A while ago I wrote about a little chap called 'Luke', who was pulling down the girls' pants, punching other children and generally being a holy terror. I told you about how I used gentle discipline techniques to break through his violent behaviour, till I got to the feelings underneath.
Here's a bit of a taste of what happened that day, months ago.
"...he struggles and shouts as I carry him over to the quiet area, where we can sit down. "Put me down! You're hurting my gizzards!" he yells, but I've been caught by that one before and watched him dance off laughing as I've let him go, fearful lest I be accused of rough handling.
Not this time. I know my hold isn't painful, I know I'm not being rough, though he's a well-grown, muscular boy and awkward to carry. I make it to the bench, sit down with him on my lap.
"I WANNA PLAY!" he shouts. "LET ME GO!"
His voice is loud in my ear, but he's not struggling. My hold around his waist is firm, but my hands are gentle.
"LET GO OF ME!"
"We need to sit here till you can stop talking with your hands," I say quietly. "It's okay to feel angry. But you need to say it with your mouth, not your hands. It's not okay to hit, and it's really, really not okay to pull the girls' pants down."
I stroke his arm silently till he stops yelling and relaxes a little, resigned to being kept here for the moment. I unfold his clenched fist and run it softly over the back of my hand.
"I need you to use gentle hands, like this," I say.
And I use my gentle hands to stroke his back as I hold him, trying to speak the message without any more words. He gets words thrown at him all day by the adults. He deflects words easily, staring boldly into your eyes while he goes right ahead doing the wrong thing.
But when I talk to him through my gentle hands, Luke starts to cry. Not angry tears, but great big heartbroken sobs. As he sits there shuddering on my lap, it's as though he shrinks back into his real size, his real age; he's not some monster, some oversized schoolyard bully towering over his peers. He's a vulnerable four-year-old child, confused and not understanding how to fit into his world."
(You can read the whole post here if you didn't already see it.)
I wanted to remind you of Luke today, because I know that sometimes we get so frustrated by trying to use peaceful discipline. Sometimes kids behave so badly that it seems easier to just let go of our own self-control and spank, or shout, or punish. Often it looks like that's working better, and more quickly- especially with repeat offenders.
But I have an update for you about Luke, and I think it's important.
Since the day I wrote that post, which was over three months ago, I haven't seen Luke. I've been too sick to work. Before that, I'd only seen Luke very infrequently- perhaps once or twice a month. I'm only the casual relief. I've had the most minimal chance to make any impact on his world, or on his way of understanding things.
I would have expected that that little incident would have faded from Luke's memory long ago. I would have expected that I had made no difference at all to him, in the long term.
But when I dropped in to that workplace today, to talk to the director about my illness, the very first person I saw when I opened the door was Luke. There he was, rolling about on the floor with some other boys, engaged in some ongoing and highly energetic play scenario.
And then he spotted me. He jumped out of those cushions, flew across the room and threw his arms around my legs. He hugged me like his life depended on it.
Gentle reader, this is not a child who greets people by hugging them. This is a child who gets off the bus and punches you as he walks by.
Of course, I just about cracked up on the spot. I've rarely been so surprised or so touched by a child's sudden display of affection. I pulled myself together though, smiled, ruffled his hair, had a quiet word with him and moved on to do what I'd come for.
Later, driving away, I started to think about what I'd just seen. This is a child from a terribly disrupted background. Dad's been in jail, mum's barely coping, violence is the most familiar mechanism he knows for dealing with big feelings. Yet when I walked through the door- a relative stranger, who'd had that one magic breakthrough with him so long ago- what came out of him was an unprecedented affectionate greeting.
And then I did break down, and I cried my eyes out. But they were happy tears, for once, in this time of great stress for me.
Perhaps he did remember that day when I met his violence with gentleness. Or perhaps, somewhere inside him, he just remembered a face and a feeling to match it. Perhaps he just saw me, and recognised that this is what love looks like.
Please, you have to keep believing in gentle discipline. You have to have faith, and try your hardest to be consistent and unflappable. You just don't know when that moment will come when a child crosses the threshold, and suddenly learns that a limit gently enforced can be a true expression of love.