In Parenting

The Basics of Disciplining Children

Is it possible to bring up children without punishment? Parenting expert Dr. Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting,” thinks so, and a growing number of child-rearing experts agree. This can be a difficult concept to grasp for parents who equate discipline with punishment, but Markham has a different definition of discipline: the “responsibility to guide our children by setting limits.” How should you go about Disciplining Children?

Quite simply, punishment is never an effective means of raising a responsible, considerate, happy child. It teaches all the wrong lessons.

When you punish, you are sending some powerful messages to your child, but they may not be the messages you want her to hear. Punishment relies on aversion to teach a lesson – you introduce an unpleasant consequence to a behavior in the hope that your child will avoid that behavior in order to avoid the punishment. In fact, you’re teaching a child to avoid getting caught in order to escape punishment. Effective discipline for children instills a moral compass. It teaches a child to take responsibility and follow rules because it feels right to them on the inside. If punishment isn’t an effective means of disciplining children, then, what is?

The answer, Markham says, is to stay kind and connected while setting limits. If “staying kind and connected” sounds a little abstract, that’s because it is. That doesn’t mean it’s invalid or impossible, though. In fact, disciplining children without punishment is surprisingly easy — and easier on both you and your child — when you remember a few simple principles.

You are the adult.

Your children learn far more from your actions than from your words. They learn how to be adults from you. If you want to raise kind, responsible, considerate children, you have to model kind, responsible, considerate behavior, and that kind, responsible, considerate behavior has to extend to them. If you yell at them, they learn that yelling is a valid way of handling anger. If you spank them, they learn that hitting or hurting others is a valid way to get what they want. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to try to be the person you want your child to be.

Your child is not out to get you.

He is not trying to make you mad, even though sometimes it feels that way. He is learning. He is experimenting. He is testing limits. He is exerting his independence. He is expressing a need. Your job as a parent is to figure out what that need is and find a way to meet it. It’s not always easy, especially when you’re trying to get dinner ready and your children pick just that moment to start an all-out war in the living room, but there are ways to get to the root of the problem and defuse the situation before it explodes.

  • Consider the time of day. Could your child be hungry or overtired? A snack and some attention goes a long way in avoiding late afternoon temper tantrums and meltdowns.
  • Consider the routine. Some children act out when their routine is disrupted because they feel out of control. Sometimes just acknowledging their discomfort is enough to reboot their mood.
  • Ask. Sometimes your child is just waiting for you to ask what’s wrong. A simple question can open the door to deeper conversations.

Connection Before Direction

You can’t expect your child to follow your directions if they don’t hear or understand them. Before you tell your children what you expect them to do — or not to do — you have to make sure you have their attention. The exact method you use depends on the situation. With a two-year-old child who is being boisterous, it might be as simple as calling their name and waiting until they look at you, or it might require physically stopping them and holding them while you talk to them. You might ask your 13-year-old to unplug from his iPod for 10 minutes to talk. And if your five-year-old is having a nuclear meltdown, you may just have to sit beside them and wait it out before you can talk it out.

Go for the Laugh

When it comes to disciplining children, humor is a highly underrated and hugely effective tool. Every parent has been there. A simple request to turn off the television has become World War III and the situation is rapidly escalating to the Last Battle. Your dear daughter has pushed every last button, you’re hanging on by your last nerve, and you know that if it goes much further someone — probably you — is going to do something they’ll regret forever. The situation is no laughing matter — but it’s the perfect time for a laugh. Cross your eyes and stick out your tongue. Say that silly thing that always cracks her up. If all else fails, stomp your feet and wave your arms. Laughter is the universal tension breaker. It’s almost impossible to stay angry at someone when you’re laughing with them. Once you’ve both let off some steam, you can return to subject at hand with a much better attitude.

Interrupt and Redirect

Laughter is a form of interruption and redirection, a very effective method of behavioral training. To understand interrupt and redirection, you have to understand a couple of basic facts about learning:

  • Children do things because they get a reward for doing them.
  • The reward reinforces the behavior because it teaches them that they can get what they want by behaving in a certain way.
  • If you want to get rid of a behavior, you have to eliminate the reinforcement.
  • Any kind of attention is reinforcing.

In other words, when you yell at your child for climbing on the table, you are actually reinforcing that behavior. On the other hand, you can’t just let her climb on the table. The answer is to reward her for a behavior that is incompatible with climbing on the table, for example, sitting in her chair. Here’s how interruption and redirection works with that particular behavior.

  • Your child climbs on the table.
  • Without making eye contact or saying anything about the behavior, matter-of-factly remove her from the table and put her in the chair.
  • Once she is sitting in the chair, turn your attention to her and remark on the good job she’s doing sitting in the chair.
  • Make a point of noticing that she is sitting in her chair even when she has not attempted to climb on the table.

By doing this, you’ve interrupted her behavior without attending to it, made your limits clear – we don’t climb on the table – and redirected her to a behavior that she can’t do while standing on the table. It feels counter-intuitive, but it works, and it works in a surprisingly short time.

Get Physical

Being physical is one of the most effective ways to discipline children. That doesn’t mean you should spank or hit your children, though. A loving touch – a hug, a shoulder squeeze, a hand ruffled through the hair — communicates your love, pride, sympathy and so much more. Touching and holding are also very effective means for enforcing limits, especially with younger children. Every parent knows that you can’t just tell a toddler to stop jumping on the couch. You have to physically take her off the couch. The best way to keep a child at your side when you’re out for a walk is to hold his hand. The more you use affectionate, physical touch to connect with your child, the less likely you’ll be to get physical in anger.

Let Yourself Be Imperfect

Nobody’s perfect. There will be times when you blow it, when you say things you didn’t mean or yell at a child who really needs a listening ear. It’s okay. The trick is to turn your mistakes into learning moments for your child. Remember, your children learn to behave by watching the behavior you model. When the storm blows over, make time to apologize and reconnect. Whenever possible, give your children an age-appropriate explanation. Most kids are old enough to understand “I had a hard day and was very tired. I shouldn’t have yelled at you, but what you said hurt my feelings.”

Parenting is hard enough without hating yourself for being a big old meanie. Disciplining children doesn’t have to mean punishing them. Being a positive role model and providing loving, connected guidance is far more effective in raising a loving, creative, kind child and maintaining a peaceful, happy home.

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