They let you bring a baby home, just walk out of the hospital with her. They assume that you’ll figure out how to feed her, how to clean her, how to teach her to talk. Maybe you’ve never taught a human how to do those things, and so you feel nervous and overwhelmed. But you discover the baby is cute when she’s learning. She smears pureed sweet potatoes all over her head and makes silly faces in the bath and grins when she says “Dada.” Your heart melts. It’s great fun, helping a tiny human do cute stuff.
What’s not so fun is teaching a human how to not do shitty stuff. Once your child learns to speak, she will learn to say “no” and “doody-head” and “I like Mommy more than you.” She will look at the dinner you spent an hour cooking and say “gross!” She will ask if your forehead is covered with lines because you’re so grumpy all the time. She will repeat the bad words you say while watching football.
She will say these things and look at you, waiting, thinking, what are you gonna do about it, bub?
At first, my wife and I only knew what we wouldn’t do about it. My wife’s parents spanked. Not for us. My dad tended to yell, “Goddamnit!” while throwing a medium-sized object at a wall. Hard pass.
It seemed the only way to discipline our daughter — and later, her younger brother — was the age-old practice of time out. For a while, it was quick and simple. Color on the wall? Time out. Push your brother off the bed? Time out. And the punishment could be proportional. Throwing scrambled eggs across the kitchen earned one minute of time out and 10 minutes of clumsy scrambled egg cleanup. Cheering for the Yankees earned 10 minutes of time out and 20 minutes of lecture about the importance of rooting for the underdog.
But our first child hasn’t been a baby for nine years. Have you ever tried to put a preteen in time out? It looks ridiculous, like a giraffe in a shopping cart. There she sits on the floor, nearly as tall as her mother, gangly legs criss-crossed, staring at the wall, fuming. And when she is released from her imaginary prison, what has she learned? Judging by the frequency of time out-threats, not much.
The power of time out, we found out, fades. What the hell are we going to do now? we wondered.
And then, an answer arrived, like a bolt of lightning burnt across the sky. Or, rather, like an email in the inbox. It was from our daughter’s teacher, and it contained a class charter. A collection of statements about how the students wanted to feel in school, and the actions they could take to help each other. In part, the charter read: “We will make people feel safe by keeping our bodies to ourselves. We will practice honesty. We will give compliments. We will look for ways to be a positive thinker. We will make people feel respected by looking at the person speaking.”
My wife, who works in human resources, read this and mentioned the charter her department had created, which contained a lot of words like “expertise” and “task” and “resource.” Tragically, it did not include the words, “We will enjoy never-ending pizza at every staff meeting.”
The universe, or at least the subset of the universe concerned with buoying student and employee morale, was offering a solution to the problem of toothless time outs.
And so we hashed out a family charter, one we felt would offer a list of considerations to which all members of our little unit should follow.
Here is the first draft:
We want to be happy. This was our son’s idea, and happiness for him is a bottomless glass of chocolate milk. But I think the larger goal we’re aiming for is to make time to do fun things together. Whether that’s Uno or impromptu dance parties or building a snowman, we want to enjoy each other’s company — without distractions from smartphones or hair-pulling or fart noises (except when fart noises lead to happiness).
We want time alone, to be ourselves. Let’s be honest. There’s only so much togetherness a person can take. Time alone is necessary to achieve group harmony. That means our daughter is allowed to tell her little brother she doesn’t want to play if she’d rather sit in her room, thinking her preteen thoughts. Likewise, when Daddy is pooping, we don’t knock on the door every 15 seconds to complain that our sister won’t play with us.
We want to be heard. This was our daughter’s idea, and she was primarily interested in creating a forum to share both sides of a sibling argument. To me, this idea is as much about identifying patterns of behavior — noticing a feedback loop of careless action that culminates in name-calling. We want other people to hear what we say, but also notice what we haven’t found words to speak. This is how I’ve come to realize that my wife’s habit of taking two hours to drink her cup of coffee on Saturday mornings is not a peaceful protest of my ambitious plans for adventure in the great outdoors, but rather a luxurious expression of relief at the brief escape from her morning commute. I’ve stopped trying to hurry her along, and she’s stopped calling me names. Mostly.
We want to be respected. To borrow from my daughter’s classmates, that means we look at the person who’s speaking. We listen to expectations and act accordingly. We don’t roll our eyes out of our skull or huff and flip our hair over our shoulder. We give everyone a chance to share their ideas. Unless their idea is to cook Brussels sprouts for dinner. Then we ignore their idea and substitute a better one. Pizza!
We want to be safe — emotionally and physically. This means that when our sister is wearing roller skates, we don’t push her down the driveway. More importantly, it means that we can feel safe in being honest with each other, i.e. “You scared me when you pushed me down the driveway”, without fear of ridicule or dismissal. And it means we can share bad news, or a worry that’s weighing on us, or a mistake we regret without being judged.
We want to be loved. Snuggles and hugs, that’s all there is for it.
Those are the expectations. The discipline part comes from holding each other accountable to the charter, to its description of the kind of family we want to be. The methodology of discipline is talking — speaking up when we don’t feel heard or respected or safe. Talking means we won’t let things fester, that we’ll avoid the currently all-too-common scenario of accumulating little slights that build up day after day until suddenly a Lego sculpture is smashed to pieces and stomping footsteps march down the hall to a slammed bedroom door.
The discipline is for grownups, too. Implicit in this charter agreement is that my wife and I submit ourselves to cross-examination by the children. That if we eat more than our fair share of cinnamon rolls (a mistake I regret), we are required to apologize and make amends. That if we lose our tempers and yell, we are obligated to hear how that made the kids feel.
Building on that idea — that the parents are as accountable to the children as the children are to the parents — we are admitting to our kids that when it comes to deciding consequences of bad behavior, our first decision is not always the best decision, that we will listen to their experiences of receiving punishment, consider their appeals and make changes in the future. In governing by charter, we are admitting that we don’t have all the answers. That we are, still, the couple who was allowed to bring two babies home from the hospital without any experience in helping them become human.
That’s a scary thing to admit, but they were going to figure it out sooner or later.
The best thing about a charter is that it’s malleable. It can be revised and adapted to adjust to the rough edges of life. I have no doubt that the first draft above will not be the working document we use in five years. And if the whole experiment collapses, who knows, maybe we’ll reach into the HR bag of tricks and pull out a performance improvement plan.