My three-year-old is a real handful at times. My wife and I have struggled to find the right approach to disciplining our spirited toddler. There are so many different parenting approaches out there, and as his mom and dad, we want the best for our child. We just don’t know which discipline approach to take. Do you have any suggestions?
At one time or another, all parents struggle with discipline-establishing and enforcing limits, and getting their kids to speak to them respectfully and do what they’re supposed to do. But remember: discipline isn’t only about correction. It’s also about teaching kids to control themselves and care about others so they can grow up to be productive members of society. Here are some approaches you can use to help your kids to do just that:
- Be firm. Set reasonable limits, explain them, and enforce them.
- Be consistent. Your child will learn to adapt to inconsistencies between you and your partner: if you allow jumping on the bed but she doesn’t, for example, the child will do it when he’s with you and won’t when he’s with your partner. However, if you allow jumping one day and prohibit it the next, you’ll only confuse your child and undermine your attempts to get him to listen when you ask him to do something.
- Compromise. Kids can’t always tell the difference between big and little issues. So give in on a few small things once in a while (an extra piece of birthday cake at the end of a long day might avoid a tantrum). That will give the child a feeling of control and will make it easier for him to go along with the program on the bigger issues (holding hands while crossing the street, for example).
- Be assertive and specific. “Stop throwing your food now” is much better than “cut that out!”
- Give choices. Kathryn Kvols, author of Redirecting Children’s Behavior, suggests, for example, that if your child is yanking all the books off a shelf in the living room, you say, “Would you like to stop knocking the books off the shelf or would you like to go to your room?” If he ignores you, gently but firmly lead the child to his room and tell him he can come back into the living room when he’s ready to listen to you.
- Cut down on the warnings. If the child knows the rules (at this age, all you have to do is ask), impose the promised consequences immediately. If you make a habit of giving six preliminary warnings and three “last” warnings before doing anything, your child will learn to start responding only the eighth or ninth time you ask.
- Link consequences directly to the problem behavior. And don’t forget–clearly and simply–to explain what you’re doing and why: “I’m taking away your hammer because you hit me,” or “I asked you not to take that egg out of the fridge and you didn’t listen to me. Now you’ll have to help me clean it up.”
- No banking. If you’re imposing punishments or consequences, do it immediately. You can’t punish a child at the end of the day for something (or a bunch of things) he did earlier–he won’t associate the undesirable action and its consequence.
- Keep it short. Once the punishment is over (and whatever it is it shouldn’t last any more than a minute per year of age), get back to your life. There’s no need to review, summarize, or make sure the child got the point.
- Stay calm. Screaming, ranting, or raving can easily cross the line into verbal abuse that can do long-term damage to your child’s self-esteem.
- Get down to your child’s level. When your talking to your child-especially to criticize–kneel or sit. You’ll still be big enough that he’ll know who the boss is.
- Don’t lecture. Instead, ask questions to engage the child in a discussion of the problematic behavior: “Is smoking cigars okay for kids or not?” “Do you like it when someone pushes you down in the park?”
- Criticize the behavior, not the child. Even such seemingly innocuous comments as “I’ve told you a thousand times…” or “Every single time you…” gives the child the message that he’s doomed to disappointing you no matter what he does.
- Reinforce positive behavior. We spend so much time criticizing negatives and not enough time complimenting the positives. Heartfelt comments like “I’m so proud of you when I see you cleaning up your toys,” go a long way.
- Play games. “Let’s see who can put the most toys away” and “I bet I can put my shoes on before you can” are big favorites. But be sure not to put away more toys or to put your shoes on first–kids under five have a tough time losing.
- Avoid tantrums. Learn to recognize the things that trigger your child’s tantrums. The most common include exhaustion, overstimulation, hunger, and illness. Keeping those factors to a minimum will go a long way toward reducing tantrums.
- No spanking. It’s bad for the kids and bad for you. Children who get spanked are more likely to suffer from poor self-esteem and depression. They’re also more likely to believe that it’s okay to hit other people when they’re mad. After all, you do.
- No shaking. It may seem like a less violent way of expressing your frustrations than spanking, but it really isn’t. Shaking your baby can make his little brain rattle around inside his skull, possibly resulting in brain damage.
- No bribes. It’s tempting to pay a child off to get him to do or not do something. But the risk–and it’s a big one–is that he will demand some kind of payment before complying with just about anything.
- Be a grown-up. Biting your child or pulling his hair to demonstrate that biting or hitting is wrong or doesn’t feel good will backfire. Guaranteed.
- Offer cheese with that whine. Tell your child that you simply don’t respond to whining and that you won’t give him what he wants until he asks in a nice way–and stick with it.
- Set a good example. If your child sees you and your partner arguing without violence, he’ll learn to do the same. If he sees you flouting authority by running red lights, he’ll do the same.
Above all, make sure you understand your child. Trying to discipline him without understanding why he’s doing what he’s doing is a little like taking cough syrup for emphysema: the thing that’s bugging you goes away for a while, but the underlying problem remains–and keeps getting worse with time. The most direct way to solve this is to simply ask your child what’s going on and why he’s acting the way he is–in many case he’ll tell you. If he won’t tell you or doesn’t have the vocabulary to do so, make an educated guess (“Are you writing on the walls because you want me to spend more time with you?”).