Disciplining My Children Is So Much Harder Than I Thought it Would Be

I remember getting so angry, as a new mom, when moms of older children would say, “just wait until they’re bigger. It’s so much harder than when they’re little.” It always felt like a thinly veiled way to tell me that the hardships of taking care of newborns and babies didn’t matter, or worse, weren’t even real. They said things like little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems, as though my little kid problems didn’t feel incredibly big to me.

I still think we should knock it off with saying stuff like that. It’s just not necessary, and I think the people who say these things do have some twisted need to invalidate the experience of new moms. And that’s not cool. However, as my kids grow, and I enter the beginnings of the big problems season of life, I am starting to understand what they mean.

There are certain things that definitely feel way more emotionally potent with big kids than little ones. Having newborns and babies is physically exhausting. You’re often navigating postpartum depression, extreme sleep deprivation, and hours upon hours of newborn screeching—the source of which is often unknown. It’s an overwhelming time. But even in the midst of all that, there are a few things that are easy about that time that you won’t fully appreciate until your kids get older. For example, they’re always there with you. You never have to worry about them being out of your sight and possibly in harms way. They aren’t really capable of hurting your feelings yet; they can’t argue, say mean things, or intentionally defy you. And, perhaps best of all, you never have to discipline them.

Learning how to discipline my children has proven to be the biggest parenting challenge for me so far. I just wasn’t prepared for how emotionally dissonant it would be to give my children consequences for bad behavior. I love them. I never want to say no to them; never want to take away something that makes them happy. It physically hurts me to do things that bring them sadness, even when those consequences are the result of their own choices. That said, if I want my children to become responsible, kind, and likable people, it is my job to teach them what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. I cannot send them into the world as self-involved, disrespectful people and expect them to have happy and fulfilling relationships. I have to teach them, and that teaching is hard.

And it’s this paradox of causing them unhappiness now in exchange for future happiness that is so difficult to navigate.

We are currently working with our seven-year-old on his tendency to talk back and be disrespectful. He often won’t listen, or if he does listen, it seems to be only with the intent to grasp on to something you said that he can twist to suit his own argument. We are trying to teach him that this is not only disrespectful to us, his parents, but is also something that will make him difficult to get along with as he gets older. We struggle with many questions about how to handle this behavior properly.

What is an appropriate consequence for disrespect?

How do we make the consequences actually teach him the underlying lesson?

Are we being too harsh? Are we being too permissive?

How do we balance teaching our children how to be respectful while also instilling in them a willingness to question authority and stand up for their beliefs?

And how do we do all this while making sure they know we love them and are seeking what’s best for them?

These questions challenge me in ways I never foresaw when they were babies. I’ve exchanged the sleepless nights that come with a sleep-regressed infant for the sleepless nights of agonizing over my parenting choices. I sit up late, replaying the day’s events in my head and examining all the ways I might have done it wrong. All the ways I could have done better. I nurse an aching heart that worries for both of my children—that wonders if I’m doing the right things to shape them into happy and functional people. I beat myself up over times I lost my temper, moments when I got triggered and made it about my feelings instead of theirs.

It’s just a new kind of hard, a different kind of challenge. In some ways, it is bigger and harder than it was when they were little. It’s more of a mental and emotional struggle these days than the physical one from their infancy. The torment of whether I’m doing things the right way—the way they need and deserve, is worse than ever.

But if there is anything that parenting has taught me, it’s that I’ll figure it out in the end. I’ve discovered that hard things don’t last. You work your way through them, little by little. Seasons change. Children’s temperaments evolve. You learn better methods, gain more useful tools. The hard times come and go, and are replaced with new ones. But there are also good times aplenty. New blessings arrive, happy moments abound. The hard times that seem so big when you’re in them begin to shrink as you distance yourself from them.

As they say, in the end, it will all be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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