I don’t claim to be a parenting expert. My children are still in the middle of their “discipline years” and I think sometimes the wisdom we find while we’re still going through the struggle can be more effective than the “experts” advice 10 years after they’ve moved on to the next stage. I’m not looking to replace expert advice; I just want to record my thoughts for this time period of raising my children.
First, what are the Discipline Years? Most experts agree that children ages 18 months-5 years old are in the “discipline years”. I’m not focusing on the “baby years” where you simply need to meet your child’s basic human needs for love, attention, food, warmth, comfort. You can go to all the parenting websites you want to determine whether you should co-sleep or cry-it-out, and I’m not jumping on either bandwagon. Most parents don’t struggle too much mentally with those years – that time period seems to be more of a physical battle. After the night-time feedings, and millions of diaper changes, and tiny laundry by the thousands, we seem to think that the “hard part” is going to be over and we’ll move on to something easier.
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the discipline years are definitely not easy. Parents of preschoolers are mentally exhausted. I’ve heard several parents (usually mothers) say that they feel like all they do all day is say “No!” or “Stop that!” or “Go to timeout”. If they are parents of preschoolers, the easy answer to give them is, “That’s completely normal.” Does discipline need to be so mentally exhausting? Do we need to repeat ourselves a hundred times a day? The longer answer is, “Yes, and no”. It is mentally draining; one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do is properly discipline your children. However, if done correctly, you should not have to discipline the same behavior a hundred times a day.
How do you discipline? Proper discipline requires a few basic things: a few simple, clear rules, positive reinforcement of good behavior and positive attention in general, and consistency.
Simple Rules: We may have in our adult minds several dozen things that we “never” want our children to do, but we have to understand that a two-year old is simply not developmentally ready to learn that much at one time. We need to add on gradually and focus on one or two of our top rules so that we don’t overwhelm ourselves or our children. At age four, my son has four rules that are written down. There are other things that are not currently written down because he already understands them.
For instance, one of the first rules we had was “thou shalt not run into the parking lot or street without holding hands” this was never a written rule but we focused on it starting at 18 months old and never let him “slide”. It probably took about a year of consistent practice, but now we don’t have to repeat ourselves a hundred times a day. General guideline(s): focus on one “active” rule for each year of age. Once they’ve “Mastered” the rule, you can move on, but don’t forget to still enforce the previous rule. I consider them to have “mastered” the rule when they can follow it 90% of the time without reminders or when they remind you. You will still need to enforce the previous rules, but it shouldn’t be “a hundred times a day” unless something has gone wrong with the next two items on the list.
Positive reinforcement/attention: I’m probably the poster-child for this, and maybe I’ve over-done it a little bit. When my oldest child was about 3 years old he would always remind me if I forgot to “catch him being good”. Because he was used to me saying it all the time, he would say, “Were you so proud of how nicely I played with my toys?” Yes, I was. I’ve dialed things back a little bit since then, but he still likes to check in with me if he’s done something good and I haven’t noticed. It is important to provide our kids with positive attention. Sometimes, when we find ourselves repeating the same rules and disciplining all day, we may need to ask ourselves whether or not our child has had positive, focused attention from us.
Attention is a basic human need. If your child’s day consists of rushing to get out the door to do some errands, then popping him in front of the TV or smart phone so you can finish the dishes and laundry, then you don’t need to look any further to understand why he keeps breaking the rules that he should already know. He or she is looking for some positive interaction with the person he loves the most, and if he can’t get positive interaction, then he’s looking for any interaction he can get. Try to spend some time cuddling and reading a book first thing in the morning. If mornings are too busy, then try to at least give your child a big hug and positive remark on your way out the door, and some focused attention time as soon as you possibly can.
Consistency: This is the part you don’t want to hear. You do have to enforce the same rule a hundred times a day in the beginning. When you think about training to mastery, in any situation, you know that practice makes perfect. Repetition is the most basic method of teaching because it works, so keep enforcing those rules and repeating yourself until they can repeat it back to you. In addition, how can we expect our children to be trained if they don’t really know what the rules are? If our rule is no walking in the parking lot without holding hands, but sometimes when we’re running late or it doesn’t look like bad traffic, and we don’t really enforce it because we’re too busy, we’re setting ourselves up for later failure.
Keep in mind that children are not born knowing right from wrong. We have to teach every instance. Your toddler who hits or bites, is not trying to hurt another child (or adult) they are learning that they can get a reaction and then determining if they want to get that reaction again. If they don’t get a consistent response, then they will just have to keep trying it out.
Along with consistency, you have to mean what you say and say what you mean. I once watched a mother of a 3 year old whose son was running into a parking lot (less than 10 feet in front of a moving SUV, fortunately the driver saw him and stopped in time). The mother was calling quietly after him, with a sigh at the end of her voice “John, come back….. please.” She was exhausted and he could tell. Let me tell you, if it’s an urgent situation, your child had better know that they need to listen and it is NOT a request.
Even though you need to be consistent, you also need to know “when to hold them and when to fold them”. If you’ve been consistent for a long time and are still having trouble with a particular behavior, it is okay to change the consequence. For instance, if you’ve been working on getting your child not to hit other children by giving them a “time out” and it’s not working, consider moving to a different set of consequences (removal of the toy that caused the child to hit for example) and vice-versa. Not every technique will work for every child. You have to keep in mind the “why” of your child’s behavior and not just the behavior itself. It’s easy sometimes as parents to get frustrated and say “The experts said to do this to get rid of this behavior” but we also have to keep in mind that we know our children’s “why” better than they do. We need to enforce consistently, but if we think we’ve been going about the enforcing the wrong way and we’re making the problem worse, it’s okay to say to our children, from now on, if you do this, the consequence is going to be different, but you will get a consequence. Just make sure that you’ve decided in advance what the consequences are and you enforce them clearly by saying it with authority.
Comment below to share your favorite discipline strategy or argue with me about one of mine!