A short post on my birthday

Today is my 31st birthday, though it hasn’t included any of the usual festivities.  Caroline has been in Vancouver for a research meeting since Friday morning and won’t be back until late tonight.  Jay, Wally, and I have managed pretty well on our own.  They haven’t cut me any slack but there have been no hammer blows, either.

My first rule for spending long periods of time with the boys is: let happy kids keep doing whatever it is that’s making them happy.  In practice this meant that I spent twenty minutes this morning sitting on the bathroom floor watching Wally play with the shower curtain (while Jay did idled the time in his booster with his bowl of oatmeal).  Part of me was eager to get on with our morning errands but I reminded myself, “The errands can wait; better to take an easy twenty minutes now than to fight through a hard twenty minutes later on.”

I’d share the details of the errands but typing them out would only double down on just how un-celebratory they were.  After completing them my plan had been to drive to Burns Park to take advantage of the sunshine and spend an hour outside before lunch.  But Wally fell asleep in the car on the way home; rather than roust him so that his brother could play on the playground, we parked in a sunny spot of our driveway and I let him nap while Jay splashed in the puddle-cum-mud-hole at the end of our driveway and kicked a soccer ball with the amazingly patient and kind nine-year-old girl who lives next door.

(To further feather this girl’s cap, it should be noted that later in the day she came by and delivered two boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mints that I’d ordered back in December and which definitely counted as the best birthday surprise of the day.)

Following Wally’s nap we went inside for a long lunch and then an even longer time lying on the floor doing who-even-remembers-what in the playroom.  All I can tell you is the boys were happy and that maybe for the first time ever, Wally beat up Jay. (The two of them were lying in the pack-‘n-play and Wally started to claw amiably at Jay’s face.  Jay squealed to be rescued.  I picked him up and told him that he did a good job not pushing his brother back, but inside a little part of me was embarrassed for him.)

Overall I relied on inertia as much as I could to through the day.  It occurred to me that this is opposite the way birthdays are usually paced.  Birthdays tend to be more planned and deliberate than most days of the year and they carry the expectation that you’ll enjoy them.  I’m happy to enjoy my birthday, of course, but as I wrote in June, a few days after Wally was born, “I’m not very comfortable with experiences that come loaded with the expectation that you’ll feel any certain way in response to them.”  When my sister called this afternoon and asked if I was having a fun day, I was relieved to be able to say that fun, in the sense of steak dinners and vodka shots, had never really been on the table.

So here we are now.  It’s 8:15pm.  Both boys have been asleep for almost an hour already (I packed them off to bed early).  Caroline is due home in about six hours.  On the table in front of me there’s an empty glass of Zinfandel and a mug of coffee ice cream topped with crumbled Girl Scout cookies.

I wouldn’t call it a grand birthday, but I’m happy to call it mine.

Disciplining a toddler with timeout: smart or soft?

Almost nothing stays with a kid longer than the feeling of being punished by his parents.  What I remember most is not the particulars of the punishment—a spanking, a bar of soap, not being able to drive for a month—but the feeling of having done wrong in my parents’ eyes.  Even at 30 it would still hit me hard if my dad were to let me know that he thought I’d acted badly.

I had this thought in mind yesterday at lunchtime when James launched his sippy cup into the tray of the open dishwasher.  It clattered among the dirty plates and startled me enough that I dropped/slammed the wooden cutting board I was washing down in the sink.  “That was not funny,” I shouted as I spun his high-chair around to face away from the kitchen. “You’ve got timeout!”

Now, I didn’t receive timeout as a kid but Caroline and I have taken to using it as parents.  I think of it as one of the stereotypical practices of middle class American childrearing.  I’ve read several academic studies about parenting recently and in the compare and contrast between American-style parenting and parenting styles in other parts of the world, “time out” is always listed as a key distinction between the way we raise our children and the way the Kalahari bushmen raise theirs.  If it’s not on Stuff White People Like it should be.

I asked Caroline why she thinks “timeout” is ridiculed.  “Because it’s wussy,” she said.  That sounds right to me.  The most obvious point of comparison is the belt, as in “Dad’s going to get the belt if you don’t shape up,” and in that sense timeout is just another way that late-stage American culture has grown soft.  During the ’08 presidential campaign Hillary Clinton called Barack Obama a Pollyanna after he said he’d be willing to hold diplomatic talks with the world’s worst dictators.  In her view dictators, like toddlers, only respond to force.  (Caroline adds that it’s misguided to think that either dictators or toddlers respond to force or to diplomacy: “They’re both just crazy,” she says.)

So I felt like a bit of a caricature yesterday as I gave James timeout for throwing his cup in the dishwasher.  When his minute was up I turned his seat back around and asked him if he knew why he’d been given timeout.  “No throw cup a dishwasher,” he said.

“That’s right,” I replied, pleased to hear that the time he’d had to contemplate his misdeed had clarified things for him.  “We don’t throw the cup in the dishwasher.”  The grin on his face told me that he was already plotting his next projectile.

One of the central things timeout accomplishes is that it depersonalizes punishment. If James throws his cup into the dishwasher and is given timeout, the implication is that he did wrong by the dishwasher.  If, instead, James throws his cup into the dishwasher and dad flies into apoplexy, the implication is that he did wrong by dad.  The difference between timeout and spanking is like the difference between a police officer giving out a parking ticket—”Nothing personal, I’m just doing my job”—and God raining fire and brimstone on Gomorrah—”You better believe it’s personal.”

So which approach is better?  I’m not a timeout kind of parent by disposition but I’ve warmed to its merits.  I like that with minor events like the dishwasher incident timeout keeps the interaction between me and James simple and more predictable.  As he gets older and the lessons he learns grow more complex I hope I’ll keep in mind how powerful my parents’ judgments were to me as a kid (both when they’d praise me and when they were angry at me), and be conservative in how and when I express my own judgments to James.

At the same time, I know that I’m going to be an integral part of James’ moral world as he grows up, and that my responsibility to him is as more than an umpire who dispassionately calls strikes and balls in his behavior.