We all want to raise happy, healthy children. There are many tools you’ll need in your parenting arsenal to accomplish such a herculean feat. One of the most important and difficult tools to acquire is a kind, firm and effective disciplinary strategy. You’ll know how to discipline like a pro after reading this article. Guaranteed or your money back.
Before I dive into the nitty-gritty of child discipline, I want to frame this discussion around an image with which you are familiar—a pyramid. Effective discipline is built on a foundation of rewarding and modeling behaviors that are desirable. The second block on the pyramid is to ignore and replace behaviors that are undesirable, but not dangerous, harmful or inappropriate. The apex of the pyramid is punishment, which is meant to address behavioral issues that are dangerous, harmful to the child or others or inappropriate. Children should experience the foundational block of the Discipline Pyramid (patent pending) most frequently with categories higher up being used more sparingly.
STEP 1: REWARD AND MODEL DESIRED BEHAVIORS
Building a foundation of rewarding and modeling desirable behaviors starts early, and you’ve likely already started building this foundation. It seems likely to me that you’ve been saying, “Yay!”, “Good job!”, and “Woohoo!” when your kids do something you want to see them do more frequently. You’ve probably also been clapping and smiling warmly at your kids for reaching their motor milestones and turning around to show you cool toys they’re playing with. In these instances, you’ve been rewarding independence, curiosity and sharing things with you that they think are important. Good for you.
You’ll notice that I’ve included modeling desirable behaviors in this step. Your kids learn by watching you—monkey see, monkey do. If you want your kids to be healthy and happy, you should model exercise, physical activity, and healthy eating habits. Quit smoking. Quit watching so much TV. Go to bed at a reasonable hour, etc.
Now, that your kids are imitating you and all of your wonderful behaviors, your next step is to turn up the volume on your praise. Keep your eyes peeled for desired behavior. Your child is behaving just fine at least 90% of the time, but we over-remember the 10% of the time that we wanted to pull out our hair. This shift in focus will help you overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”. Humans are hard-wired to focus on the negative, so you have to actively look for desirable behaviors and recognize them as such.
STEP 2: IGNORING AND REPLACING UNDESIRABLE BUT NOT DANGEROUS OR INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIORS
Now, let’s talk about the second step on our Discipline Pyramid: Ignoring annoying, weird and undesirable behaviors that otherwise are not harmful, dangerous, or inappropriate. In order to accomplish this step, you’ll have to become a ninja at distracting and redirecting your child’s behavior toward more appropriate and less obnoxious alternatives and removing the kid from situations that are facilitating or encouraging the undesired behavior. The road to earning your distraction and redirection black belt is paved with bribery positive reinforcement (e.g., “If you wear your pants the whole time that we are at church, I’ll let you watch an episode of Peg + Cat when we get home.”).
This part of discipline, I think, is the hardest because it’s the most flexible and open to interpretation (Although, when I get to punishment, I’ll backpedal and call it the hardest, so basically I’m saying discipline is hard, but I think you already knew that.).
Trying to figure out what is okay for your kid to do and what is not can feel like a Catch-22. It’s necessary for children to engage in independent, self-guided exploration and play to develop into competent adults. Exploration and play, however, can be risky or dangerous.
Lucky for you, evolution has solved this Catch-22. I can assure you that your child is hard-wired to balance these two competing drives for exploration and safety by making calculated risks that factor in your availability and responsiveness if needed. Children attach to their parents to ensure that someone has their back when engaging in something new, exciting, and possibly risky. Your child will play more confidently if you are nearby, responsive and available if needed. You’ll see this evolutionary balance between exploration and safety when your kids checks over their shoulder and smile at you, making sure that you’re watching their back.
Note that I did not say that you should be hovering, directing the play, or saying, “Be careful!” every time your child blinks. Simply be there monitoring. If your child needs you, kindly take charge. In fact, strike the phrase, “Be careful,” from your lexicon immediately. It only sends your child the message that you are nervous, which will make your child nervous and more likely to get injured.
That being said, there’s a lot of leeway in what you decide is dangerous or inappropriate. Your choices will map out whether you end up in disciplinarian-berg or laissez-faire-ville. I don’t care which way you lean, but I do urge you to lean consciously. If you have a narrow range of behaviors that you consider appropriate, you are a disciplinarian. If you are more willing to look the other way, you’ll be laissez-faire. Please note that people will judge you regardless of which way you go, so just do what is best for your family.
Your definition of what’s dangerous is also important to reflect on and approach with conscious deliberation. If you are anxious, you may find yourself deeming nearly everything dangerous and correcting a lot of behaviors that are simple exploration. Anxiety can make you hypervigilant to possible threats.
Get your anxieties under control, so your kid doesn’t grow up thinking that the world is more dangerous than it actually is, which will make your kid a risk-averse adult with no sense of adventure—unless, your goal is to raise a wet blanket, but I doubt it. Getting your anxiety under control is so important, that you’ll find several helpful articles here, here, and here that I’ve curated for you to help you start exploring the issue on your own until you can get yourself professional help with a good therapist for you and your anxiety.
On the other hand, depression can also bias your ability to accurately perceive and respond to danger, making you hypovigiliant. Depression can make you unable to attend and slow to respond to your child’s needs for protection and comfort. Check here to see if you might have depression and here to see if it’s postpartum depression, which can manifest differently than major depressive disorder. Again, get professional help for depression; you can start your search here.
Now, before we move on to punishment, let me say one last thing about ignoring the weird and annoying but otherwise not dangerous. Kids are cute, funny, and inspiring. They are also weird and annoying. They will make you question why we, as a society, have determined certain things to be inappropriate, like wearing a superhero cape everyday. Kids enter this world knowing very little about social norms. Your job is to help reveal these to your child. Sometimes it’s important to conform; other times it’s not. It’s your job to help them learn to navigate this gray area too.
That being said, if you are going to stay sane, you have to pick your battles. You can’t possibly correct every obnoxious behavior your kid throws at you. Consider the capacities of your troops. Specifically, is your kid developmentally capable of doing what you want? Is your kid capable of associating behavior with a consequence? If you answered no to either of these questions, you cannot pass go or collect $200; you have to ignore, distract, redirect, or remove your child. If your kid is capable of both complying and associating behavior with a consequence, then you can correct (or punish) the behavior. Read more about this issue here, here, and here.
A critical part of this step is relying on natural consequences (the inevitable result of a child’s own actions) to teach your kid that life’s not all seashells and balloons. Natural consequences will help increase desirable and reduce undesirable behaviors without you having to be the disciplinarian! Your kids will also learn to regulate their own behavior, which is a critical component of you realizing your dreams of becoming empty nesters.
For example, if, in the car seat, your kid keeps throwing toys on the floor, the natural consequence is that the toy is on the floor and your kid can’t play with it. If your kid forgets his or her homework, the natural consequences will unfold at school. You are doing your child a bigger favor in the long run by NOT bringing forgotten assignments.
It’s critical that natural consequences happen within a kind and empathic family environment. Most importantly, never be mean (e.g., “Tough cookies, huh?”) or teasing (e.g., “You want this? This? Oh, you want this toy? You can’t have it.”) about natural consequences. Ideally, be as kind and empathic (e.g., “I know you are upset that you can’t play with your toy because it’s on the floor and you can’t reach it.”) as you can. It’s the combination of being emotionally supportive while your child encounters life’s natural consequences that will help your child develop into a competent, confident, and emotionally secure grown-up.
STEP 3: PUNISHMENT
We’ve arrived at Step 3: Punishment. Here’s where you will correct your child’s inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Remember, punishment is at the tippy-top of the pyramid because it should be used as little as possible.
Despite satirically mocking the idea of adopting a dog to prepare for parenthood, I have, indeed, learned at least one useful rule of thumb about punishment—as much as possible, reserve punishment for behaviors that you NEVER want your kid to do. For example, I never want my toddler to lick the electrical outlets—thus, it is and was a punishable offense. Your preschooler asking you fifty-eleven questions is not a punishable offense, however, because you want your kid to be curious and ask questions—you just don’t want it to be a two-hour miniseries event that occurs before you’ve had your coffee. Thus, the questioning should be addressed by redirecting the child’s behavior toward something more desirable (e.g., “I’ll give you a gummy bear if you play quietly in the living room for 30 minutes).
Punishment is also at the top of the pyramid because it is an advanced parenting skill. Punishment is complicated and difficult to use effectively, which is probably, at least in part, why you are reading this article. #AmIRight
Why is punishment so difficult to master? For punishment to work, it must include ALL of the following:
- occur immediately after the misbehavior
- be intensely aversive, yet brief
- be logically connected to the misbehavior
- be inescapable, and
- be replaced with an alternative appropriate and safe behavior that you reward.
For example, if your kids are riding their bikes without a helmet, you must catch your kids in the act of riding without a helmet, then immediately take away bike privileges until the next mealtime. You may NOT cave and let them ride the bike before that meal! The next time your children ride their bikes wearing the required helmet, shower on some praise for wearing the helmet.
Despite how simple I just made that seem, I’ll be the first to admit that effective punishment is a difficult skill to master. After all, I developed the above punishment plan while on my quiet, sunny deck while I sipped coffee and my baby napped. Actual punishment, however, happens a lot like warfare—you are exposed and without backup in the battlefield (read: grocery store) and a preschooler tank suddenly appears.
It’s difficult to execute an effective punishment because your child has just done something inappropriate or dangerous, which means you are likely embarrassed or nervous. This emotional arousal will make it difficult for you to quickly and calmly think up a punishment to enforce immediately that is intensely aversive, logically connected to the misbehavior, inescapable, and replaceable with an alternative appropriate and safe behavior. Add to this that you’ve just spent at least 3 years of your life calmly putting up with your kids’ weird, annoying behaviors, and you’re probably sleepy.
Thus, to me, effective punishment can feel a lot like trying to decide which mutual fund to invest in after you’ve woken up in a house with no coffee at 5:30 in the morning after spending $200 dollars on vodka at the Russian Tea Room the previous night.
This difficulty is why many parents snap at their kids, yell, or spank. What I just described above as the most effective way to punish a child is the pinnacle of parenting skills to master. This is your goal, but you also need to be gentle on yourself because you are human. No parent is perfect; thus, no parent is able to punish as I just described 100% of the time. To help you do your best and minimize the amount of time your kids have to spend in therapy as adults, you’ll need a more automatized punishment strategy to fall back on when you are on the parenting struggle bus. This juncture is where time-outs come into play.
Although I’m not crazy about time-outs because they are usually not logically connected to the misbehavior and the punishment involves isolating your child from you and the feeling of security and comfort that your presence provides, time-outs are light years better than losing it on your kids. Also, importantly, time-outs are really the only form of punishment that can happen with toddlers who are concurrently 100% lovely angels and 100% wild animals. Thus, you’ll need to have time-outs in your parenting punishment arsenal.
Here’s how to do time-outs: Immediately catch the culprit in the act. Remove the child swiftly and calmly to a designated time-out spot (I use a pack-and-play with my toddler because it keeps him still and he thinks it’s the absolute worst). Calmly state the reason for the time-out. Leave the child alone in the time-out spot (one-minute for each year the child is old is a good rule-of-thumb). After time is up, retrieve the child. Restate why the child went to time-out. State that the behavior is not acceptable. Explain and/or show your children what behavior they can do instead. If the child is upset, help your child resolve his or her feelings with kindness and empathic understanding. Then, engage the child in an appropriate and safe activity. Memorize this process because it will be on the test.
Notice that I have not listed corporal punishment, or spanking, as an appropriate disciplinary technique. Despite research clearly and consistently finding that corporal punishment is not effective and serves as a roadblock to healthy child development, most kids in the US are spanked.
Let me state for the record, as an expert in child development, that there is a general consensus among “us” that corporal punishment/spanking/assaulting children is bad for them. Corporal punishment increases aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental illness. Thus, corporal punishment is not good for kids and they don’t “need” to be spanked. This is a scientifically derived conclusion. This isn’t a debate in my field people. It’s simply a bunch of experts who have read the research and agree that spanking is just not good for child development. I get pretty annoyed hearing it called a debate because it’s as ridiculous as having a debate about whether it’s okay to eat paint chips or whether skunks exist. Seriously. I’m not being hyperbolic on this.
But, just to make my point, I will indulge in a teensy bit of hyperbole: Lobotomies used to be considered just fine. Eventually, science determined that lobotomies are horrible and ineffective. We have come to the same conclusions about spanking/corporal punishment. Thus, it’s not your opinion or belief that spanking is necessary, or okay—it’s your misconception. If you think it’s okay or even necessary to hit kids as a form of discipline, you are wrong.
So, here it is, in black and white: Don’t hit your kids. Ever. They didn’t “make you do it.” Your kids do not have you under an Imperius Curse because (despite my heart’s desires) Harry Potter is fictional. You are in control of your behavior. Nobody can make you do anything, especially children. My hope with this article is that you will feel empowered to discipline like the pros do it rather than how your parents did it because that’s how their parents did it.
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