Personal Integrity Takes Discipline
It was 8:30pm and the household was in full-tilt bedtime ritual.
This meant a 20 minute sequence of bathing, teeth brushing and related tasks, protracted by 40 minutes of interruptions, stalls, discoveries of forgotten homework, protestations of lunch contents and choreographed silliness designed to divert the focused attention of the Parentals. The tumult seemed to finally be winding down when my son catches me at the doorway of my room. He’s neatly pajama’d, scrubbed to bright-cheek cleanliness and his hair is carefully parted flat (except for the stubborn cowlick that hints at his fabulous outside-the-box spirit). I peer down at his tiny frame and my eyes land on an unfamiliar, rigidly serious expression. “Dad,” he deadpans, “I need to talk to you.”
There was a resonant familiarity to the encounter. Except for the roles seeming decidedly reversed, the air hinted at a looming heart-to-heart discipline session.
Disciplining a child is a delicate art. Boundaries are crucial for a child’s well-being and development, but how to define and enforce those boundaries requires forethought and care. Except in extraordinary circumstances, I never crashed down hard on my children when they crossed some behavioral line; instead of spirit-crushing invective, I wanted them to know my wife’s and my discipline originated from a place of thoughtfulness and love for them. For me, it was vital they felt assured of our high regard for who they were and who they were becoming. Always.
But on this evening, however, our whole discipline philosophy would be upended by my third grade son.
“Uh. Okay. Sure, buddy,” I fumble.
I steal a peek over his head and exchange a glance with my wife who’s looking at me with eyebrows raised. He takes my hand and deliberately walks me into my room and sits me on the bed. The irony of the role reversal is not lost on me. He then exits the door and politely urges his mom to venture elsewhere into the house so he can “talk with dad.”
“Of course,” she obliges, and scurries off.
He re-enters the room, closes the door, strides over and stops in front of me, staring at me with intensity for several very long and somewhat alarming seconds.
I am clueless. I have no idea what’s going down here, but there is intentionality and focus like I’ve never seen with him. If he was like 16 or 17 years old, my panicked mind would have been running ahead to all sorts of possibilities. But he’s 8! And I’ve just been dragged into my room, nearly thrust onto my bed and now locked into a stare-down that’s stirring up uncomfortable flashbacks.
He climbs onto my lap, wrapping his legs around my waist and still looking me in the eyes. He is not a typically cuddly kid, so I’m thrown off even more by this.
Now, it doesn’t take a trained therapist to detect that he’s definitely troubled, so I try to ease his stress by assuring him, “buddy, you can tell me anything. I’m your dad and I love you and I will help you get through whatever this is. I promise.”
That triggers it. He can no longer contain himself. In one single motion, he buries his face into my chest and in a sobbing moment of admission, blurts, “dad, I swear.”
Dad, I swear?
It wasn’t, “Dad I swear, dot.dot.dot.” There was no pause; just a period. This was a concise statement: “I swear.”
“What do you mean, son?”
Through his panting sobs he confesses, “I say bad words. On the playground. I try not to, but I just can’t help it when I’m with my friends.”
“Oh shit…is that all!?” I snorted.
No, I didn’t really say that. But the relief spreading over me said every bit of that. WHEW! I relaxed. I held him tightly to console him.
I wondered about this horrible guilt he had been carrying around that was stressing him into this sort of pre-adolescent breaking point. Swearing hadn’t been any sort of issue in our household so the guilt never came (at least directly) from his mom or me. But the poor kid was dying, here.
Since I had never heard him use foul language, part of me wanted to ask him what words he was using. I mean, what did swearing mean for a third-grader? Then I remembered being in third grade. Re-holster that question.
But here I am being usurped in my role — I’m the disciplinarian! Under normal circumstances, some teacher would have overheard boys being boys on the playground, my wife would have received the embarrassing phone call, and we would have put together a well-planned “conversation.” What the heck am I supposed to do now?
I kept my head.
Now, it’s pretty obvious this is not what you’d call a teachable moment — at least not in the traditional sense of that idea. The “Appropriate Language for the Playground” lecture is completely unnecessary at this point. That conversation had clearly been going on inside his head for some time and was eating him alive. But keep in mind this was all unfolding very quickly for me and I was being put on the spot here with no time to consult the wife. I needed to parent. Solo.
I kept my head.
It turned out that it was actually quite simple. It dawned on me that he had actually done all the heavy lifting of discipline so I was like the loving parent (in the familiar “good-parent / bad-parent” strategy) that comes in after a harangue and hugs and pats and soothes and restores.
So that’s what I did.
I cut him a bunch of slack. I told him that self-control would come in time; that he needed to keep working on controlling his tongue but not to hate himself when he failed; that I struggled with the same thing when I was in third grade; and that, ultimately, I was deeply proud of him for two reasons: that he wants to be honorable with his words and that he trusted me to hold him to that high-ideal. And for both of those, I had his back.
I could literally feel him decompress in my arms. In a few moments, he stopped heaving as a sort of secure peace about him replaced his agony.
Then he suddenly goes all earnest-like again and glowers at me with imploring eyes, “don’t tell mom, okay?”
I assure him I won’t. We sit together for a bit and I find something to say that lightens the mood some. When we finally emerge from the room, we find mom and sister sitting in the living room, pretending to be oblivious to some intense conversation going on between the men of the household. I address them directly: “We just had a little talk and everything is all good in the world. The talk was just between us guys and we won’t be discussing it anymore.”
I look down at him as we walk into his bedroom together. He offered me a peaceful, trusting smile and a barely audible, “thanks, dad.”
Recounting all this later that evening as I was staring at the ceiling in bed, I contemplated the thought that kids long for integrity — within themselves. What I mean by integrity is a life that is, well, integrated: one where all the parts or sides of oneself work in concert with one-another and none belies the other — a cohesion and agreement within. If you think about it, there’s security and a sort of peace — even confidence — that comes from really knowing who we are and knowing there’s consistency backing it. When something is out of alignment with who we strive to be, we can feel the wobble and it makes us uncertain.
It makes me wonder if perhaps it’s really only in adult life that we learn to live with our own duplicity. Where is it that we learn to toggle back and forth between different versions of ourselves, depending on the context and company we are in? Is this a coping mechanism that we adopt when we fail to live an integrated life? Where along the line do we give up on the pursuit of integrity and adopt (and grow comfortable with) a multifaceted personality? I have found at times that this can be a lot of work to manage.
When it comes to parenting, it seems we may do well to consider that our kids’ inner need for integrity may indeed surpass our own — and we should nurture and develop that in them before they learn the “art” of managing a varied set of opposing values and personas. I suppose this is why I believe discipline (in the training/coaching, not necessarily punishment, sense) is so crucial for kids and why experts get all excited about it. Well placed discipline should shed light on inconsistencies within a child’s integrity. They need guidance, modeling and correction to cultivate authentically integrated lives — not just with who they are, but with who they are becoming.
There are also probably times when our children should witness us parents casting that same light on our own inconsistencies; acknowledging fissures in our own integrity. It’s one thing to have those lapses crop up in our daily living, it’s another thing altogether to try and pass them off as somehow okay.
I was inspired by my son that evening. He was clearly in such need of discipline to help him attain a higher level of integrity that he stepped in and simply asked for it. He was obviously a little scared about how I might react, but to him, it was worth the risk — he wanted to become more than what he was seeing in himself.
I think most of us are probably scared of discipline. Normally, we want everyone to believe we have our act together so are a little frightened about how others might respond when they discover we don’t. We work the art of not getting called out and get cozy with the absence of most forms of discipline in our lives — a coziness that likely undermines the integrated lives most of us deeply long for.
Maybe we need to turn to someone we trust once-in-a-while, spill our guts and ask them to hold us to a higher bar. Or, maybe we need to start by finding someone we can trust like that?