Deciding how to discipline your child can be one of the hardest, but most necessary, parts of being a parent. Without discipline, your child will lack the necessary tools to navigate relationships and challenges in life. However, not all discipline tactics are created equal.
Psychologist, author and former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr Alan Kazdin, explains that punishment doesn’t change behaviour. It’s a short-term and ineffective solution as the behaviour tends to return. “We know now from our science what is needed to train the behaviours you want,” he says. “If you want to get rid of behaviour, you could do some mild punishment – maybe a brief timeout – but you wouldn’t want to depend on punishment to change the behaviour” Instead, he recommends you model the behaviour you want, and reinforce this with praise. “When you see it occur in the community, point it out and say, “Look at that child doing that”. These are the things that change behaviour. It’s really well studied,” he adds.
Research shows that discipline is not about creating conflict with your child. It’s not about trying to control your child, but rather giving him the tools so he can learn to control his own behaviour. It’s about putting boundaries and parameters in place.
According to Zero to Three, a US-based non-profit that promotes the healthy development for babies and toddlers, between the ages of two and three children work hard to understand how their behaviour impacts those around them. Consistency is key – if your reaction keeps changing, allowing a certain behaviour one day, but then not the next, you will confuse him with mixed signals. There is no magic deadline on how long it will take, however, if you keep responding the same way, he will probably figure it out after four to five times.
Here are some ways to discipline your child without making you feel like the biggest meanie in the world…
“My ears don’t work if you whine”
A whining child is probably the bane of every parent’s life. You may find yourself giving in just because you can’t handle the noise any more (particularly if you are standing in that 4pm queue at your local supermarket). With this little trick, you simply tell your whining toddler that you can’t hear him when he orders you, or whines his instruction. Your ears have switched off and will only switch on again when he stops. It helps if you whisper this, as he then needs to be quiet long enough to listen to you. Not only does this de-escalate the situation, but helps to re-enforce the fact that he has something valuable to say and you will listen – if he says it nicely.
“Put it on your wish list”
Another tantrum trigger is that dreaded “I want” or “gimme” when they see something they like. Create a special wish list and when your child demands something, instead of giving in or saying no, write it down on the list and use that for birthdays or special occasions. That way, you’re getting your child what he truly wants, and he learns that he doesn’t get something if he yells or demands it. The two of you can find a picture of what he has asked for and he can stick it on his list or you can create a wish pin board.
“You have a choice”
Children like to feel validated. A tantrum is often due to the fact that they are frustrated that they are not being understood, or can’t fully understand why they can’t do what they want. The first trick is to affirm what your child is feeling and why he is feeling it. “You’re upset because you want to watch TV instead of going to bed.” This lets him know that you understand his frustration and allows him to verbalise this. Follow this by offering him choices, “Brush teeth first or pj’s first?”, “Do you want the blue pj’s or the yellow one’s?”; “Right leg first or left?” This allows you to seamlessly move into the night-time routine without him even realising it and before you know it, he has moved on from his original tantrum and feels that his opinions are valued. This works just as well when it comes to dinner, or getting ready for play school.
“Work together, play together”
Household chores can become a challenge, particularly if you are running around with washing in your hands, and your child is demanding that missing piece of blue lego. Here’s the thing, kids want to spend time with you, but if you tell them to help or to stop interrupting you, they won’t listen. Negotiate. If you need to do chores, say that your choice of activity together is to put the socks away and once that is done, he can choose an activity you can do together. If he isn’t interested, tell him that it’s OK, but then he needs to go somewhere else until you are finished. Given the choice of being with you, and being on his own, he will probably choose you.
“Mom’s off duty”
We all know that a mom’s (and dad’s) job is never done, but that often gets a bit much at the end of the day. Your toddler is fighting his bedtime, and all you want to do is sit for five minutes and share a glass of wine with your partner. Everybody is tired, and soon there are screams and tears (yours). Institute the “mom” rule, explaining that you are not allowed to do “mom” jobs after a certain time at night. You will read books, listen to stories, help with teeth-brushing and bathing and all those mom-jobs before 7pm or 8pm, but after that, your hands are tied. So, if he wants two stories, he needs to make sure he is in bed in time. This way your child (and perhaps even your partner) realises the importance of time.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.