations for good behavior and will discipline her when those expectations are not met.

Children Need to Learn to Deal with Frustrations

There are times when “stuff happens” and we need to learn to deal with it better. Adults are expected to have certain levels of mental toughness, flexibility and restraint as they encounter life’s problems. Children, who are essentially adults in training, need opportunities to process and overcome the small frustrations of everyday life so they will grow in maturity and responsibility.

Had I given my daughter the tablet, I would have stopped her tantrum and bought peace, but at what cost? In the end, my daughter was only upset for a few minutes before her attention was directed elsewhere. Her world did not end because mommy took away the pen. Instead, we gave her an opportunity to practice calming herself down with minimal input from us and certainly without trying to placate her with videos. As parents, we look for ways to shape our children’s character anytime, anywhere.

Saying no that night was not meant to be a blanket statement against tablets or screen time. All of those things are fine in the right situation. Instead, this short anecdote offers a chance to review two solid parenting principles:

1, parenting rules are the same everywhere and children can be disciplined anywhere.

2, parents help shape their children’s character by giving them room to deal with their frustrations without trying to sugarcoat or short-circuit the process. Doing so may provide temporary frustration, but like many things that are challenging, the benefits are much more lasting.

Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D., is a psychotherapist living in northeast Ohio with his wife and their two children.