There are dozens of theories on child discipline, but Beth Cooper Howell is here to clear up a few murky issues, including whether punishment really works.
Clinical psychologist and parenting expert Andrew Fuller believes we have more parenting choices than ever before, including child discipline methods, so we can explore alternative ways of raising our children without fear of turning them into uncontrollable tearaways.
“Time-in is more important than time-out,” says Andrew. “There are two competing processes going on in our brains all the time – the first is driven by our amygdala, the fear centre, and the second by our hypothalamus and our pituitary gland, which releases oxytocin (the hormone of love, connection, belonging and trust). If you’ve ever heard about catching more flies with honey than vinegar, you may start to think about how we base our parenting on trust and love rather than fear, shame and blame.”
Andrew explains the irony that, “If a child has an academic or physical problem, we offer them tutors or health support, yet, we react to behavioural problems with punishment, which doesn’t make sense.”
The aim in any family is to make misbehaving abnormal, rather than the norm, explains Andrew, author of Tricky Kids and Unlocking Your Child’s Genius.
“Everyone is better off when people treat each other and themselves well most of the time. However, we all have moments – and it’s how we handle these that dictates the future.”
The two major forces in our lives are love and pain, he says, and we “seek to love and feel loved, and seek to avoid pain”. The amygdala activates whenever we sense fear or threat, while the hypothalamus and pituitary gland produce the “hormone of trust”, oxytocin.
“Knowing this, we now have a choice that previous generations of parents couldn’t consciously make – do you want to be an amygdala-activating parent, or an oxytocin one?
“We also know that having flexibility, as well as connection, relates to resilience. My research on 193 000 young people shows that families thrive when they connect to, protect and respect each other.”
Out with the old child discipline methods?
In the past, parents more readily used yelling, threatening, shaming and punishment to gain compliance, says Andrew. “This often drove bad behaviour underground and made kids fearful and determined not to get caught again. It didn’t teach them to deal more effectively with the frustrations we all face in life.
When we are helped to move beyond the behaviour, we can learn. In the long term, learning how to calm yourself and reset your direction, or discuss your feelings, is a more reliable path to a happy, fulfilled life.”
The basics of ‘Oxytocin’ parenting
Children learn how to master their feelings and lead a happier life not by being lectured or forced, but by living with kind adults who they can mirror, explains Andrew.
There are simple, highly effective ways to build your parenting manifesto so it positively reinforces the right behaviour:
- Use your words. Firmly, but calmly, tell little children: “We are not doing that, we are doing this instead” and move them away from the inappropriate situation. This is called “airlifting” and avoids on-the-spot temper flares between angry or anxious parents and little ones.
- Connect! Distract, hug and support a child’s attempts to deal with frustrations. Never use blame or shame actions or words when she is dealing with a “biggie”, like leaving a play date, or receiving a broken biscuit. It may not seem like much to you, but it is to her.
- Avoid “permissive parenting”. Understand that this approach isn’t a free-for-all. Obviously, nobody allows a child to run across a busy road, or play with a sharp knife; you physically intervene to protect them through “airlifting” and using your words.
- Press pause. When your own heart rate has stabilised, connect with your little one to talk about why we don’t run across busy roads.
Children don’t have effective ways of dealing with frustrations, which leads to meltdowns. “We need to make sure we don’t have meltdowns with them,” says Andrew.
Building up versus breaking down
Educator John Hendry explains the concepts of blame and shame could be compared to weapons of mass destruction – regardless of who’s in control, they’re not going to fix anything. He argues that a punitive approach to an error does not help.
Instead, he says, when dealing with mistakes – your own, or those of others – be kind as this quietens the emotional state.
“We all make mistakes and they need to be managed constructively and not destructively. If ‘authority’ does not manage it well, it prolongs the effect of that mistake and can negatively change the behaviour.”
Parenting expert Robin Booth, founder of Synergy School in Cape Town and an expert in his field, says traditional parenting has followed the norm of parents as authority figures, with children taught to listen and follow instructions.
But the way we rise to the challenge of teaching our children right from wrong, or encouraging appropriate behaviour, is key, he explains.
Some ways to achieve this include:
Your toddler wants to play, but he needs to bath. Explain the situation: “It is time to bath now. You can bring the toy to watch you, or play with it straight after your bath if you like.”
Teaching that feelings are OK.
Bear in mind that small people have huge emotions. It’s not personal, it’s biology. Respect that your child has feelings − just as you do.
Separating problem and child.
The issue is not your little one, or what she is doing or saying, it’s the fact that you need the situation to unfold differently so that everybody’s needs are met. If your toddler wants to play a game with you, but supper is bubbling on the stove, acknowledge the desire, describe the reason why you can’t give her what she wants and suggest an alternative, like playing after supper and before bath time.
Creating a “yes” environment.
Try to avoid saying “no” if possible. If your little one wants to run outside after a messy game of play dough, you could say: “That sounds lovely! You can go outside as soon as we’ve tidied this up.”
Avoiding blame, shame and punishment is the opposite of permissive parenting, explains Andrew. In fact, families function best as “benevolent dictatorships”, in which parents are in charge and make the ultimate decisions.
What is vital to remember, he says, is that we all make mistakes, but how we handle them will either encourage growth and a boosted self-esteem, or cause our children to feel undervalued or unworthy.
“See mistakes as beginnings rather than endings. This is your chance to help your child overcome obstacles and approach them differently next time.”
Beth Cooper Howell is a freelance journalist based in the Eastern Cape. She has a keen interest in holistic health and progressive parenting. She has written a book on breastfeeding, enjoys interviewing experts on cutting-edge parenting topics and believes that nothing beats being barefoot in the veld.