When I was 14, I volunteered to work at Camp Ramapo in Rhinebeck. I walked into the director’s office thinking I was signing myself up for basically a summer of glorified babysitting, and ended up spending the next eight summers at a therapeutic residential camp for kids with special needs. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It was the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had — until now.
Because of the specific population being served, there was always a whole week of staff training that took place before the campers even arrived. All staff, from bunk counselors to lifeguards, needed to know how to talk to the kids, how to resolve conflicts, and what to do if a child was in crisis. We did team building, role playing, and sat through lots and lots of lectures. There were protocols, a special language, and dozens of behavior modifications to learn, things like how to make time outs effective or reward charts empowering. Of course, in the beginning, no amount of training could prepare you for the months that followed. But by the time I was in a supervisory position, I felt pretty confident in my ability to diffuse most situations. And the kids I watched during the year never stood a chance against my well-stocked behavior management toolbox. I was going to kick butt as a parent.
Fast forward eight years: It’s amateur hour over at my house. I may have been able to wrangle a four-year-old with special needs when I was all of 20 years old, but I got nothing on my own two-year-old. Everything I knew and loved about discipline — ignoring negative behavior, redirection, time outs, rewards and consequences — seems totally impotent in the face of my own chid. Maybe because she’s mine and so the fear of screwing her up somehow makes me a wuss. Or maybe I’ve read too many books about unconditional parenting and the price of praise.
Whatever the reason, I am not feeling very parental over here. And no one seems to have an answer; my friends are experiencing the same thing. So my question is this: Where is the line between gently guiding your child to make good choices and letting them walk all over you? I’m all for encouraging Coraline’s clear propensity towards independence and exuberant self-expression, but letting her be a free spirit who hits, puts herself at risk, and talks back isn’t consistent with my love for her — she’s better than that. I just don’t know how to show her.
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