I Discipline My Baby

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It’s true, I discipline my baby. That might sound harsh. But let me clarify — I don’t cane him, or spank him at all, actually. I don’t put him in a corner, or worse, a basement or closet, though I could potentially see why some Manhattan parents *might* think it’s ok to give baby a time out in a closet, after all many NYC bedrooms are as big as closets, and in fact, might even technically *be* closets, and putting a baby in his room is often like putting him in a closet. As for a basement, who in this city has that kind of luxury?

It’s something I thought I wouldn’t have to even think about until much later: how do I discipline my baby? What is the correct way to discipline a tiny human? Wait, I should be disciplining a baby?

I mean after all, who disciplines a baby? Babies can’t do things “wrong” or “bad”, can they? Do they even understand when you say “Hey, don’t bite mommy’s face, it hurts and I don’t like it. I make you 3 meals a day and change your stinking diapers and you’re going to bite my face? What gives, child?!”

Of course it’s tricky, because a part of me wants to go wicked stepmother on my beloved child when he attacks the soft part of my jowls with his very capable many strong young teeth. But I do hold back, somehow.

When I make him a meal that the day before he finished all of and he whips it off his high chair eating surface with the agility of a competitive frisbee player, I feel feelings in my heart that my brain has to work very hard to manage. But I do manage them.

When I take him over to a friend’s house and he grabs their daughter’s eye, I do feel embarrassment. So far, there have been no doctor bills passed onto us, so at least there’s that.

My style of discipline is pretty bland. I separate my son from the toy or environment where he is playing and I get down to eye level with him. I explain that what he did is not OK and that he can’t do that. At a year and change, I highly doubt the kid understands me. But one day, he will. Like a puzzle, this life we live, all the pieces eventually begin to plug into the empty spaces, often just as we were wondering what the blazes was supposed to go in that spot, anyway?

My mom had a more hands on approach to discipline, literally. She is Italian and was raised in a different era and in a very large family and went to Catholic school. I did not usually appreciate my mom’s style of discipline, which included mommy pinches resembling bee stings, elevated voices and spankings which resulted in much confusion on my part. I was sad my mommy was mad at me, but I never really knew why, and getting in trouble didn’t seem to help my behavior much, for many years. Like, until 2012.

I decided years before my son was born that I would not use physical discipline with any of my kids. In addition to everything I’ve heard and read about the way harsh words and actions can warp a young child’s growing mind, and how I really want no part of that kind of effect on my beloved young son, the types of discipline that were common when my overwhelmed mom was bringing up three feisty young girls are probably mostly illegal or at least frowned upon today. Not that she was inappropriately violent or anything, but spankings and having my mouth washed out with soap were almost daily occurrences for awhile. And look at me today. I’m a dirty mouthed comedian and dirty folk rock musician. I throw the F word around like a volley ball. My point is, the discipline didn’t really make much of a difference, anyway.

I take my son to classes, parties, playgrounds and activities often — pretty much daily. We encounter friends, strangers, kids from a range of ages and backgrounds. And he smacks all of them in the face. I don’t know why he does this, but it’s his thing right now. Sometimes it appears as if they are in his personal space and he’s trying to get them to back up. Other times it seems like they took something away from him and he is showing his disapproval. My cat swats at him when he gets too close to her, and my friend observed that his face smacks resemble feline swipes. She thinks he is learning bad behavior from his grumpy older sister, Miss Puss.

He also likes to bite, sometimes very hard, and again, I’m not sure why. He doesn’t talk yet, so I can’t ask him what is going on and he can’t voice his opinion, which I think exacerbates the biting. I’ve internally bounced around the idea that since he can’t say what’s bothering him, he shows it in another way — with biting and smacking. When I announce that it’s bedtime, he will usually bite me or smack me in the face; his way of saying, “No, I’m not done playing!”

I talk to him a lot. I tell him that it’s OK to feel angry but that it’s not OK to bite or smack people. I try to have regular conversations with him, especially during the hitting episodes, though of course it’s one sided and I’m doing all the talking. I say he can use words to explain how he feels, if not today, then someday, but he can’t hit or bite, ever.

I remember being a kid and biting people. When my mom’s boyfriend came over when I was about 4, I used to sit on his foot and bite his calf. I don’t remember why I did that, or the emotions attached to it. I don’t remember if there was anger, or mischief or playfulness associated with the mouthful of leg I was, I can only surmise trying to dislodge from it’s rightful place. Maybe I felt threatened because I somehow knew whoever this bro was would be taking my mom away from me, if only for a little while. 5 minutes or 5 hours, it was too long for her to go. For some reason, I hated when she would go out on dates or with her friends. It felt threatening and scary. I didn’t like sharing her.

But with my son, it doesn’t feel like he’s being territorial around me. As often as he smacks other kids, he smacks me. It feels like he’s disappointed or experiencing anger or something else. He also bites his sweatshirt collar and chews on it. Some light Googling has uncovered the idea that I might have a “chewer” on my hands, and this biting me and others business could be somehow linked to that. Chewing is apparently something some kids do that may be rooted in a sensory perception type issue or it may be an OCD thing or just a way for kids to let off steam. I am not going to worry about it yet, I’ll see how he does in the coming months or so. Perhaps he’ll find something else to bite besides people, or stop biting all together. Maybe he’ll grow out of it, the same way some kids grow out of pacifiers, which, by the way, he never really cared for.

His dad chewed on his sweatshirts too when he was a kid and I chewed on pencils, incessantly. I chewed the erasers to smithereens. It was a habit I held onto for many, many years. I also bit my nails down to the quick until well into my late 20s or early 30s. Nail biting deterrents didn’t help. I also remember being younger and loving to chew on rocks. My teeth show the fall out of those appetizers today. At the beach, I’d often enjoy the feeling of crunching a few grains of sand between my teeth. I read that chewing on things that are not food can be a sign of PICA, which is kind of a maybe somewhat mental condition where you chew on things that are not food, like on that TV show where people eat couch cushions and laundry detergent, or it can be a sign of malnourishment as well, for example, if people are lacking in, say, iron, they may chew on or eat things that their body senses might be rich in iron. Mother nature! She’s so weird and cool. And in fact, I was iron deficient for much of my life (anemic) and my son is also currently a bit low in iron, though now he is on iron drops, however, I feel like the chewing has gotten worse in the past weeks.

I doubt my son has PICA, and his iron deficiency is now being handled with the drops, so I think the biting and chewing is a symptom of something else. I think it’s a physical manifestation of the fear and anger that he can’t yet express. At least, that’s what my instincts are saying about it. I mean, he can’t bite people and smack their faces forever — can he? Don’t answer that.

If my theory is correct, then once he begins talking more and can communicate better, he should be able to talk out his feelings better. And I won’t spend entire birthday parties apologizing to strangers and wanting to disappear multiple glasses of wine, which by the way, does take the sting out of both embarrassment and a surprise smack to the face.

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Jessica Delfino

Jessica Delfino

I write about life with 1 husband, 1.5 kids, 1 cat, at times funny. www.Twitter.com/JessicaDelfino Bylines: New Yorker, The NY Times, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s.