Broken Cookie Discipline

This post was inspired by the discussion about discipline on the Emerging Parents blog

In about 2001, I went to a workshop led by Patty Wipfler of the Parents Leadership Institute, now Hand in Hand. It was about dealing with children and their emotional outbursts. Two things have stuck with me over the years.

First, that one of our goals as parents should be to raise children, including boys, who are not afraid to have an emotional life. I don't mean that I expect my children to continue having temper tantrums indefinitely; that would be an immature emotional life. I want them to recognize their emotions and express them appropriately. Including sadness, anger, fear, wonder, and the whole range of happiness.

This meant that I had to think about what are appropriate expressions of anger. Hmmm. If I’m teaching my child, “no hitting, no yelling, no cussing,” what else is there? My husband and I had to talk about how we express anger and about what we would tolerate in our children. We have two sons who are very different. One of them has to be encouraged to express his anger in any way besides tears and the other has to be restrained from hitting.

We try to help them take turns talking when they're upset. We try to help them use words to explain how they feel. We try to model and encourage asking for what you want or need, not just giving orders.

We try to offer acceptable-to-us solutions: kicking your brother is not okay, kicking an empty paper grocery bag around the kitchen floor is. (Ok, I didn’t think that one up, but I recognized it as a good option when my younger son tried it out.)

We have come to tolerate a certain amount of yelling. It’s a middle ground that can relieve angry tension without hurting anyone. Now, in the elementary school years, we are working on letting them work it out between themselves, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s peaceful enjoyment of life. Mine or our neighbors.

We also recognize their need to go out and throw rocks off of hills and kick balls as far as they can and run, run, run. These can be expressions of a whole variety of emotions: anger, joy, and wonder. Learning to physically express your emotions (appropriately) is important for boys and girls.

The second thing I remember is what Wipfler called the Broken Cookie scenario. You know, when you offer your child a snack, say milk and cookies, and you pour her a glass of milk but she doesn't want milk, so you pour orange juice, but she doesn't like the floaty things, so you say then just eat the cookie, but she doesn't want that cookie because it's broken, so you try to push the cookie back together and show her that it’s still a whole cookie but by now she's in tears and flailing on the floor.

Has this happened to you?

You think to yourself, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t fix the cookie; and besides, a broken cookie is just not that big a deal!”

Wipfler's insight? You're right. Don’t fix the cookie. It's not about the cookie.

It’s really about something else that your child probably can’t identify for you. It’s about all the other things that went wrong today (or this week, or this lifetime), from your child’s perspective. He’s been holding it together through all the times he was told no, or the legos wouldn’t fit together, or the block towers that fell down, or the big brother who wouldn’t play with him. And now the broken cookie is just the straw that breaks his composure completely.

The answer isn’t to get him another cookie. It’s to let your child have the tantrum as long as it’s safe and private, and let her cry it out. Tears have some chemical property that carries stress hormones out of the body, which is one of the reasons we feel better after “a good cry.” The key is to not get caught up in your child’s emotions, but to remain calm and slightly detached but still visibly present. Listen to what your child is saying. Don’t take it personally. Be prepared to offer a hug when it all winds down. But don’t offer another cookie.

The discipline part is learning that you don’t get another cookie just because it’s broken. Discipline includes learning when and where it’s okay to let it all out. You don’t have to let your child cry it out every time. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s okay to jolly them out of it or remove them from the situation. You don’t have to let them just cry it out in the grocery store or in front of your mother-in-law who already thinks you’re too permissive. But the emotional health part is that we all need to let it all out from time to time.

My husband and I still occasionally look at each other when our children’s reaction to something is completely unreasonable and say “oh, broken cookie.” Then we can take a deep breath, step back and look for solutions to the bigger problem, like trying to go too many places in one day or not enough outside time, or hunger/tiredness/whatever.

For religious parents, I think it’s important to draw the connection that God’s unconditional love for us doesn’t mean we always get another cookie. Shit happens. Cookies break. So do hearts, cars, and careers. It’s okay to cry long and loud sometimes, even if we don’t know exactly why.

Do we remember and can we teach our children that God will still be there when we’re done? Calm and maybe a little detached, but present nonetheless? And just sometimes, God offers a hug when you need it.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my! This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today! We have had many "broken cookie" scenarios in our house lately. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to let it play itself out when we are trying to get out the door for work/that meeting I am clerking/etc.

A corollary that a coworker taught me is the Wrong Rock syndrome. This is a workplace analogy that applies at home, too. You're standing in a boulder field and your (fill in relationship type) asks you for a rock. You hand him/her a rock and they say, "Wrong rock." You hand them another and they again say, "Wrong rock." This happens over and over again without your being able to get any useful information about what qualities they are really looking for in the rock, probably because he/she doesn't even know him/herself.

11/30/2007 11:42 AM  
Blogger ef said...

Ok, maybe this is sad, but I needed this and I don't have kids.

I'm still working on the "broken cookie" thing myself, sometimes


11/30/2007 12:53 PM  
Blogger Liz in the Mist said...

My trick is--doing it during TV time (during my shows that I do watch) and also keeping some in my purse since I live near railroad tracks and often get stopped for 5-10 minutes!

I will pray for you and I hope your Holiday season and you and your wonderful family are well!

11/30/2007 2:34 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Another key is at what point near the end of the tantrum to move in and jolly him or her out of it. Now that they've had a chance to express themselves. And it's time to move on. I have a shorter time limit, I admit, but as long as he's had some time to fuss, it seems to work okay.

-- Chris M.

11/30/2007 3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I call this "asking for limits." My kids, especially the youngest, sometimes needs a "reset" and she asks for it by intentionally asking for limits to be set. Sometimes it's easy to see and it's very rewarding to be able to recognize it and get the tears flowing early and freely, usually with a good long stretch of quiet self-directed book reading. Crying is such a wonderful healing mechanism.

11/30/2007 10:36 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Kathleen, ah yes, I know that wrong rock scenario too.

One of the things I learned about letting your child tantrum all the way through is that you only have to do this once in a while to get the basic effect. Like Chris says, sometimes it can be short-circuited. But not always. On the way out the door, I think you can just be grateful that he's still small enough you can just pick him up and move him when you really need to.

Pam, honey, we're all working on our own broken cookies overreactions. Well, I shouldn't speak for other people. I am still working on it too. I've found that, when I know I need to cry, but I'm not quite in tantrum mode, a little bit of Anne Lamott can get the tears flowing. Either Traveling Mercies or Operating Instructions seem to work best.

Paul, it's true - the limits are important. Wipfler talks about just stepping in, without harshness, but clearly saying, "I won't let you (throw/hit/hurt) that." Then physically following through, as firmly as necessary but without aggression. When I can do that, it works. But it takes my best effort to do it. Alas.

12/02/2007 12:03 AM  
Blogger grey said...

I had the same response as Pam - no kids, but still a very useful set of thoughts. I definately have to reminder myself the next time dropping my car keys sends me into tears!

I have a difficult relationship with a co-worker who sometimes seems to explode for no reason. Not that I want to infantilize her in my mind (I struggle against this, actually), but I think that the "broken cookie" concept will help me look for what's really going on instead of being upset or irritated by what she is directly expressing.

Robin, thank you for another thoughtful and beautifully written post!

12/02/2007 10:55 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...


I'm a big proponent of helping kids (and adults!) label feelings as part of the process of moving through those feelings that might keep us stuck.

Sometimes, when I have been spending time with children who I know well enough and who trust me a little bit, I'll use these other strategies:

1. Ask the child what color the feeling is and where the feeling is in her or his body. Sometimes the child is willing to "blow it out" until it's gone. This allows children to become aware of images and body sensations.

2. For older kids, asking what the feeling looks like, or what it might say if it could talk, also can bring forth some information.

3. As the child is moving through the feeling, and especially as time is winding down (like, it's time to head back to the big group where others are waiting), I might say, "Okay, we've got 2 more chances to get as much of this (anger, sadness, yuckiness) out as possible. Would more blowing (or whatever) help?"

4. After the expression is done, I take time to appreciate the child for sharing, and if I think there's a big change, I'll ask the child of she or he feels better and remind the child what we did.

5. At some point during this whole process, I also usually look for a way to share with the child a time when I felt the same way: "Yeah, I remember when I couldn't get the toy I wanted, either. I was really mad for a long, long time." Sometimes the kid will ask me what I did then, when I was so mad.

Kids want to be adults so quickly because they see all the privileges adults have--sitting on big chairs; using real dishes; staying up late. But sometimes they need to know that we still have the same emotions and needs that children do.


12/03/2007 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love that suggestion of the "broken cookie scenario". It strikes me that although so many people react very badly to a child doing this, they are more understanding of it in themselves or other adults.

For instance, when my parents separated when I was sixteen I did not react badly at all. I cried just once or twice, even after my dad moved out and my mom, well, I stopped seeing much of her and when I did she was generally not in top condition. Then one evening about two months after their separation was announced, I went to make myself a sandwich, and there was no bread in the breadbox. I burst into tears, locked myself in my room, and had the worst cry of my entire life. Naturally I knew it wasn't the empty breadbox that had thrown me into my "tantrum" (it could easily be called that), and I allowed myself to "cry it out".

I've never had anyone sugggest that it was unreasonable for me to have reacted that was "to an empty breadbox", or that I should not have been "allowed" to cry out all those emotions. But a lot of people don't draw the line to children and accord them the same understanding, which is sad, I think.

12/12/2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Grey, thanks for your kind words!

Liz, I like the ideas for talking about feelings. Thanks.

Erica, I think one of the problems with young children is that their worlds are so frustrating that they can have tantrums like this every day, and they usually coincide with the parent's reaching the end of his/her rope too. Which is why it's so hard to do this - it requires conscious behavior on the part of the adult at a moment when our lizard brains have taken over both parent and child.

I also think it was pretty mature of you to know that it wasn't the breadbox that threw you into the tantrum. Many adults are not aware of why they feel so crummy; why their kids/coworkers/other commuters irritate them so much sometimes.

My personal breakthrough on this topic in the last ten years is to realize how much sleep or the lack of sleep affects my ability to respond appropriately. And lack of sleep seems to go hand in hand with parenting toddlers. When I am Queen of the Universe, things will be different!

12/12/2007 11:17 AM  

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