In a previous article we looked at the results of a study on whether spanking your child creates more disobedience instead of controlling bad behavior. According to the research in this particular study, spanking is not an effective form of discipline; in fact, it's not discipline at all. It only creates more problems down the road.
So, what are some better alternatives to getting your child to behave?
The first step is to understand what discipline is and how it works. Discipline is not punishment.
Punishment, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution or a severe, rough or disastrous treatment.
That's not the goal of loving parents who are trying to stop a child's unacceptable behavior.
Discipline, on the other hand, is about teaching. It helps a child learn what is expected and to gradually learn how to control their behavior. Children learn best when they feel safe and secure and their "good behavior" is encouraged. The key is to have a good relationship with your child as well as clear and realistic expectations.
There is no one discipline tool that fits all, but there are some guidelines for different age groups. As children mature, techniques need to change to fit your child's mental and physical growth.
Ages 0-1 years of age (Infants):
Infants should never be disciplined. They are not capable of understanding the meaning of words or able to remember what you've asked of them. You'd think that this would be obvious, and to most parents or caregivers it is. But there are some people who don't get it and not only try to discipline their baby, but get angry when the infant doesn't do what they want. Babies are not little adults who have an agenda. They are merely babies and depend entirely on their parents or caregivers for survival.
Loving touches and gentle words are just as important as food and clothing to these little ones. They need to learn that their world is a safe and nurturing place and that they can trust those around them. A baby never does anything to deliberately annoy someone. They simply aren't capable of that kind of manipulation.
Ages 1-3 (Toddlers)
These are the ages when children first sample the world around them through mobility and touch. They are curious, excited and easily frustrated. They learn through touching and moving and oftentimes creating a mess. They get frustrated because they don't have the skills to accomplish everything they want. The word "no" can become a part of their limited vocabulary.
Discipline at this age is about setting a few simple boundaries and helping them learn new skills with patience and praise.
Avoid battles, particularly with eating and toilet training. It's not a war between you and your toddler. Making a mess is normal. This age group demands a lot of attention and patience. Re-directing and praise works better than a constant stream of you saying "no, no, no." The word no loses its power when repeated constantly.
Toddler-proof your home: The best way to help a toddler stay out of a dangerous situation, or not grab something you don't want them to have, is to toddler-proof your home. Cover electrical outlets with plastic snap-ons. Move breakable objects to a higher place in the house. Make sure coffee tables don't have sharp corners. Secure your TV to the wall and make sure that bookcases are secured. Anything they climb on or pull over needs to be anchored. Make sure that drawers and cabinets cannot be accessed. Put in place kid-safe products designed to block access to these areas.
Toddlerhood is a challenging time, no doubt about it. They have little self-control and are not rational thinkers. They want to be independent and discover things for themselves but don't have the communication skills and forethought needed to do so safely so it's up to you, the parent, to help keep them safe.
Routines, order and consistency: Routines, order and consistency are very important to helping this age feel that the world around them is a safe place. This means regular nap times, meal times and bed times as well as free time to play and explore.
Since they are just beginning to experience a little independence, toddlers need to know what you expect of them. Terms have to be simple; consequences quick. If your child bites or hits or grabs the cat by the tail, you respond quickly with the appropriate words. " Do not bite", "Do not hit," " Do not pull the kitty's tail". Say it every time it happens, and redirect your child to an activity that you can praise. Be consistent in the idea that there are certain actions that are not acceptable and others that are not only acceptable, but also more interesting.
Avoid stressful situations. You've spent enough time with your child to know that there are situations that often trigger bad behavior. The most common ones are hunger, sleepiness, and quick changes of venue. Avoid these potential meltdown scenarios with a little advance planning. An example would be that you wouldn't take your toddler to the grocery store when you know they haven't had a nap or are hungry. You can pretty well predict how that is going to go.
If you're taking your child out, keep excursions short unless it's to the park or playground. Even those trips should have a time limit that you know works well.
Restaurants can be tricky with a toddler. There is a lot of stimulation and not a lot of room for exploring. Find "family friendly" locations and try not to go during the busiest times. If a meltdown occurs, take your child outside, explain the situation in a calm voice and redirect their attention again until he or she calms down.
Validate their emotions: Let your child know you understand their frustration. Validate their emotions. "I know you don't like the car-seat, but we have to use it when you ride in the car." It's not coddling, it's validating their feelings but also setting boundaries. When we ride in the car- you'll be in the car seat. I understand you don't like it.
You can also bring something your child likes to hold – a stuffed animal, blanket or toy. You can offer a healthy snack or give them a choice between the two, so they feel like they have a measure of control in their life. It's a learning experience every day for parents as well as toddlers.
Time-outs? A lot has been made of "time-outs." Time-outs are helpful when used as a discipline tool, but typically they don't work well for toddlers. They are too young to really understand what it is you're asking of them and it can be too confusing. Distraction and redirecting tend to work better for this age.
Praise good behavior: You can correct bad behavior, but don't forget to praise good behavior. When a little one only hears what they are doing wrong, they don't get a sense of the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Sometimes re-phrasing in a more positive tone helps. "The puppy likes to be petted, not have her tail pulled. Let's pet the puppy like this. Look- see the puppy likes that – you're such a good puppy petter!"
Stay calm: Toddlers can push your buttons. It's important to stay calm and to know when you're getting too upset to parent well. Losing control can quickly escalate into yelling, hitting and doing or saying something you regret. If your child is home and having a tantrum or repeating the same behavior over and over, give yourself some time to cool down.
When they are in a safe environment like the home, ignoring the tantrum may work best. Sometimes, you just have to let them exhaust themselves while screaming, lying on the floor and flailing about. It's part of learning that they won't always get what they want.
Once they settle down, hug them and let them know that you love them and then find something better to do.
Toddlers will test your patience, your sanity and your self-control. They'll also make you find creative ways to teach them. Each child is different and requires an approach tailored to their personality and maturity.
And yes, sometimes you reach a point where the battle is more damaging than giving in. Be flexible and give in, but redirect the behavior towards something that you want them to learn or do.
"Alright, mommy is going to give you this piece of candy, and then you're going to help me put away your building blocks. That's the way we're going to make this moment work for both of us. Sound good?"
Toddlers and babies are precious little beings that can make your heart burst with joy and love. Yes, they can be demanding, but they are so worth the extra effort.
In later posts we'll look at discipline techniques for older children.
Sources: Stephanie Watson, http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/7-secrets-of-toddler-discipline