Wait! You Actually Discipline Your Only Child?

Well, it happened. My daughter misbehaved for another adult. This seems like an odd thing to say, but from babyhood on, I’ve been the “proud” parent of the “good” child who doesn’t do things like thrown public tantrums or bite her friends at playgroup. One time when I noticed my then-toddler beginning to show signs of melting down, I began to excuse us and get ready to leave playgroup. A friend commented that she was so glad to see that my kid does in fact have meltdowns like everyone else’s. This is crazy-making. So the point of this article is not that my daughter doesn’t do all the normal batshit crazy stuff that babies, toddlers, and preschoolers do. It’s that the tricky little thing doesn’t do them in front of other adults. Like her grandparents.

Anyway. My daughter’s preschool is in the same building that my husband works in. I was there working on a volunteer project with him when all of the sudden my daughter’s teacher appeared in the doorway saying, “I have to tell you what just happened.” She related that, at the end of free play, she had asked my daughter to join in clean-up time. My daughter resisted all attempts by her teacher to get her to participate in cleaning up. The teacher then told her that she would not be allowed to play in the block center the following day if she would not clean up the mess she had made with the blocks. My daughter said, “Fine,” and walked away. My response to the teacher was, “Oh. Sorry you had to deal with that, but we’re so glad she’s acting out with someone that’s not us. And that’s similar to what we do at home when she won’t clean up.” The teacher seemed a bit surprised, and I assumed that was because I expressed gratitude that my daughter was misbehaving. Gotta admit, that was probably an odd response.

However, I’ve learned something fascinating. Apparently, it’s fairly normal for only children to escape negative consequences for their undesirable behavior. To me, that’s totally backwards. In today’s hyper-parenting world where our children reflect our successes, failures, and the lived-out version of our unlived dreams, I would expect that only children have so many expectations placed upon them that their lives are just one big list of rules. This does happen for some only children. Only children tend to be closer to their parents (the family functions as a small, self-contained unit), and some parents become too tied up in their child’s success. Conversely, onlies often rely too much on their parents because of that closer-than-usual relationship. Other only children reap all the stereotypical “benefits” of being only children, including being coddled and spoiled. Why is this? Some parents are afraid that being, well, parents will ruin their relationship with their one and only bundle of joy. Some feel guilty that they are not able to provide a sibling for their only child and try to give their child their unconditional approval because of it. In the tighter family unit, only children are also given at least some say in the running of the family (vacation destinations, what and/or where to eat, etc.). Combine this with the fact they are often surrounded by adults, and you have a child who expects to be treated like an adult, not disciplined like a child. Then there’s the practical matter of not have a sibling around to point out “unfair” or inconsistent treatment. Matilda isn’t complaining that she got in trouble for not cleaning her room while Gertrude got away with not cleaning hers. Whether because we’re tired and just can’t, we didn’t notice, or we choose not to die on that particular hill on a given day, many of us parents are guilty as charged when it comes to inconsistent discipline. And of course, some behavior just may not be exhibited by onlies around their parents. Example: How often do I have to talk to my child about sharing? Not much. It’s not a frequent occurrence that I want to play with one of her toys. And we stopped going to playgroups when she was still young enough that side-by-side play was the norm. She moved from there to a cooperative preschool and playdates, where she is surround by other adults, any one of whom might help negotiate a conflict or impose consequences for misbehavior.

As the number of families with only children has been on the rise—especially since the recession’s start in 2008—can you imagine what it’s like to be a teacher or other adult who has to work with a population of children that has a reputation for being spoiled and undisciplined? Ugh. So, yes, I’m thrilled my child misbehaved (or more properly, that she acted her age) for another adult. It shows she’s human. I’m glad that the teacher provided a logical consequence for my daughter’s refusal to clean up a mess that she was perfectly capable of cleaning up. I’m equally glad that the teacher, my husband, and I all agreed that the consequence given was a good one. God help me, I don’t ever want to be that mom who has to complain about discipline strategies at school.

You know what, though? The most inappropriate response I had to this situation wasn’t expressing gratitude for my daughter’s defiance. It was that, after the teacher left, my husband and I both looked at each other and shook our heads as I said, “Wow. I feel really sorry for Mrs. Teacher when she has to enforce that one tomorrow. Poor woman is going to have a hell of a morning.”