So, you are Parenting: you have a structure of rules, and you have your focus lasered in on good behavior so that you can reward it appropriately. (If not, check out last month’s blogs on Rules and Rewards.)
But how do you deal with bad behavior? Of all the things we do as parents, this is the easiest to screw up. If we don’t believe in what we’re doing, we snicker and laugh—not convincing. If we’re not angry, we hate doing it; if we are angry, we sometimes go too far. We have to do it, or we will end up with spoiled children who, as adults, will have difficulty maintaining solid relationships and may never manage to have meaningful lives.
The American Academy of Pediatrics holds that discipline is a teaching opportunity, not a punishment. We will try for that, but we may not convince the kids.
Ahead of time, discuss discipline with your partner and have a structure in place. I can give you some guidelines, but you have think through your rules and decide how—given space and time for quiet reflection—you would like to react to some of the more interesting and creative behavior children will throw your way. When you are tired, stressed, and angry is not the time to decide what puni..—er—“teaching opportunity”—fits the crime.
(We never actually told our son not to cover the floor with water so he could slide across it in his bare feet. And as for cutting off all of his sister’s hair … Well, he has 2 year old twins now. Karma works.)
If you have trouble with authority roles, practice on each other. No smiling. Channel Smokey the Bear: serious, concerned, and confident.
You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Forgive yourself, apologize to your children, and move on. If you need to make it up to them, make your “learning opportunity” proportionate and relative to your mistake. Ask your kids what sort of punishment you deserve. Hopefully you fit in the time-out chair.
How Not to Discipline
There are a few dangers to avoid when discussing infractions with your children. The first is that if you allow the discussion to devolve into excuses, you risk turning your children into people who take no responsibility for their actions and believe they can talk their way out of anything.
Another is that the discussion can turn into an intimidating inquisition with the big people towering over the little ones. You want to improve their behavior, not destroy their confidence.
And don’t even consider giving a warning. They knew the rule, they broke it, and they know the consequences. What would a warning teach them? That they can get away with anything once? Craziness.
How to Discipline
When dealing with tiny people, of course, simple distraction and diversion will work. Pick them up, take them away from the neat burning candle, and hand them a book.
When they get old enough to understand rules, real consequences begin. No single consequence will work all the time; consequences vary with age, the personality style of the child, and the type of infraction.
Respect your children, get down to their level, and look them in the eye. Consider their points of view, but expect them to take responsibility for their actions. Explain why they are in trouble and what the consequences will be. Then do it. No exceptions, no waffling, no compromise. If they know that discipline is enforced every single time—and no amount of begging and crying will change that fact—soon you will have less begging and crying. I promise. If you sometimes let them talk their way out of things, you will have a battle each and every time, forever.
For little ones, usually a time-out is best. The standard belief is that time-outs work because they allow the child time to cool off and think about what they have done. Put the offending child in a chair in a corner alone and completely ignore him or her for as many minutes as they are old. The child can quietly contemplate their misdeeds. Hmm.
I think the truth is less pleasant and much more effective. Time-outs have more in common with traditional shunning than with quiet time. That little person has done something so unacceptable that he or she does not exist in your world for those few minutes. You are taking away the one thing that matters most to them in the world: your attention.
Time-outs: not so wimpy after all.
For a time-out to work, it has to be immediate (shocked looks help, especially for biting and hitting) and absolute. It does not have to be in a particular chair or corner. It can be on the floor right where they were when they decided to have a tantrum. You can even shut the door behind you as you leave. The point is to leave them alone, with no audience, no Mom or Dad, and no one who wants to be with them. The bad behavior will gradually go away because it gains them nothing and takes away something too important to risk.
Discipline by Karma
As they grow, some of their behaviors will have natural consequences. If your two-year-old breaks her toy by throwing it against the wall, she no longer has a toy. If your teenager doesn’t do his homework, he fails. If karma takes care of the punishment for you, your only job is to let it happen. No rescues! You don’t want them living in your basement at thirty!
Some consequences are logical. Your munchkin likes to slam their door? Take the door off the hinges and lean it against the wall. They won’t be able to close it for the duration. Horrors! Similarly, if they explore the wrong sites on the computer, they lose computer privileges. Forget their bike helmet? Walk.
Be sparing when taking things away from your children as part of their “teaching opportunities.” If you do it too often and they don’t have the opportunity or ability to earn the things back, you get resentment and sullenness, not success. Never take away something they need—food comes to mind. And never threaten to take away something you know you won’t enforce. If they need the computer to do schoolwork, the punishment (yes, I said the “P” word) could be that they have to use the computer in the kitchen where they can be monitored. If they can’t miss soccer practice without hurting the team, the punishment could be not hanging out afterward with their friends.
Frequently, the punishment can be simply taking responsibility for what they have done and making it right. If they steal a candy bar, going back to the store, confessing to the clerk, and paying for the item out of their own hard-earned cash is very effective. Simply being made to apologize can be excruciating, but it is the honorable thing to do.
Psychiatric experts say you should enlist your children to help decide the consequences for their actions. This is sometimes enlightening and certainly worth listening to, but in the end, it is your decision.
The Big Picture (the 10 Do’s):
- Never hit a child. That only teaches them that it’s ok for big people to hit little ones.
- Take away your attention for a time out, never your love. Your love they keep, forever, no matter what they did.
- Calm yourself first. If you act out of anger, you will regret it later, and you will need to be the one apologizing.
- Whatever you choose to do, do it immediately.
- The consequence should be relevant to the issue and proportionate.
- Criticize the behavior, not the child. What they did was bad—they are not bad, and you expect better from them.
- Don’t use guilt or shame; those tend to become internalized and suck all the joy out of life.
- No shouting labels at your progeny; labels stick and follow them around forever. It is impossible to forget that your dad called you stupid or your mom told you that you were a bitch. Children will live up to the labels we place on them.
- When possible, give them a way to earn back what they have lost. Rescue them joyfully from that time out, and put that toy where it can wait for them to settle down and do their homework.
- Last, don’t make the punishment last too long. Less than a day is generally best for most infractions. Much longer can make them disconnect the punishment from the crime.
How to discipline a teenager? And what to do when discipline just doesn’t work? Come back next week, of course!