Healthy Discipline for Children
Discipline for children is something that must be done to help them learn the right and wrong ways to behave. There are healthy ways to discipline your child though. These ten tips will help disciplining your child be a constructive experience they can learn from.
1. Get Connected Early
Discipline for children is grounded on a healthy relationship between parent and child. To know healthy discipline for children you must first know your child. This kind of knowledge resides deep in parents’ minds. You could call it intuition, but that term has a kind of mystique that confuses parents. (“How can I trust my intuition? I don’t even know if I have any!”) The term “connection” is easier to understand. With the high-touch parenting style called attachment parenting, you can build and strengthen this connection between you and your child, laying the foundation for discipline. Connected parents become their own experts on their child, so they know what behavior is appropriate to expect and how to convey these expectations. Connected children know what behavior parents expect and make an effort to behave this way because they want to please their parents. Together these parents and kids develop a style of discipline for children that works for them. We describe the tools for connecting with your baby and young child so that you can read your child’s behavior and respond appropriately, so the two of you can bring out the best in each other.
2. Know Your Child
These are the three most useful words in discipline for children. Study your child. Know your child’s needs and capabilities at various ages. Your discipline techniques will be different at each stage because your child’s needs change. A temper tantrum in a two-year-old calls for a different response than it does in an eight-year-old.
Know Age-Appropriate Behavior
Many conflicts arise when parents expect children to think and behave like adults. You need to know what behavior is usual for a child at each stage of development in order to recognize true misbehavior. We find discipline for children to be much easier with our eighth child than it was with our first child, mainly because we now have a handle on which behaviors call for instruction, patience, and humor, and which demand a firm, corrective response. We tolerate those things that go along with a child’s age and stage (for example, most two-year-olds can’t sit still very long in a restaurant), but we correct behavior that is disrespectful or dangerous to the child or to others (“You may not climb on the table”).
Get Behind the Eyes of Your Child
Healthy discipline for children requires understanding that children don’t think like adults. Kids try crazy things and think crazy thoughts—at least by adult standards. You will drive yourself crazy if you judge a child’s behavior from an adult viewpoint. A two-year-old who runs out into the street isn’t being defiant, he just wants his ball back. Action follows impulse, with no thought in between. A five-year-old likes her friend’s toy so much that she “borrows” it. An adult may stop and weigh the necessity, safety, and morality of an act, but a young child doesn’t.
Our son Matthew, at age two was a very focused child. He would become so engrossed in a play activity that it was difficult for him to let go when it was time to leave. One day when he was playing and it was time for us to depart (we were late for an appointment), Martha scooped Matthew up and carried him to the door. Matthew protested with a typical two-year-old tantrum. At first she had the usual “Hey, I’m in charge here” feelings and felt that she was justified in expecting Matthew to obey quickly and be willing to leave his toys. But as Martha was carrying the flailing child out the door, she realized that her discipline for children gauge was out of balance and she was not handling things in the best way. Her actions were a result of her need to leave, but they didn’t take into account Matthew’s need for advance warning and a more gradual transition. She realized it wasn’t in Matthew’s nature to switch gears quickly, even if we did have a deadline. He was not defying her. He was just being true to himself. He needed more time to let go of his activities. So she calmly took him back to the play setting, sat down with him and together they said “Bye-bye toys, bye-bye trucks, bye-bye cars,” until he could comfortably release himself from his activities. It only took a couple of minutes, time that would otherwise have been wasted struggling with Matthew in the car. This was not a “technique” or “method”; this disciplinary action evolved naturally from the mutual respect between parent and child and the knowledge that Martha had about Matthew. At the end of this exercise Martha felt right because it had accomplished what she wanted – getting Matthew out of the house with the least amount of hassle. She taught him a method of releasing himself from an activity without resorting to a tantrum. That’s what discipline for children is all about.
Realizing how much better discipline for children worked when we considered our child’s needs in our decisions was a major turning point for us. Initially, we had to work through the fear that we were letting our children manipulate us, because we had read, heard from others, and grown up with the idea that good parents are always in control. We found, however, that considering our child’s point of view actually helped us take charge of them. Knowing our children became the key to knowing how to discipline them. They knew we were in charge because we were able to help them obey. That left no doubt in their minds or ours that Mom and Dad knew best.
3. Help the Child to Respect Authority
Parents, take charge of your children. That’s basic in discipline for children 101. But being a trusted authority in your child’s life does not automatically come with the job of being a parent. The child who is told he must obey “or else,” may behave, but does so out of fear, not respect. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is the wise and time-honored teaching; not fear them. Honor implies both obedience and respect.
How do you get your children to respect you? An authority figure needs to be both warm and wise. First, get connected to your child. Start as a nurturer, a baby comforter. In so doing, you get to know your baby and your baby trusts you. Respect for authority is based on trust. Once your child trusts you to meet her needs, she will trust you to set her limits. One day I asked a mother why she felt so confident as an authority figure. She said, “A lot of my security comes from knowing my children.” Because she understood her children, she was able to guide them wisely and know they would follow. Many parents confuse being in charge with being in control. Instead of directly controlling children, wise authority figures control the situation in order to make it easier for children to learn to control themselves. Children respond with genuine trust and respect rather than fear and rebellion.
4. Set Limits, Provide Structure
Establish rules, but at the same time create conditions that make the rules easier to follow. Children need boundaries. They won’t thrive or survive without limits; neither will their parents. To learn about their environment, toddlers must explore and be energetic. That’s their job. Environmental control is the parents’ job. This involves both setting wise limits and providing structure, which means creating an atmosphere in the home that makes these limits easier to respect. The limit-setting part of disciplining a toddler is to say “no” to an exploring child who is headed for trouble; the structure part is to childproof the home to provide busy minds and bodies a safe place to play and learn.
5. Expect Obedience
Your child will be as obedient as you expect, or as defiant as you allow. When we ask parents of obedient kids why their children obey, they all answer, “Because we expect them to.” Simple as this sounds, many parents let this basic fact of discipline for children slip away. They are too busy, their child is “strong-willed;” they make excuses: “It’s just a developmental phase.”
In the early years children don’t know what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable until you tell them. One evening at a kid-friendly restaurant, we observed two families handling discipline for children in two different ways. The two-and-a-half-year-old in one family was incessantly climbing over the back of the booth, and she kept this climbing behavior up until it became disruptive to nearby patrons. Wimpy “don’ts” from the parents did not deter the persistent climber. It was clear this child had no idea that climbing was unacceptable behavior. She got the message, “We prefer that you not climb, but we’re not going to do anything about it.”
Another two-and-a-half-year-old got a different message and showed different behavior. The parent sat the child next to him, frequently acknowledged the child, and kept him involved in the family conversation. As soon as the toddler began to climb, the father immediately redirected him and politely planted the climber back in his seat. With a combination of creative distraction and respectful restraint, the parent conveyed to the child that he was expected to refrain from climbing because climbing would disturb the people in the next booth. The child got the message that any effort to climb the seat would not be okay. The child filed this experience into his memory bank, to be retrieved the next time they went to a restaurant when, presumably, he made fewer attempts to climb over the seat.
Was the parent in the second family exhibiting controlling behavior? Yes, but in the right sense of the term. Abusive control is when you forcibly impose your will upon your child, expecting him to obey, but to the detriment of your relationship. When you insist on obedience and help the child to get control of himself, you are using your power over the child in a good way that helps him develop inner controls. Remember, children want limits so that they don’t feel out of control, and they want parents to stand by those limits. They keep testing the limits to see if you will uphold them. When you don’t, the child feels anxious that no one is strong enough to contain him. To a child, that is scary.
6. Model Discipline for Children
A model is an example your child imitates. The mind of a growing child is a sponge, soaking up life’s experiences; it’s a video camera capturing everything a child hears and sees, storing these images in a mental vault for later retrieval. These stored images, especially those frequently repeated by significant persons in the child’s life, become part of his personality—the child’s self. So, one of your jobs as parents is to provide good material for your child to absorb.
“But I can’t be perfect.” Of course not. No parent is perfect. While writing this book, Martha and I would often say, “We know all this stuff and we still keep making mistakes.” In fact, it’s unhealthy to model perfection—a goal that neither parent nor child can meet (though many are crippled by trying). It’s the overall impression that your child receives that counts, not the occasional blunders or outbursts. If a parent is habitually angry, anger becomes part of the child’s self. The child learns that this is the way people deal with life. If a parent models happiness and trust, with an occasional angry tirade, the child sees a healthier model: People are happy most of the time, but sometimes difficulties make you angry. You handle the situation and go back to being happy.
Parents, you are the first people your child knows. You are the first caregivers, authority figures, playmates, male and female. You set the standard for your child’s attitude toward authority, her ability to play with peers, and her sexual identity. Part of yourself becomes part of your child. Yes, much of a child’s behavior is genetic. More than one parent has been known to remark, “He came wired that way,” but much is also influenced by the child’s behavioral models.
7. Nurture Your Child’s Self-Confidence
Discipline for children is easier if the growing person has a positive self-image. She thinks of herself as a worthwhile person, and so she behaves in a worthwhile way. She is able to forgo some willful misbehavior to maintain this feeling of well-being. When this child does misbehave, she returns more quickly to the right path, with less need for punishment.
Not so the child with poor self-image. The child who doesn’t feel right doesn’t act right. His parents don’t trust him, so he can’t trust himself. No one expects him to behave well, so he doesn’t. The bad behavior cycle begins: the more misbehavior, the more punishment, which intensifies the child’s anger and lowers the child’s self-esteem, producing more bad behavior. This is why our approach to discipline for children focuses primarily on promoting inner well-being in the child from the beginning. Throughout life your child will be exposed to people and events that contribute to his self-worth and to others that chip away at it. We call these builders and breakers. We will help you to set the conditions that expose your child to many more builders than breakers, and, of course, to be a builder yourself.
8. Shape Your Child’s Behavior
A wise parent is like a gardener who works with what he has in his garden and also decides what he wants to add. He realizes he cannot control the characteristics of the flowers, when they bloom, their scent and color; but he can add those colors that are missing in his garden, and he can shape it to be more beautiful. There are flowers and weeds in every child’s behavior. Sometimes flowers bloom so beautifully that you don’t even notice the weeds; other times the weeds overtake the flowers. The gardener waters the flowers, stakes the plants to help them grow straight, prunes them for maximum bloom, and keeps the weeds in check.
Children are born with some behavioral traits that either flourish or are weeded out, depending on how the children are nurtured. Other traits are planted and vigorously encouraged to grow. Taken altogether, these traits make up the child’s eventual personality. Your gardening tools as a parent are techniques we call shapers, time-tested ways to improve your child’s behavior in everyday situations. These shapers help you weed out those behaviors that slow your child down and nurture those qualities that help him mature.
Most shaping of a child’s behavior is a when-then reaction. (When Billy’s room is a mess, Mom says “No more playing outside until it’s cleaned up.”) Eventually, the child internalizes these shapers, developing his own inner systems of when-then, and in so doing learns to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. (“When my room is a mess, it’s no fun to play there, so I better clean it up.”) He learns to shape his own behavior.
At each stage of development, your shaping tools change, depending on the needs of your little garden. In the discipline section of this site, we give you gardening tips to help you confidently shape your child’s behavior and make his personality work to his advantage, so he will be a more likable person who contributes to the garden of life.
9. Raise Kids Who Care
Being a moral child includes being responsible, developing a conscience, and being sensitive toward the needs and rights of others. A moral child has an inner code of right and wrong that is linked to his inner sense of well-being. Inside himself he knows that “I feel right when I act right, and I feel wrong when I act wrong.” The root of being a moral child is sensitivity to one’s self and to others, along with the ability to anticipate how one’s actions will affect another person—and to take that into account before proceeding. One of the most valuable social skills you can help your child develop is empathy—the ability to consider another person’s rights and feelings. Children learn empathy from people who treat them empathetically. One of the best ways to turn out good citizens is to raise sensitive children.
Besides teaching children responsible behavior toward others and toward things, also teach them to take responsibility for themselves. One of the most valuable tools for life you can give your child is the ability to make wise choices. You want to plant a security system within your child that constantly reminds him: think through what you’re about to do. By learning to take responsibility for their actions in small things children prepare to make right choices when the consequences are more serious. Our wish for you is to help you raise kids who care.
10. Talk and Listen
Communicate with your child so she doesn’t become parent deaf. The best authority figures specialize in communication with children. Oftentimes re-phrasing the same directive in a more child-considered way makes the difference in whether a child obeys or defies you. Wise disciplinarians know how to open up a closed-off child and consider the Golden Rule: talk to your children respectfully.
Besides learning how to talk to a child, it is equally important to learn how to listen. Nothing wins over a child (or adult) more than conveying that you value her viewpoint. Being in charge of your child doesn’t mean putting her down.
Each of these discipline for children points depends on the others. It’s hard to be an authority figure, a good model, a behavior shaper and obedience teacher if you and your child aren’t connected and you don’t know your child. You may know the psychological principles of behavioral shaping, but shapers won’t work if you can’t communicate with your child. And even a connected relationship doesn’t guarantee disciplined children if you fail to convey your expectation that your child obey you. These ten interdependent building blocks form the foundation of the approach to discipline for children on our site. Put them all together, and you have a blueprint for raising children who are a joy to be with now and who will make you proud in the future.