Parenthood – it’s a minefield. You know your children need boundaries and rules but how do you instil discipline and obedience without crushing their spirit and destroying their creativity and individuality?
Here are handy, practical hints to help put an end to the constant nagging, fighting and shouting, and bring you and your children closer.
The advice is drawn from a new book, The Connected Child, aimed at people with adopted children but it’s suitable for all parents who sometimes feel they’re at their wits’ end. This is what you need to do to bring some sanity back to your household.
You’re the boss
For safety and a host of other reasons, you need to make rules, set and enforce limits, and make decisions about family life. A child’s world is more predictable and less stressful when parents provide consistent structure and authority. But times have changed. Rather than relying on traditional disciplinary techniques, you need an approach that combines firmness, kindness and retraining. Start by gearing your response to your child’s level of defiance. A mildly sassy child can be handled with a playful reminder, but an aggressive child must encounter complete conviction from the adult – with your body language, voice, and words all conveying that the behaviour is unacceptable.
Try this approach:
- Respond quickly, within three seconds of misbehaviour.
- Clarify expectations: “Snatching a toy from you brother is unacceptable because . . .”
- Offer simple choices: “Do you want to wait your turn to play with the toy or do you want to find something else to play with?”
- Present consequences of what will happen if they continue the undesirable behaviour: "You won’t be allowed to play with the toy at all today.”
- Give immediate retraining: “Let’s practise how you can ask your brother nicely for a turn with the toy.”
- Offer praise for success.
The re-do: let’s rewind
Instead of seeing misbehaviour as a headache, regard it as an opportunity to teach new skills and help your child to figure out how he’ll do things better next time. This is called a re-do and it allows him to remodel his behaviour in a fun and playful way while building self-esteem through success. So for example if a five-year-old throws his playmate’s toy instead of handing it to him, his mother can say, “Whoa! We treat toys with respect! Let’s have a re-do and this time you show respect for Johnny and his toy.” Then she gives the child a chance to practise the right way of doing it himself. Once he hands the toy over gently, she praises him by saying, “Good, showing respect!”
Tips on the re-do
- When a child’s words or actions are inappropriate, pleasantly ask for a re-do. (“Let’s try that again . . .”)
- Guide your child through the re-do in an upbeat, playful and fun manner. The re-do is not intended to be punishment, but rather instruction. If necessary, demonstrate the re-do yourself first by modelling the correct way to verbally or physically complete the action.
- Praise your child upon completion of the corrected act.
Mean what you say
If you’re wishy-washy about enforcing the rules, you can inadvertently train your child to act up. This is a common trap parents fall into. For example you might make a statement that your child fervently doesn’t want to hear, such as, “It’s bedtime.” Your child begins to wail in protest. Horrified, you cave in and say, “Okay, you can stay up a bit later.” As a result, your child has discovered that wailing helps him avoid bedtime, and anything else he doesn’t want to do.
Be mindful of your voice
It’s tempting to become shrill or whiny or to shout when you’re frustrated and trying to direct your child but these vocal signals don’t convey the right message. Your child will perceive a high-pitched, tentative or whiny parental voice as weak while an overly loud or intense voice comes across as threatening. Either extreme will reduce your child’s feeling of safety and can lead to panic and escalation of the situation. And since children learn from watching how adults handle situations, they need to see us communicating respectfully. Even at times when firmness is needed, you can still be respectful to those you’re dealing with – especially your own children.
Being the voice of authority
- Your vocal delivery is more assertive and firmer than usual.
- Your volume is a degree or two louder than usual.
- Your pitch is lower and deeper than usual.
- You speak more slowly and distinctly, with few words.
The message you send says . . .
- I mean business. This is not playing now.
- I am the boss. Although I value you greatly, you are not the boss.
- I am a good, safe authority and you are safe with me.
These are a common form of discipline in which a youngster is sent away from the parent and forced to spend time alone. But if you want to correct poor behaviour, it’s better to bring the child in closer instead of pushing him away or rejecting him. Stay nearby so you can offer close supervision while the child is in time-out. This means you will be there when they’re ready to engage constructively and discuss what went wrong. This closeness, even during times when your children are behaving poorly, illustrates that you still love them and are prepared to help work through problems.
Children need to be introduced to the concept of consequences as part of learning to make good choices. This can be done simply and within the context of teaching other life values about the negative consequences of treating a puppy badly. Prompt your little one to brainstorm with you. Some of the consequences would be “it won’t like you”, “it won’t come to you”, “it will run away from you” and “it might bite you”. Or you might discuss the positive consequences of treating a puppy with respect and gentleness – “the puppy will wag its tail”, “it will like you” and “it will trust you”.
Listening and obeying
You can help your child to practise obedience by playing games such as Simon Says. In this game any instruction that starts with the phrase “Simon says” is followed and all other instructions are ignored. Another way to playfully reinforce this message is with a game called Stop and Go! Your child runs, walks around or rides a tricycle (or bike) until you shout, “Stop!” At that sound, your child must quit moving and remain frozen until you say, “Go!” This game teaches your little boy or girl to respond to a vocal command even when they’re in a physical frenzy. Praise your child for responding quickly.
Children feel empowered and more in control of their environment when they have choices. It’s a good idea to limit their choices to two or three specific options so their reasoning and decision-making capabilities aren’t overtaxed. For example, your six-year-old son might refuse to put away his toys before bed. Hold up a hand near the child’s face and put up fingers to signify the two choices. You explain (holding up just one finger now), “You may put away your toys first and then take a bath, or (holding up two fingers now) you may take a bath first and then put away your toys. Which do you choose?”
When a parent feels frustrated or helpless, it can become too easy to focus on discipline and forget about nurturing. Yet it’s precisely at those times when we need to let compassion be our guide. Children can easily feel unimportant, unworthy and rejected. One of your most critical jobs is to counteract this negative self-perception by continually showing how much you value your child. Throughout the day, make a point of reminding your child how important he or she is to you and that you see their unique beauty and goodness shining through. Even when you need to be firm and enforce rules, you can still be the encouraging voice that whispers in your child’s ear, reminding him how much you believe in and love him.
You’ll know you’re getting it right if:
Once you make a rule or promise, you enforce it.
You use the minimum “firepower” necessary to correct misbehaviour. Whenever possible you use kindness and playfulness to make your point.
You use praising and positive statements with your child five times more often than you use corrective statements.
You notice your child doing things right.
Several times a day, you say how precious and dear your child is to you.
You let your child decide between choices.
You compromise with your child.
You accept and respect your child’s expressions of sadness or disappointment without feeling guilty or becoming angry.
Your children recognise that you are “the boss” and have the final say, but they aren’t scared of you.
- Your Adoptive Family by Karyn Purvis, David R Cross and Wendy Ly ons Sunshine. Available at R211,94 from Kalahari.com. Reprinted with permission from McGraw -Hill Professional. Copyright 2013.