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Why ‘Conscious Discipline’ Isn’t Working For My Son

The following was syndicated from The Dadding Hack for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

“It’s 11:31,” I text my wife. “Is Ms. Z still with us?”

Typically, it takes her 3 days or more to reply. She does a lot of racing around the campus of her work and doesn’t wear cargo-friendly clothing. Heaven forbid she carry her phone in her hand.

“I think so!!” my wife replies rather quickly.

You are always waiting for for the cliched “other shoe to drop.” On your head. And it’s not just any shoe. It’s a Herman Munster boot. Bonk.

Wha-? Cool. “Hooray?!” I text back, standing in my brightly lit bedroom about to transform from my at-home work clothes (cut-off sweat pants, t-shirt) to my office attire (full sweat pants, t-shirt).

don draper from mad men
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“Still at meeting,” she texts back, “but have not got a call yet *3 emojis of hands folder in prayer.*”

“I’ll take it as a win *silly-face emoji.*”

“Hahaha! Me too!”

This is what my life has come to. Texting my wife every weekday at 11:30 a.m. — a.k.a. lunchtime at Little Man’s preschool — to make sure our son’s teachers have not run from the building screaming. Afternoons there seem to be okay with our 4-year-old. Mornings? Eh, not so much. Lunchtime is the witching hour.

When Your Kid's School Is TerribleFlickr (Matt Preston)

One aspect of parenting that I definitely wasn’t ready for was the seemingly endless nausea. (“It doesn’t get any easiiieeerrr!“) Pretty much constantly. Like heat in Jamaica. Or bad drivers in Texas. Is Little Man’s principal going to call again to tell me he pushed someone? Again? Is he going to have another didn’t-make-it-in-time accident? Am I going to turn on CNN and see my son leading a low-speed chase down the freeway in his tricycle? As a parent, you are always waiting for the bigger explosion, for the cliched “other shoe to drop.” On your head. And it’s not just any shoe. It’s a Herman Munster boot. Bonk.

Of course, I do what any mature, reasonable adult would: I switch shaving lotions.

Switching shaving lotions is guaranteed to jumpstart your luck. It’s an old wives’ tale. Don’t look it up.

“There was a kitchen fire,” the teachers report, “and the sprinklers went off, and your son starting licking the floor because he said he was ‘thirsty'”

And maybe I wear my watch on my right wrist today. And put on my left shoe first.

This is your life now: bartering with the uncaring universe in the hopes that your phone doesn’t ring or ding.

The whole time, you imagine the worst. Like a bizarro version of the main guy in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Because every horrible outcome that you imagine — starting with a supernova and ending with a bad daily report card — will never happen, because we can’t predict the future. Hahaha! Only Ms. Cleo can! Idiot!

As expected, the one scenario you neglect to think of — “There was a kitchen fire,” the teachers report, “and the sprinklers went off, and your son starting licking the floor because he said he was ‘thirsty'” — is the one that happens.

Life. Cannot. Be. Wrangled.

When Your Kid's School Is TerribleGiphy

The best that my wife and I have learned to accept is: No news is good news.

The past couple of days have been, well, newsy.

After 2 solid weeks of exemplary behavior, Little Man has regressed. A couple of days ago, my wife got a call from Little Man’s preschool. Ms. A said our little dude bit his teacher (a first) and pushed a kid off a bike (a third or a fourth, sadly). Ostensibly for the safety of Ms. Z (and the other kids), Little Man was removed to Ms. A’s office. “He can’t stay here all day” was sort of how she ended the phone convo with my wife.

What if he gets kicked out of school? What if one of us has to quit his or her job to stay home with the boy full-time? What if he turns out to be the world’s youngest axe-murderer?

I picked him up and took him home. Fortunately, the next day was his next appointment with his play therapist. Why did we hire a play therapist? Because Ms. A recommended one. No prob. Done. D and I figured if we could get Little Man through the evening and the next morning — his appointment was at 2 PM — she and I would not be as mortified, or nearly as nauseous, as we were. What were we nauseous about? Oh, the usual. What if he gets kicked out of school? What if one of us has to quit his or her job to stay home with the boy full-time? What if he turns out to be the world’s youngest axe-murderer? These are only some of the fun places your mind goes.

Little Man’s 2 o’clock was precisely 2 hours after Ms. A, Ms. Z, and his therapist, whose name is Mr. C, met to discuss you know who.

Little Man had a wonderful morning at school. When I walked in to pick him up for his appointment, he and Ms. Z were dancing in the middle of the room to some Disney B.S. from a small boom-box.

When Your Kid's School Is TerribleGiphy

Have you ever gone to a friend’s or acquaintance’s house and — surprise! — they have 3 gigantic pit bulls? And to avoid being eaten by one or all of them, you play ball with the dogs the entire time you’re there? And the whole time, your eyes are bulging, and you’re sweating cannonballs? That’s kind of how I expected Ms. Z to look when I walked in, based on all of the real-life horror movies she’s starred in with my son. That, or like Spider in Goodfellas after he pops off to Joe Pesci. “You fuckin’ varmint. Dance. Dance!”

Ms. Z didn’t look terrified at all. From a distance, she could have been described as “happy.” Same could have been said for Little Man, who, upon seeing me, sang, “Daddyyy!” — as always — and ran up to me and gave me a huge hug. As always.

Having visited with multiple therapists over the years — ones for me, ones for my wife and me, and now ones for my son — I can say that I am getting real tired of being the smartest person in the room. (Er, the second smartest. My wife is usually there with me.) The whole point of being a therapist is to teach people stuff, not to learn from them. I’ve been teaching stuff to so many therapists over the past 2 years, I could probably adopt the “Dr.” appellation.

Little Man, Mr. C said, “doesn’t make eye contact, and when the other kids want to be greeted in the mornings, with a hug or a handshake or whatever, he wants nothing to do with it, and autistic kids, when they get upset, they flail their arms, like a bird,” *flails arms like bird, maybe goes on a little too long, might be enjoying it* “and he seems to prefer to play alone, and …”

Keep going Mr. C. After maybe a grand total of 10 hours tops with our son over the past couple of weeks, you are now convinced we are looking at an “upper part” of the autism spectrum.

This is your life now: bartering with the uncaring universe in the hopes that your phone doesn’t ring or ding.

I think I did a good job of: A.) Not interrupting Mr. C to tell him he was full of absolute horseshit and B.) Not laughing at him before stating the facts. Little Man loves being touched, snuggled with, held, kissed. And D and I have to distract him every time we walk past his old classroom on the way out of preschool. Why? That little guy wants to hug all of his old classmates. Three words. Cute. As. Hell. And intimate, too. You’d think he was the second coming of Elvis Presley and The Beatles all rolled up in one, the way his former classmates (whom he really misses, as he has informed my wife and me on numerous occasions) run to him to be embraced by and embrace him. They all line up, and like a blushing hillbilly bride doling out shrinkwrapped sandwiches at her fire-hall reception, Little Man dispenses all of his awesome Little Man-ness. One friend at a time.

Avoids eye contact? Not always. Any more than any other kid? Eh. I don’t know, but is that such a big deal? And flails his arms “like a bird” when he’s upset? No. He may wiggle and stomp, but he does not try to achieve liftoff. And plays alone? I don’t watch him every second of every day at school, but at home, he has to fight the urge to jump for joy when either his mother or I or both of us get down to his level and play with him. Happiness shoots from his eyes and his mouth, his fingertips and toes. The cutest thing is when he tries to pretend he doesn’t want to smile, as if he’s embarrassed to be as happy as he is that his two main people are on his wavelength.

He probably doesn’t play with the other kids at school, I said, because they’re probably fucking assholes, who take his toys.

“I didn’t want you to think I was suggesting he’s autistic,” Mr. C backtracked. “I just wanted you to know that” yadda yadda yadda.

No. I heard you. I heard you loud and clear. But I’m not going to make you feel bad about it and tell you how irresponsible your misdiagnosis could have been, because I am not an in-your-face! asshole.

“Even if he is in that upper register of autism or whatever you said,” I interjected, “this school is still going to need to learn to deal with him.”

When Your Kid's School Is TerribleFlickr (US Army)

Ah, this school. This school would have you believe it is the be-all-end-all of early childhood education. Conscious discipline is their thing, and while I definitely see the benefits (sacrificing short-term solutions for long-term gains, i.e. well-adjusted adults), I also have come to believe that it’s not a one-size-fits-all philosophy. For most kids, I’m sure it works fine. For other kids, including ones who spent the first year-plus of their lives in a third-world orphanage with four hernias and a partially collapsed lung and who upon seeing a bouncing ball for the first time laughed hysterically — when we first met our son, his idea of “play” was relocating toys from one part of a room to another — maybe a modified form of conscious discipline is in order.

Sacrificing short-term solutions for long-term gains sounds great. Except when it comes to Little Man, I guess, who has been a student at the school for less than a year total and in the conscious discipline classroom for only a couple of months.

And yet seemingly every day, my wife and I are made to feel as if he’s about to kicked out.

And yet seemingly every day, my wife and I are never given an encouraging word from his teachers or staff.

And yet seemingly every day, my wife and I are made to feel as if we are the most horrible parents on Earth.

If Little Man got into trouble at his previous preschool — the one from which my wife and I couldn’t wait to spring him to race him into his current, allegedly amazing preschool — the director would inform us of the problem, either by phone or e-mail, and then the director, my wife, and I would meet that afternoon or the next day. We would have a civil discussion, and then afterward, as my wife and I were on our way out, the director would never fail to tell us — never — something to the effect of, “It’s OK. You’re not alone. We will get through this together.”

When your brain is off, you can’t learn. When you’re running on instinct, you are going to make bad choices.

Oh, what I wouldn’t do to hear those kinds of comforting words again, coming from someone in charge at the school that my wife and I thought was so incredible and that we were so lucky to have in the wilds of North Texas.

The bright spot (yes, there is one) is Savannah. Little Man’s future behavioral interventionist. Why did we hire a super-expensive behavioral specialist? Because the principal of our son’s school said we should. “Do you have any recommendations or anything?” we had asked her. No, she replied. No, I don’t. We turned to Mr. C: “Do you have any recommendations?” No, he said. No, I do not. “Uh, thanks?”

But maybe if Ms. A and Mr. C had helped us, my wife and I wouldn’t have found Savannah, who is amazing and has credentials out the wazoo.

After talking to her one single time, I felt great. Basically, I did not feel like the smartest person in the room. She knew immediately what conscious discipline is, unlike Mr. C, who, in case I haven’t mentioned it, works for the same organization as Missus A and Z. Of all of the glorious, encouraging things that Savannah told us — after this one brief conversation — one really stands out: Conscious discipline will mean nothing for some kids — like Little Man — unless there is a behavioral component. What does that mean? Well, I looked it up. It’s kind of like discipline. Actual discipline. Crime-and-punishment discipline.

When Your Kid's School Is TerribleUnsplash (Instiaque Emon)

Perhaps the reason Little Man doesn’t act out at home but does at school is that he knows that at home, the big people, a.k.a. my wife and me, are in charge. At school, the distinction isn’t as clear. Instead of putting him in his place or offering him alternative play/learning options after he goes crazy, his teachers are telling him to breathe and whatnot. No, I want to shout at them. He wants to know where his boundaries are, and the more wishy-washy you are about them, the less secure — and safe — he’s going to feel. And the more he’s going to act out. As my wife and I learned from a good book (whose name escapes me) that we read before bringing LM home, life, to children, is like a dark room. To be able to guide themselves through it, they need to know where the walls — or boundaries — are. To do that, they must reach (act) out.

“With all that anxiety,” Savannah said, “nothing will ever get through,” meaning that kids who are anxious, who feel as if they’ve been left in charge, of themselves, their friends, maybe even their entire environment — might as well be, for as far as their little myopic perspectives are concerned — will spend every minute in survival mode, functioning mostly on instinct and turning their brains off.

When your brain is off, you can’t learn. When you’re running on instinct, you are going to make bad choices.

I spend the rest of the afternoon in celebration mode. Well, what passes for celebration mode for an early 40-something middle-class father. I work, go for a run, watch a little Sky News (CNN hits a little too close to home; so depressing), I read, I work a little more, do some chores, and I get ready for my family to come home. All the while Herman Munster’s boot hovers overhead like Polaris.

Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.