My Authoritarian Upbringing Made Me Afraid To Discipline My Kids

“Look, I can’t always be the bad guy,” my husband expressed, exasperated as once again he had to raise his voice at our four-year-old son and haul him off to his bedroom to calm down. At the climax of a massive temper tantrum, our son had hurled random objects within his reach over something that seemed minute to us but was apparently rage-inducing for a preschooler. He had held his ground when asked to pick up said objects.

Mere minutes later, our little guy had reappeared in front of me, ruddy cheeks with a faint trace of tears in his eyes, and turned on the charm. “Mommy, I love you so much!” he said with an impish smile. I couldn’t help but respond with a hug with a big smile.

“See, he always runs to you after he gets in trouble,” grumbled my husband. “I need you to back me up.”

“OK, OK,” I relented. “I’ll try to be firm.” I totally got that we needed to be on a more united front when it came to discipline. And spending 24-7 with each other due to our daycare closing for half a year due to the pandemic only made the issue more urgent. Truth is, it wasn’t so easy for me to find the balance between nurturing and setting limits.

You see, I was raised in an environment in which I was afraid to speak much of my childhood. My immigrant dad took Asian “tiger parenting” to an extreme, ruling over his family with an iron fist. It was drilled into me that absolute obedience was expected and that the expression of emotion, especially those negative, was forbidden and considered selfish.

When my son was born, I promised him that I would nurture him to the greatest extent of my abilities and ensure that he feels loved and valued every moment. I wanted him to enjoy a relatively carefree childhood, learn to assert himself, and grow to be a well-balanced adult equipped to succeed in any field. “I want his childhood to be the opposite of what I experienced,” I explained to my husband.

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I’ve found immense fulfillment in caring for our son and enjoy heaping affection and encouragement on him. Determined to give him free agency in everyday decisions, I often consult him on which playground we should visit, what we ought to eat for lunch, and what games we would play. I’m happy to play the “first matey” to his captain in our pretend pirate games and be the student to his “coach” when we play basketball. I’ve made every effort to build up his “self-esteem,” a mystical Western concept that had been out of reach for me through my own childhood.

“Self-esteem — how superficial and meaningless,” my dad had scoffed when I suggested that I sought to instill it in my son, not in the inflated sense of the word but a healthy level. For me, despite an Ivy League education and MBA, my wavering sense of self-esteem meant that I was unable to progress in approximately half of the jobs I took on, resulting in job hopping that lasted through my 30s. I finally landed my first senior leadership role after a very deliberate effort to convince myself of my abilities and project confidence.

But I could still barely bring myself to raise my voice or utter a harsh word to our son, even when he was at his brattiest. Seeing the look of shock and hurt on his face the few times I managed to harshly scold him shattered my heart and triggered me, bringing back memories of how deflated and voiceless I had once felt.

I became aware I was becoming an indulgent parent. But it seemed like today’s parenting conventions affirmed my parenting style. At preschool, the teachers always “redirected” the kids when they showed bad behavior and were not allowed to punish. I read how even time-outs were now considered traumatic for children.

For the most part, our son seemed reasonable relative to his age group and threw tantrums on an infrequent basis. But when he raged, he did so with a frightening force that resulted in him delivering shockingly hard blows with his little hands and fists. A few times when we made him calm down in his room, he hurled nearly a room’s worth of toys and even furniture at the door. After the maelstrom concluded, we opened the door to find the bedroom completely disheveled and our son on his bed glaring at us.

Admittedly, I was concerned. I doubted that teachers would cater to his emotions once he reached kindergarten the next year. I didn’t want him to epitomize the “only child syndrome.” More critically, I needed to prepare him for the real-world, one that is fraught with challenges, disappointments, and detractors, but also one that presents boundless opportunities.

I’m happy to report that in recent months, we’ve made progress as a family. Avoiding yelling whenever possible but not beating ourselves up when we find ourselves raising our voices, my husband and I try to stay calm and firm when we need to intervene. We are doing our best to explain to our son the ramifications of his behavior and give him the chance to reflect on and convey his emotions once he’s calmed.

It was actually our four-year-old who helped craft the approach. After one particularly bad tantrum that led to much emotion on all sides, I could tell he continued to feel out of sorts hours later. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” I asked gently. “You seem sad.”

“It made me really sad when daddy yelled so loud,” he expressed earnestly. In this incident, I had responded in my typical way, fading into the background while leaving my husband to assert authority.

“What would you like us to do instead when you’re being really bad?” I enquired.

“Just tell me to breathe and calm down and tell me how I emptied your bucket,” he suggested earnestly, referring to the popular children’s book that describes how each person has a bucket of happy thoughts that can be spilled and refilled. I was impressed by his maturity in offering up such a recommendation, which confirmed to me that although young children are challenged in managing their emotions, they can also possess an ability to reason that we often underestimate.

We are increasingly approaching discipline in a way that works for us — a way that I believe to be democratic and emotionally intelligent while also teaching, guiding, and setting healthy limits. My husband and I have just about made it to the point at which we are approaching discipline as a team.

The entire concept of discipline no longer induces a high level of anxiety within me. Perhaps I could even thank my authoritarian upbringing for driving me to be so cognizant of the various parenting styles and their implications. And my husband is pleased to be able to play the “hero” in our son’s words rather than the bad guy.

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