Parenting pitfalls

Your most common discipline mistakes — and how to fix them

We’ve just pulled onto the highway when the screaming erupts from the back seat. “I called the DS first!” shouts Aaron, five. He grabs from his nine-year-old sister the hand-held game system we bought so they’ll entertain themselves — in other words, keep quiet — on the road trip north.

“Take turns!” I out-screech them. “Or no one will play for the entire vacation!”

My husband’s brow shoots up. Who am I kidding? We both know I’m not about to leap two rows of seats and wrestle for the toy. Nor am I going to deal with the fallout from banning it for the next week.

My kids know it too. They just keep fighting, as I sit strapped in my seat, fuming. Sound familiar?

Vancouver family counsellor Kelly Nault, author of When You’re About to Go off the Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids with You, says one of the biggest parenting myths of all time is that our discipline tactics will instantly change our kids. In reality, she says, many of the tactics we use either escalate the bad behaviour — the children feel you’re unfair and rebel even more — or teach them to avoid getting caught by (gulp) lying and denying.

To make sure your discipline strategies are having a positive impact on your kids, read on for how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Screaming your head off Each time you ask your son to hang up his backpack and he doesn’t, your anger mounts. Until out of nowhere, you morph into Mommy-gone-mad and your poor kid bursts into tears.

Anger is an emotion that surfaces when you feel helpless. It’s not a discipline tool, says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, Toronto therapist and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “You don’t teach your kids by frightening them.”

In fact, she says, when your child is scared, he likes you less and is actually less inclined to please or impress you. On the contrary, he just may resent you and act out more, or even lie to escape your wrath.

Take a time-out When you yell, your own inner child is having a temper tantrum, Nault says. And you are teaching your kids to yell when they feel frustrated.

So when your son starts shouting that he won’t clean his room — never, ever! — don’t unleash your fury. Nault recommends telling him you don’t want to lose your cool, so you’ll be back in a few minutes. Then find a private place to control your temper — bedroom, bathroom, wherever. If you need to vent, you can even turn on the vacuum to drown out sound.

By disconnecting from the power struggle, she says, you not only give yourself space to calm down and consider your next move, but you also leave your child with space to calm down and get to work.

Escalating punishments The first threat fell flat? Well, you’ll teach those screaming banshees by upping the ante: “No dessert after supper!” you yell. And when that doesn’t work: “Stop now or it’s early to bed!” Before you know it, you’ve made a list of threats you can’t possibly make good on, teaching your kids that your word means nothing. And to make matters worse, they’re still screaming.

When your kids don’t listen, it’s tempting to try to make them hear you by threatening one punishment after another, says Radcliffe, but all you’re doing is setting yourself up for a battle of wills — one that you’ll most likely lose.

Choose a consequence and stick to it You need only one carefully considered consequence to teach your kids their behaviour won’t be tolerated. But you have to make that consequence something you are ready, willing and able to follow through on — even if it’s the last thing you want to do.

“Consider your threat before you make it,” Nault says, “or you’ll be thinking: Please don’t test me!” That’s exactly what went through Nault’s mind when she told her sons to pick up their toys off the living room floor or she would donate them to a charity where other kids would respect them.

When her boys tested her by refusing to budge, Nault realized it was her move. “That was it. I threw the toys in a box destined for charity, while they begged and screamed that they were just about to clean up,” she recalls. But it was too late. As difficult and painful as it was, Nault had no choice but to show them she meant business. And her kids? “Message received,” she says. “They now clean up their toys at even the slightest hint.”

Giving reactive punishments Bedtime means your boy flips his lid — every night. He’s screaming that he’s hungry or begging for a story. But guess what? You’re beat. It’s lights out now, you say, or else it’s no TV tomorrow, a threat that only makes him wail harder.

When you’re at your wits’ end, taking away privileges seems like the only way to snap your child to his senses. But when he’s upset, that’s not a teaching moment, Radcliffe says. In fact, punishing an out-of-control child typically intensifies the tantrum.

Head off the problem Instead of punishing your child for his behaviour, you may be able to avoid it by planning ahead, Nault says. Since tantrums tend to spike around mealtime or bedtime, she says, a full tummy and solid sleep schedule work wonders. And once you figure out the trigger, you may need to replan the bedtime schedule — give him that apple earlier or brush his teeth before reading the book.

You should also take advantage of quiet “teaching” moments, when your child is happily colouring, say, to explain appropriate ways to ask for what he needs. He may be more receptive to the idea that getting what he wants doesn’t require screaming for it.

Transition times (“Get your shoes on; we’re going”) are particularly hard for kids who may be lost in their own world when we expect them to spring into action, Nault says. “If you give your child a 10-minute, then five-minute warning, he won’t experience that jolt when you announce it’s time to move right now.”

Name-calling No matter what you say, your daughter keeps leaving her dishes on the counter for you to clean. What are you, her slave? Let’s face it: She’s being rude, inconsiderate and just plain lazy. So you tell her that. But instead of carrying her plate to the sink, she bursts into tears.

Even if the label fits, don’t use it, Radcliffe says. Criticism, even if it describes her actions, sinks into her subconscious and affects how she sees herself. You may have said that her behaviour was mean, but all your child will hear is that she is mean and, even worse, that you believe that she is mean. And the fact is, tearing down her self-esteem will not help to teach her to be more responsible.

Target the good stuff Swap those critical labels for positive words that tell her exactly what you want her to do, Radcliffe says. “Choose a word that is opposite to how she is acting.” For instance, if she’s careless, suggest she be careful. Noisy? Ask her to play quietly. Bossy? Suggest taking turns.

Even though you’re using these positive words in a disciplinary context, your child is internalizing them and hopefully will grow up applying them to herself, Radcliffe says. Short-term, rather than being tortured by a barrage of criticism, she has a clear script for what to do right.

Playing the super-nag After two hours as stove slave, you call out to your children, “Supper’s ready!” (no answer) “Guys! Supper!” (silence) Now you’re flying upstairs in a rage: “Did you hear me? Supper! Supper!! Supper!!!”

Your children’s ears are perfectly fine, Nault says, but your constant reminders have actually taught them that they can ignore you — at least for a while. They have learned that you will nag louder and louder until the decibels become so high, they really have no choice but to answer.
Ask once and move on

As difficult as it is, give your children clear instructions only once, Nault says, and be prepared for that same old selective deafness. After all, they’re used to six reminders. But if you bite your tongue, they just may learn from the logical consequence of their lateness.

When they finally do make an appearance, they may find their peas cold, Nault says. She suggests telling them the peas weren’t cold 10 minutes ago when you called them, and leaving them with the job of warming them up. Chances are tomorrow night they’ll hear those plates touch the table, she says.

Reacting like an automaton Every morning, it’s the same old drama. Your daughter finishes breakfast, but when it’s time to head upstairs to get dressed, she starts whining that she wants to watch TV instead of going to school. It’s like a script she seems to have memorized. But consider this. Because you have a part in this drama too, she knows exactly how you’ll react: the same way you always do. Whether that’s by running to get her clothes, threatening her with no TV after school or launching into a full-out screaming match, bring it on. She’s good and ready.

Do the unexpected To derail a conflict headed for disaster, you should sometimes surprise your young child with what Nault calls a “distraction action.” Instead of launching into the same old fight, do something unexpected that makes the moment fun instead of frustrating.

Just when you’re looking up to the sky in exasperation, suggest something like “Let’s see how fast we can run up the stairs while holding hands!” Or ask, “Before getting dressed, how loudly and then how quietly can we say I love you to each other?”

With the anger deflated and a renewed feeling of closeness between you and your child, the drama is likely behind you, she says.

Playing good cop/bad cop When your son comes home with yet another D on his math test, you have had it. No PlayStation this weekend, you decree.

He is still in his room sulking, when his dad comes home and asks him what’s wrong. Now, after commiserating for an hour, they both agree that you overreacted. Hey, wait a minute! How did you end up in the doghouse when he was the one who failed to study?

Stay onside with your spouse It’s perfectly normal for parents to have different discipline styles and opinions, Radcliffe says. If your spouse had been home, maybe he would have simply reduced PlayStation time, rather than banning it outright. But contradicting each other just teaches your child that he can get out of jail by hiring one of you as lawyer.

Instead, talk to your child about the basic family rules and regulations, Nault says, and let him know that you support each other when it comes to enforcing them. Otherwise, your child will try to negotiate on every issue, from treats to curfew, just by pitting you against each other, sitting back and watching the fireworks. (For more on disciplining as a team, see Whose Team Are You on Anyway?)

Refereeing every fight The sobbing scream “Mommm! He hit me!!” gets you every time. You’re off the computer in no time flat, racing to one child with arms wide, about to banish the other to his room.

Chances are, though, no one needs an ambulance, Radcliffe says. In fact, your kids have probably been duking it out for 10 minutes, and will figure it out in another 10 if you stay out of the fray.

“Involving yourself in sibling fights just perpetuates them,” Nault says. Besides rewarding your kids with your undivided attention, you are robbing them of the valuable opportunity to learn to negotiate through conflict.

Teach tools to work it out At a quiet time, explain that when it comes to fighting, people have a choice, Nault says. Teach your child that she can tell her sibling she does not choose to fight and would rather work out a solution. And if the fighting escalates to the point where your child feels in physical danger, she should move to a safe place, like her bedroom, Nault says.

As for you, the next time your child tattles, ask what she’s going to do about it, then encourage her to communicate her feelings and try to work it out. Perhaps she can suggest that she gets the DS for 15 minutes, then it’s her brother’s turn. The fact is without you in the audience, you can bet they’ll find a solution themselves.

And don’t forget to notice when they do, she says. There’s nothing more rewarding then a little praise from Mom or Dad for a job well done.

One family’s fix

Gabriel Stone* could hardly wait for his first day of preschool, and his mom, Leigh, was excited for him. “He is such a social little guy — so co-operative, helpful and sweet,” she says. So imagine her shock when, a few weeks later, she learned that her first-born was not the angel at school that he was when he was at home.

“Every day, the teachers would report that he’d had four or five time outs,” Stone says. Presumably to get attention, Gabe, then 3½, was doing everything from pouring paint on the carpet to tearing down classroom decorations.

Embarrassed by her child’s antics and anxious that he would become a troubled student, Stone vowed to teach him a lesson. “I wanted him to understand that we would not tolerate bad behaviour,” she says. So each day he acted up at school, she would dock a special privilege at home — like a playdate or treat.

After about a month, the penalties seemed to work. But getting there was hard. “Gabe would come home holding his ears and sometimes he would run and hide so he wouldn’t hear my disappointment,” she says. By mid-November, when the problem seemed licked, Stone had to pat herself on the back.

But then Gabe started camp the following summer and she found herself facing teenage counsellors who were throwing up their hands because of that same old bad behaviour. Camp was one thing (it was over soon), but Stone started worrying that come September, there would be big problems in preschool again. So she called the school director in hopes that before September, the teachers would come up with some magical strategy. And they did.

The solution, it turned out, was simple. At the end of each day, the teachers would give Stone clear, visual feedback about Gabe’s day in the form of a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. And they gave Gabe a challenge. “They told him that after three thumbs-up in a row, he would get a reward, such as a one-on-one celebration lunch with me at a restaurant.”

As Gabe worked toward his goal, Stone noticed a change in herself. Now, instead of focusing on her child’s worst behaviour, she found herself actively cheering him on, encouraging him to do his best.

It may have taken two weeks to reach that three-day milestone, but after a wonderful lunch with his mom, Gabe somehow seemed to figure out how to keep calm in school. Now six, he still goes “a bit haywire” at the start of the school year, but his parents just offer that good old thumbs-up incentive — and voila.

Looking back, Stone realizes her discipline tactics were all wrong. With punishments, she was trying to scare Gabe out of his Mr. Hyde behaviour. But that behaviour, she now sees, is far from wilful. It comes from her son’s very real feelings of anxiety in new surroundings. And her punishments only make him feel more anxious about his ability to control himself when she’s not around.

Instead, all Stone needed to do was let Gabe know she knew he could do it, then reward him for his wonderful work. “It was all about building up his self-esteem,” she says. “Who knew?”

*Name changed by request.