What do I do when my baby throws food from his high chair?
How do I make my three-year-old stay in her bed after I say good night?
Why does my 13-year-old freak out every time I ask him to lift a finger around the house?
These questions have multiple potential answers depending on a variety of factors — including the child’s age and temperament, the circumstances and the parents’ values and beliefs. Books, magazines, parent coaches and TV nannies offer us various techniques and tricks to try. However, while discipline fads come and go, some core truths about raising children hold true. Here are five to consider.
Discipline is about you, too
Think about how much better a parent you are when you’re in a good mood. Everyday annoyances don’t bother you as much and you’re better able to think of smart, non-confrontational ways to head off discipline problems. “Tell you what, dear. I don’t think Spot wants a haircut just now. How about cutting some pictures out of these old copies of Today’s Parent?” But when we’re tired or upset, those A-level skills go out the window.
It’s also true that if our child’s behaviour worries, frustrates, embarrasses or angers us, we may overreact.
Parent educator and author Barbara Coloroso recalls a family dinner where her older sister’s two-year-old was the only child present. “Tommy was mashing his potatoes with his fingers, and we all looked at my sister Joan like ‘God, what kind of manners does this kid have?’” Coloroso recalls.
Feeling the pressure, Joan barked, “Tommy, stop it!” Then Grandma cut in. “Why? Every one of you kids played with mashed potatoes when you were two.” She turned to Tommy. “Let me show you what you can do with mashed potatoes.” She picked up a glob, squeezed it through her fingers to make little worms and encouraged Tommy to do the same.
The point here is not that we must all respond to toddler food play like Coloroso’s mother did. But the key factor in the mashed potato incident was not Tommy’s behaviour, which was normal for his age (see Keep your expectations realistic), but the pressure Joan felt. That pressure could easily have pulled her into an unpleasant and most likely fruitless battle over a behaviour he would eventually outgrow (see She’ll probably outgrow it).
If you’re in a bad mood, exhausted, overburdened or in need of support, recognize that and deal with it, rather than relying on a discipline technique as the answer.
Some discipline problems are not about kids being “bad,” “manipulative” or deliberately provocative, but a poor fit between the situation and where the child is at developmentally. The classic example is baby/toddler proofing. Babies put things in their mouths, so a baby in a setting where she can get at all sorts of things she shouldn’t put in her mouth equals a behaviour problem. You’ll spend your time taking things away from her and dealing with her ensuing frustration. You can fix the situation by removing the unsafe objects or putting her in a safer place.
A key element of effective discipline is looking at the big picture, and part of that is where your child is at. “If I’ve got a kid who’s dead tired and hasn’t eaten and I’m going grocery shopping because that fits in my schedule, then I’ve got a behaviour problem,” Coloroso explains. “Same thing if you take a preschooler to a fancy restaurant. I always say if they can’t find a high chair fast, you’re probably in trouble.”
We likely know this already, but we need to remind ourselves regularly. We’ve been so conditioned to think of discipline in terms of punishment, consequences, verbal directions or otherwise correcting the child, that it’s easy to overlook ways to fix the situation.
According to Coloroso, many discipline problems stem from parents expecting children to do things they are not developmentally ready to master yet. Consider sharing — a life skill parents ardently want their children to acquire. Toddlers are not developmentally ready to share, take turns or wait. That doesn’t mean you can’t start talking about sharing or looking for teachable moments. But if a parent asks, “How can I make my toddler share?” the answer is, you can’t. So, since nothing is wrong with your child, the task becomes finding a way to live with the reality (minimize and defuse conflict over toys and turn-taking) and gradually encouraging his behaviour in the right direction.
What fools us is the variability of children’s behaviour. Toddlers will occasionally share and wait with seeming patience. The odd one will do these things somewhat consistently and earlier than his peers. That can trick us into thinking that our toddler could share consistently if we worked on it hard enough. But that’s unrealistic.
How do you know when your child is ready? You figure it out gradually through trial and error, observation, checking in with other parents and nudging him toward the desired behaviour.
Even when developmental readiness is not an issue, you still need to make sure your child really knows what is expected and how to do it.
“If you want her to tidy up her room, have you taught her how?” asks Coloroso. “Where do the toys go? How much are you willing to help? Do you expect military, bounce-a-quarter-on-the-bed perfection or reasonable order?” Similarly, if you want your teen to be in by curfew, is there any flexibility? Can she negotiate being late under certain circumstances (for example, a late movie) and does she have a plan for getting in touch with you if she knows she’s going to be delayed?
“It’s critical to have an idea about what’s age-appropriate and what’s ability-appropriate,” says Coloroso.
Most of the behaviour that bugs us from day to day is mischief and mistakes. And a lot of that stuff resolves over time as children mature, acquire more self-control and understand more about acceptable behaviour.
This doesn’t mean you do nothing. Just don’t expect instant results.
You can, for example, set the environment to manage and minimize the problems stemming from your three-year-old’s predilection for scribbling on everything she sees. Coloroso recently had some young nieces over to visit and she put a big sheet of paper up on the wall for them to draw on.
As long as you don’t let them get the idea that a wall and a sketch pad are one and the same, sooner or later most kids see that people colour or draw on paper and that’s what they’ll do too — even if your discipline efforts are less than wizard-like.
Likewise, though sibling rivalry can last for ages, most children lose interest in tormenting their brothers or sisters at some point. That’s not to say they should be allowed to pummel each other or that sibling bickering won’t bother you or you should never try to stop it. But, Coloroso says, “the next time your children fight, the first thing I want you to say to yourself is ‘They’re normal!’ Your job as a caring parent is to teach children how to handle their conflict non-violently, remembering that conflict is inevitable — violence is not.”
One of the big conventional ideas in parent discipline speak is “be consistent.” But being persistent is at least as, if not more, important.
Obviously, if we go back and forth between treating jumping on the sofa as a capital crime one day and ignoring it the next, kids are either going to be confused about what we expect or learn to tune us out. At the same time, though, discipline involves all sorts of variables that make perfect consistency hard to achieve. Much of the behaviour change we see in children comes slowly. Some effects of our influence are so gradual that we don’t notice until we look back at the way things were a few months or years ago. That’s why persistence over the long haul is crucial.
But persistence can also be a trap. Coloroso sometimes meets people who are persisting when they should be trying something different. “People often say to me, ‘But you always tell parents, say it, mean it, follow through with it,’” she says. “Sure, but only if what you’re trying to do makes sense. If what you said was, ‘These toys are going to the Goodwill tomorrow’ or ‘You are grounded for six months,’ you shouldn’t follow through. Admitting that you made a mistake is part of being a good parent.”
The right kind of persistence is about not giving up. Whether your current efforts seem to be bearing fruit, keep teaching your children what is expected and keep intervening when their behaviour is harmful. Persist in showing that you care about how they behave and will work on it as long as you have to, yet all the while valuing and enjoying the person each child is right now.