A year and a half ago when I spent hours of every day pacing the floor trying to get infant Camilla to stop screaming when all I wanted was to sit down for a few minutes for the love of all that is holy, I thought about how happy I would be when the challenges of parenting became mostly mental and emotional rather than exclusively physical. I'm a cerebral person and I do well with mental and emotional challenges.
I was envisioning helping a preschooler learn to make friends, or a grade-schooler deal with homework frustration. I failed to consider the mental/emotional challenge that would come much sooner, and which is currently the biggest pain-in-my-neck part of parenting:
My parents were pretty awesome at the discipline game. For instance, every single time they took our family out for dinner, at least one fellow diner would remark on how well-behaved we children were. And yes, probably people had mentally lowered their standards when they saw the passel of us coming into the restaurant and were surprised that we behaved even passably, but still. We were well-behaved, and it can be credited to Mom and Dad.
In my mind, the thing that is most to my parents' credit is the fact that they made it clear to us that they disciplined us for our own good. I've known more than a few people whose parents communicated to them the message that it was important for them, the kids, to behave well publicly so that they, the parents, would look good. My parents were not like this. Yes, they wanted us to behave well in public because they wanted us to behave well everywhere, but disrespect and disobedience at home received the same response as disrespect and disobedience in public.
Like any kid, I was furious with my parents on many occasions for the penalties they enacted or the privileges they rescinded in response to my actions, but deep in my heart I always realized that they were right. More than that, I realized that I wouldn't really have wanted them to act differently, because without the motivation of their discipline I would have had the responsibility of molding my own character. As a mere kid, I was unsuited to do that. Stepping up and making sure it happened was one of the most loving things my parents ever did for me.
As a parent now myself, I really want to follow their example.
But what I didn't think about - I knew it, but hadn't consciously considered it - was the fact that discipline would have to start so early, before my child was rational or even functionally verbal. Camilla was only thirteen or fourteen months old when she started hitting us, dozens of times a day. We instituted a gentle response of holding her arms and counting to ten that managed to mostly eradicate the hitting fairly quickly, but during those days I was surprised at how exhausting it was to have to respond the same way every single time, so that she'd learn that the action always garnered the same reaction.
When I used to think about discipline I thought about discussing moral implications with my children, helping them to understand the meanings of their actions and become better, more loving people. But a toddler has no concept of those things. With a 20-month-old, laying the foundations of discipline involves the basic task of showing her that we mean what we say. And oh, is it ever exhausting. This morning we were playing outside and, moments after I'd told Milla that she HAD to wear her sun hat, she took it off and threw it across the lawn. I didn't want to put down my book and get up from my chair in the shade; I wanted to ignore what had happened. And for a moment I just sat there, but the inconsistency between what I'd said and what I was doing was dissonance shrieking in my head, so I heaved my lazy behind out of my chair and enforced my words. (Surprisingly, and unusually, Camilla did not respond by shrieking.)
I was kinda proud of myself afterward. That chair was comfortable, and the sprinkler had been watering my feet. Am I Super-Mom or what?
In all seriousness, I sometimes wonder if I'll actually enjoy parenting more as the physical challenges decrease (my. child. will. someday. sleep. through. the. night. repeat.) and the mental/emotional ones increase. Showing consistency with a pre-rational person is exhausting, to say the least. On the other hand, an older child will have more and better weapons for fighting back than our daughter's current technique of squealing and running in the other direction, a method that is far more amusing than effective.
This is all idle conjecture of course, and actually I find parenting in general to be far more fun and rewarding than it is difficult. I do, however, often take the easy way out: right now I'm waiting to see if Milla will eat the crackers she dumped on the floor behind my chair (what? as far as she knows, I haven't seen them) so that I can avoid the task of making her clean them up. Like I said, Super-Mom, that's me.