I once knew a woman so frazzled, so tense, so sleep-deprived and so desperate, that when her 4-year-old son threw a screaming fit to convince her to allow him to watch "Power Rangers" -- even though she'd already denied him the right to watch the show because he'd already thrown a screaming fit for a second helping of chocolate pudding after not eating all his nutritious food -- she said, "Be quiet on the count of three, or you go into timeout." And, then, when that didn't work, she said, "Do you want to go into timeout for the rest of your life?"
But the little boy ignored her. The walls were beginning to vibrate with his screams. So the woman -- who was no dummy -- went to plan B: She sat down on the sofa and cried. As if in affirmation of their mother's plight, her 6-month-old twins woke up from their nap and began to cry, too. Meanwhile, their big brother was screaming so loudly that his face was turning blue.
"All right already," the mom finally said. "I'll let you watch `Power Rangers,' just please STOP SCREAMING!" The kid jumped up, turned on the tube and sat in its glowing light like a zombie, which gave his mother a chance to think about how completely out of control her life was.
Okay, so what if that woman was me? When was the last time you were trying to make do with approximately 3 1/2 hours of sleep per week? But, I admit it, my behavior was inexcusable. Somehow, a mere four years after Sam was born, I'd created a monster.
Not that my monster and I were alone. All of us, no matter how much we love our children, have been known to crack under the combined pressures of our own stressed lives and our children's ability to pester us to the brink of insanity.
"The biggest parent trap of all is to give in," says Sal Severe, the author of "How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!" (Greentree Publishing, $21.95). "Why do we give in? Because we're tired, we're burned out, or our nerves are just so frayed that we can't stand another minute of noise. But when you give in to misbehavior -- even if it's only one more cookie when you'd said that there'd be no more cookies -- you're telling the child that misbehavior works."
Not to mention that a child who's misbehaving will wear you down faster than an irate boss and a long commute combined. Indeed, if you ignore your screaming kid, you'll end up more frazzled than if you pull yourself together to discipline him. So no matter how exhausted you are, you don't really have any choice. You've got to do something. But how, when you're absolutely at the end of your frayed rope, can you resist that alluring urge to give in? Here are five win-win strategies:
Slow and Steady
Discipline means more than the Evil Eye, or a prolonged Stay in Your Room by Yourself Until I Say You Can Come Out, That's How Long. Indeed, discipline and punishment aren't even roughly synonymous. "Discipline is really everything we do to teach our children how to make healthy, positive decisions for themselves," says Severe.
So we need to remember that disciplining is an ongoing process, something we parents do all the time. In calmer moments, recognize your child's cooperative behavior ("Thanks for putting away all your toys!") and gently prompt her when she disobeys house rules ("No whining. Use your big-girl voice."). Every time you do, you're taking another small step toward stopping behavior crisis in their tracks.
Nip Meltdowns in the Bud
Of course, in the best of all worlds, our kids wouldn't misbehave to begin with. Impossible, you say? Yes and no. Indeed, if we anticipate potential trouble spots and plan ahead, we can find ways to short-circuit them. Our kids can even help.
Take the end of the day -- otherwise known as the "Arsenic Hour." Everyone's tired, cranky and hungry; It's prime time for tantrums and sibling squabbles. What to do? Have your children help you establish a coming-home routine, suggests Jane Nelsen, author of the "Positive Discipline A-Z" (Prima Publishing, $16) and other parenting books.
You might put together a special basket of toys that comes out only for those 15 minutes after you come home. That way, you can say, "I'm busy now, but I'm looking forward to our special time together." You also might want to work with your children to create a "routine chart" with pictures of various tasks and activities, including special time with you. Because the kids help to create the chart, they feel empowered and are less likely to misbehave. Nelsen also stresses the importance of food. Empty bellies can lead quickly to whining and misbehavior. Make supper quick and simple, or have healthy snacks ready for kids to eat while you prepare the meal.
Another way to head off potential misbehavior all evening long is to attend to your children the minute you walk in the door -- 15 or 20 minutes is all you need. A little extra attention during transition times and other rough spots is always a good idea. "Children are wired to connect with you," explains Jean Illsley Clarke, a parent educator and coauthor of "Growing Up Again" (Hazelden Foundation, $14.95) and "Time In: When Time-Out Doesn't Work" (Parenting Press, $9.95). "If they can't connect with you in a positive way, they'll force the connection by misbehaving. When children do get enough connection -- whether that means attention, conversation or snuggling -- they're cooperative and sunny."
Teach Kids to Help Themselves
Nobody's kidding anybody here: Strategies 1 and 2 aren't going to fix everything. When the inevitable breakdown does occur, we need to react in a way that will help not only to defuse this tantrum, but also, perhaps, to prevent the next one.
"When a child hits another child, it doesn't take any longer to say, `We have a problem here. Can you think of a way to solve it?' than it does to yell and break up the fight," says Myrna Shure, a professor of psychology at MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and the author of "Raising a Thinking Child" (Pocket Books, $13). "When you get your children involved in making good decisions for themselves, you're sending a message of trust. It's simple because, even as early as preschool, once children get used to the idea of solving their own problems, they'll go at it with enthusiasm and will find more success than failure."
Go to the Rule Book
If you've got an underlying set of family or household rules in place, use them. When chaos looms, let The Rules be the bad guy: "The rule is that you can't have dessert until you've eaten your dinner," or "The rule is no TV on weeknights." Mom and Dad aren't denying the ice cream or the TV show -- The Rules are.
If your family doesn't have a clear set of house rules, make some. Involve kids by calling a family meeting. Ask for -- and respect -- their contributions, though you'll be the final arbiter of the rules you implement. Rules should be reasonable, explicit and as simple as possible. For smaller children, consider posting a notice of the most important rules on the refrigerator, where everyone can see them.
Don't Wimp Out
Despite our best-laid plans, children, as we all know, were made to break rules. Which is when we need to steel ourselves to lay down the law. "Many parents are simply afraid to say `no' to their kids, or to act like the heavy," says Sal Severe. "We only have a few hours a day with our kids, so we want that time to be pleasant. But what we need to tell ourselves is: `I'm here to be your parent.' Kids need to know that both their good behavior and their bad behavior have consequences."
In other words, we shouldn't reward bad behavior by giving in to it -- the way I did when I let my screaming 4-year-old watch "Power Rangers" after I'd told him he couldn't. Likewise, we should reward good behavior.
But what can we do when a child continues to misbehave, despite our best efforts to redirect him? "Sometimes you simply have to use punishment," says Severe. "Time out is often good for little kids, as is loss of privileges for children of all ages. Because when you punish a child, you don't want to embarrass or shame him, but rather to let him know that he's made a bad choice, one you don't approve of."
Parent educator Jean Clarke advises that timeouts be used carefully. Don't allow it to become a negative consequence; nor should you hold it out as a threat. Instead, consider timeouts "a positive interruption of behavior or overexcitement, a time to pull back and chance to start over," says Clarke.
The Good News
Sam is now 9, my twins are 5, and somehow -- through trial and error, not to mention the blessing of eight hours of sleep a night -- my husband and I have arrived at our own methods of disciplining our children. They may not always produce perfect little angels, but they do, far more often than not, make our home a happy and peaceful one.
Making It Work For Everyone
To keep your home calm and pleasant, remember:
Discipline is an ongoing process. Reward good behavior, and correct misbehavior whenever it occurs.
Short-circuit trouble. Look for ways to avoid common problems before they start.
Teach kids how to problem-solve.
Make sure everyone knows the house rules.
Resist the urge to cave in. Don't be afraid to discipline when it's necessary.
Be kind and firm at the same time. Example: When kids fight in the car, pull over without saying a word. "Children learn more from kind and firm actions than from words," says Jane Nelsen, author of the "Positive Discipline" series for teaching discipline without creating conflict.
Ask questions. "What was our agreement about what happens to toys that aren't picked up?"
Be brief. "Use 10 words or less," says Nelsen. "One is best: `Toys.' `Homework.' "
Try nonverbal signals (planned in advance with your child). Example: An empty plate turned over at the dinner table is a reminder that chores need to be done before dinner.
For more advice, go to Nelsen's Web site, www.positivediscipline.com, or call 800-456-7770.
Jennifer Moses is the author of the recently published "Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom" (Simon & Schuster).
(C) 1999, Working Woman magazine
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate