Ok, here are the rules…
- Pick your battles
- Don’t use too much force
- Have a matter of fact, kind but firm attitude.
- Use the most psychologically simple method as possible (K.I.S.S.)
Having guided four little people through baby and toddlerhood (now preschool and kindergarten), these are my four staple rules for disciplining. They really work!
1. Pick your battles.
This is so important. My kids are soooo lovable!! But they also have so many things wrong with them! Mommying wouldn’t be mommying without all the “don’t take from your brother,” “please pick up your jacket,” “don’t stuff that in your mouth,” and “leave the walls alone” that I do all day. In this type of environment, when amplified by 100 other corrections, multiplied by four siblings, and experienced every day, it is easy to lose perspective. That is why it is so important to take a step back, take a deep breath, and pick your battles.
Picking my battles has historically meant that I try to discipline things which 1) occur regularly and predictably, 2) are very upsetting to me, and 3) have visible ways of knowing when they are fixed. It does no good to discipline something that occurs infrequently, makes no real difference to your life, or carries only a vague sentiment of when it’s fixed. You have to pick something that fits all three criteria, at least for best results.
But if you use these criteria, I promise it will work! It will work for both you and your child because you won’t exasperate them and you’ll know when it’s getting better. It will probably have other implications that you like. You can pick any behavior you want, and you can employ this strategy equally well from older baby to kindergarten. Around eight or nine months of age, one of my first “discipline” areas was the high chair. For some reason, three of my four kiddos hated being sat in the high chair. They used to scream their heads off! So even though they may have done other things which drove me crazy, screaming their heads off in the high chair was 1) regular and predictable, 2) upsetting (and unsafe, if I was trying to get them to swallow), and 3) had a measurable goal—sitting in peace. Once I picked this battle, I had to be prepared to win. But picking a good one set me up for success. And once I got them to sit in their high chair, this had the unintended benefit of allowing me to sit them in other places with less of a fuss, including their cribs and carseats. Yay!
Baby battles which I have found to be easily winnable at the earliest ages (6-9mos) with a little discipline are: screaming/kicking in the crib, interfering with a diaper change, and touching something hands-off. (Methods vary). Food etiquette (no spitting, no biting) is also largely winnable as long as you are using common sense in when, what, and how much you’re feeding.
Toddlers and preschoolers respond to your picking battles too. In fact, if you are not progressing with your 2-4 year old, it may be because you need more discernment in your battles. You can’t get them to “listen to you” or “be good.” But you can train/discipline them so they stay in their beds, come when you call, not throw a fit, leave the light switches alone, etc. If you are just foraying into real discipline, try to start by picking the behavior that is most disrupting your life at the moment, and make sure it’s specific. Then, apply the discipline in a very lawful fashion every time you encounter that behavior (which should be predictable). The more consistent you are, the better results you’ll get. And it is easy to stay consistent as long as its regular, upsetting, and specific. People get into trouble when they try to fix something too large or too general. Discipline lawfully, religiously, but only in a small area. Then your child’s will will not be provoked or abused.
2. Don’t use too much force.
Abuse can occur if you use too much force. (Duh). Everyone knows about the danger of physical abuse, but emotional abuse can occur as well. Little kids are little!! They have little bodies, little wills, and little thoughts! You have to treat them as such, even though they are of course capable of producing big emotional ruckus and big emotional reactions in grown people such as yourself =) Unless the child is in imminent danger (i.e. running towards the street), always err on the side of using less force rather than more. You might have to repeat the discipline, but this is better than causing damage.
By “force” I mean verbal and non-verbal things such as the intensity of your voice, speed of reaction time, curtness of vocabulary, severity of consequence, physical adjustment administered, psychological effect intended, amount of time for consequence, etc. All these things are part of the correction and should be appropriate to the offense. If you have a quick temper, take a breather! Drama never works. Most toddlers respond better to understatement than overstatement. I call this the paradox of intensity—a bigger issue is corrected better with less force, while more force almost guarantees that it will occur again. If you do time-outs, shorter ones (30 seconds to five minutes) usually work better than longer ones. And speed and consistency are more important than emotional intensity.
But beware of underreacting as many moms do… your kids just won’t get the picture that they have actually done something wrong if you are Mrs. Sweetie-Pants. Emotion and intensity convey part of that picture, so use it wisely. Don’t feel that being syrupy or stoic (i.e. playing child psychologist) is more moral. People are emotional creatures and toddlers need to learn correct emotional cues, including faces, tone of voice, gestures, etc. If you don’t teach these things because you think they’re evil, your kids are going to have problems with others who expect them to respond appropriately to their non-verbal cues.
So how much force do you use? Trial and error is really the best teacher here because only you know what your child needs. If he doesn’t have enough fear, you need to create a little. (Just a little!). If she is negligent, you need to call attention to the pattern. If he is sensitive, you need to dump on extra acceptance during the process. But don’t usurp the learning process with your own zeal. Allow the child to develop his own inner drama instead of watching yours. Obviously more aggressive kids need more force and sensitive kids need less. Some kids need talk and some kids need action. But usually actions speak louder than words, especially for boys, and especially for 1 and 2 yr olds. For strong willed children, usually the law of paradoxical intensity comes into play… less force or more space will prompt a better reaction. I have noticed, for example, that my toddlers responded better to a simple warning (“close the trash can please”) and my turning away from them as if I trusted them to do it—rather than a “no-no!” and my eyeballing their every move. No-no’s and eyeballing get you into a power struggle very quickly. On the other hand, when it came to protecting my siblings from one another, in a physical situation, I found that using quick, curt intervention (“Absolutely not!” while I came close to them) worked best as a deterrent… as if I was showing them that I would always be firm in protecting/preventing a victim.
Just FYI, gentle physical contact such as a hand on the shoulder, stooping down to their level, or touching the part of their body that got them into trouble (i.e. the hand that hit) is often very effective. So is coming closer and talking quietly, as opposed to yelling across the room.
So more force does not always produce faster results, although sometimes it does. That’s why trial and error, plus intuition, is important. The more appropriate your force, the better chance you have of results, so readjust as the results come in. If you are getting a strong or a broken will, you are using too much; if your kids ignore you or mock you, you are using too little.
3. Retain a matter-of-fact/kindly attitude.
Different parents have different feelings about their kids’ misbehavior. Some absolutely can’t stand it and blow their lids (maybe not externally but internally), and others really couldn’t care less (i.e. as long as they’re not killing each other, it’s fine). You want to strike a balance. You have probably witnessed parents disciplining their kids in ways that make you cringe: whiny, out of control, guilt-inducing, snippy, dramatic ways. Always examine yourself first before you turn on your kids.
Another way to say this is, discipline is by the Golden Rule. When you get corrected, how do you want your authority to treat you? And over what types of things? I think it is safe to say that most correction should be firm but kind, and befitting of an adult. You should always discipline in a kind and matter-of-fact way that shows your child you respect him as a person but he simply cannot repeat the misbehavior. Don’t get entrenched in the discipline process, feeling emotional about it. And don’t take away love, scold, manipulate, guilt trip, whine, or be vindictive. And also don’t feel guilty about disciplining! American culture is notoriously guilty about every confrontation and discomfort they cause in their children, which is probably what makes our kids so neurotic. It would be better to discipline unhelpfully–as long as it’s kindly–and be confident, than it is to not discipline because you’re insecure.
I think the key to this principle is that your EMOTION is not what makes the discipline work. So don’t use it as if it is. The appropriateness and consistency of the consequence is what makes discipline work. So use the amount and kind of emotion that will best expedite the message that your child can’t repeat his misbehavior. At least 75% of the time, a firm but kind expression will do it. If you have too much negative emotion, that message will not be expedited. Your child will simply feel unloved. Or she’ll think, “Mommy is mad.” What you want them to think is, “I did something wrong. I better not do that again.” That requires the right type of emotion, and the right intensity as I mentioned already. Especially when you’re dealing with something that is regular and predictable, that drives you crazy, you want to make sure you can retain your kind but firm delivery or else it will be bad for everybody. You’re going to be doing a lot of disciplining in your life, so get used to it! Being kind and firm help you stay in control, developing good habits. It will let the child process his or her own mistake without feeling threatened personally. And you want this because the more they feel threatened, the less they will process. And the less they process, the more they will see you as the problem instead of their behavior; they will avoid you or be sneaky because they’re afraid of being found out. You don’t want this. You want their deeds to activate their own conscience.
4. Keep the punishment as psychologically simple as possible.
Ok, I know this is a forever long post. But it’s an advanced subject. I’m really big on keeping the punishment as simple as possible because all these psychological things the experts think up assume a mature, sensitive, adult conscience which your child doesn’t have. You really don’t need more than a couple tools. Remember KISS: Keep it simple, stupid!
In my house, the most common tools are physical intervention (i.e. removing a trouble-maker from the situation), and consequences. Some consequences are appropriate to the crime, like returning a stolen toy back to the sibling. Others are logical, such as not getting to read another chapter of the bedtime story because it took too long to clean up and get PJs on. I find that intervention and consequences are the most effective, especially for my boys, because they provoke the most thinking about causality… “I took it, so I had to give it back,” or “I need to go faster so we can read more Winnie-the-Pooh.” The more my kids can realize that A causes B, the more they can master their actions. The more they realize that a bad A causes a bad B, but a good A causes a good B, then the more focus is taken off me and onto what they’re doing. Which is the whole point!
Experts today make a big deal about other forms of discipline. According to them, chastisement or spanking is child abuse, so most people don’t feel comfortable with that option. So in the spirit of being more sensitive, experts invent method after method: offering rewards, bargaining, time-outs, naughty-seats, child-directed rules, choices, charts, incentives, avoiding “no,” elaborate word constructions, etc. I believe there is a time and place for creativity, but in general I have found it unwise to rely on these more psychological methods. Toddlers and preschoolers are simply unable to be motivated by them consistently. It is one thing to give a child a sticker for doing a good job on something, or to encourage positive character development. But it is another to expect a sticker to be a deterrent force—to assume kids will be motivated away from bad things by it. In most discipline situations, a young child knows what they should do but are physically or emotionally unable to make themselves do it. Psychological methods are too mature for little kids because they require too much self-control. I believe that intervention and consequences are more likely to teach a child about what they are doing wrong, and provoke considering an alternative. By more succinctly teaching causality, they help a child gain self-control so they can rely on it consistently when they’re older.
Other psychological methods which are not so expert are also sometimes erroneously invoked. Normal parents find themselves asking their kids questions, conversing or convincing, negotiating, even bribing their children or making victimizing statements as if that will motivate them to good works. Be aware that while a smart preschooler can understand most of what you’re saying, appealing to them for whatever reason isn’t going to work reliably. You may get one or two wins, but talking or reasoning with your little one is generally going to fall flat. Save that for the teenage years.
Also, try not to punish your child. Punishment is sometimes confused with consequences, but it is distinctly different in that it seeks to impose a penalty (often unrelated) for bad behavior, usually with scolding or threatening… taking away the TV, not letting her go to a party, going to bed early, etc. Punishment is usually done out of anger and it makes even a young child bitter. Taking away the TV is all right as a consequence if the crime was playing with the buttons on it or saying a bad word from it. Going to bed early is an appropriate consequence if the crime was refusing a nap. But just randomly punishing or penalizing a young child is not going to connect the dots that her behavior, A, caused results B. It just communicates you’re mad. I have even seen parents take a stuffed animal away from a potty-training child for having accidents and not being “a big boy.” Some parents believe in rubbing their children’s noses in their dirty underwear or otherwise making the wet/dirty experience more unpleasant. These punishments are obviously inappropriate. And they don’t instruct. You never want to condition your child as if they were a pet, and you want to remove privileges sparsely, only as they relate to crimes exactly. If you put your mind to it, I am sure you can think of more constructive consequences for your little one’s most frequently broken rules. This is what good teachers do in their classrooms. Try to keep punishment out of it altogether.
All in all, discipline is about creating the type of experience your child needs to have in order to change his/her behavior. From a rational standpoint, this means picking a small, specific battle and applying a fitting and lawful consequence until the behavior is extinguished. From an emotional standpoint, this means finding the right amount of force, maintaining a positive but corrective attitude, and keeping things simple. If you can manage these things, you will have much success in disciplining as well as a not-so-bad experience in the process.