By: Hellen Hutchinson
The term “discipline” sometimes conjures up negative images for parents and children. We envision the image of the parent exercising his/her control over the child by demanding he/she behave in a certain way or “consequences” will be paid. Before I had kids, I was sure I would be the parent who didn’t believe in discipline. I believed in fostering free will in children. I believed that children will make the right choices if they are given the freedom to choose because it is human nature to make good choices and people only make bad choices as a form of resistance to a perceived lack of autonomy.
Two children later and multiple lessons, courtesy of my 1 and 3 and a half year old, on child development and parenting, and I know that children need discipline. Why is this? Discipline is necessary to help the child develop the tools for positive physical and mental growth. Without discipline, children will fall short in successfully navigating the world, be it physical, emotional, and social.
Here are different actions to take towards most effectively disciplining your child:
Communicate openly about your expectations.
First, you cannot expect your child to behave appropriately if clear expectations have not been communicated for how you would like them to behave. For example, I expect that when my son is finished eating, he will wash his hands. This is based on the fact that I have communicated my expectation to him and verbally asked him to confirm that he understands my expectation. It would be unfair, however, for me to reprimand him for not washing his hands after he is finished eating if I had never discussed with him the importance of this behavior. Second, explain to your child why a certain behavior is important. For example, I tell my son that it’s important to wash his hands after he eats because there are germs on his hands and, if he doesn’t wash them, he will spread germs. He knows that spreading germs is a “bad” thing, one that can make people sick. I’ve heard parents say that they shouldn’t have to justify why a behavior is important to a 3-year old because they are the parents and they set the rules. I disagree. At 3 years old, your child will be well on their way to fighting you for what they perceive as control over their life. As a parent, you want to nurture their intrinsic motivation to behave appropriately. This will help their emotional growth.
Use a reward based system.
A reward system refers to using an incentive to encourage positive behavior. For example, my son is enrolled in a public, Pre-K program which utilizes the “reward based system.” The teacher completes a one-page checklist every day which outlines the child’s behavior for that day. At the end of the checklist there is a colored stamp. A blue color signifies that they had a “great” day, a green color signifies that they had a “good” day, and a yellow color signifies that they experienced many challenges during that day (for example, not listening to the teacher). When Friday arrives, if the child has received less than two yellow stamps, they can choose a toy out of the toy chest. This is an example of a reward based system. The incentive is the toy while the positive behavior is obeying the rules of the classroom. The idea is that the child’s desire to receive the toy is enough to elicit positive behavior in the classroom. What I like about this system is that it mirrors life outside of the classroom. Reward based systems have been incorporated into workplace environments for years and have been effective in motivating employees to perform at their highest degree.
It is crucial that parents set clear boundaries for children to follow and that these boundaries involve consequences for the children should they not be respected. What is a boundary? As a parent, think of a boundary as the line you create around yourself which separates you and your child. This line signifies where the parent ends and the child begins. For example, if you ask your child to knock on your bedroom door when it is closed and wait for the door to be opened, but the child consistently opens the door without knocking, he/she is crossing a boundary. A child who is unwilling to respect boundaries that have been set for him/her within the home environment is more likely to violate social boundaries in the “outside” world. This behavior can prove to be problematic and possibly illegal.
Model healthy behavior.
Disciplining your child can be uncomfortable and exhausting. Be calm and don’t forget they are watching. By “they” I mean your child. Every tantrum the child may have is an opportunity for you to model healthy behavior. Remember, your child is taking notes on how you handle yourself. How you handle yourself will become the child’s “norm.” There will never be a positive outcome to a parent engaging in an emotional war with a child. The child will adopt what they see, meaning that a parent that models emotional meltdowns will raise a child that assumes emotional meltdowns are a normal, healthy way to express frustration and/or anger. Handle a child’s expression of resisting your parental role with patience and empathy.
Foster solidarity not fear.
First, remind your child that you are on their team. It’s very easy to fall into the pattern of the adult against the child. It’s evident in statements made by parents such as “my house, my rules!” But, you want your behavior to relay the message to them that you and the child have the same goal: for them to grow up to be a healthy individual who has a desire to behave appropriately. Next, eliminate physical reprimands. You never want your child to fear you. You never want to them to feel forced into behaving appropriately because they fear physical punishment. This is where the reward based system can be incorporated.
Finding which method of behavior correction worked for my children was one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do as a parent. In addition, my technique for most effectively and efficiently disciplining my children changes as they move from one stage to another. Something that has never wavered, however, is my need to be patient, fair, and empathetic with them. Don’t forget, you too were once a 2 year-old!