Disciplining your child: It’s not what you think.

When expecting our first child, we make certain basic preparations. We read parenting books, obtain a crib, stroller, car seat, high chair, layette. If both parents hold jobs, childcare arrangements must be made; new living arrangements, perhaps; a bigger car…
Having children forces us to reconsider and rethink everyday matters that we take for granted, as it becomes necessary to create a safe environment. We need to put covers in electrical outlets; locks on drawers and cabinets; keep dangerous objects (chords, sharps, glass…) out of reach; cleaning supplies, medications, and other hazardous materials locked away. We constantly scan for objects a little one might choke on; enclose areas that might be harmful; gate the stairways…
 In the beginning, our main concern is to keep these vulnerable little folk safe and cared for in a way that babies are incapable of doing for themselves. Paying close attention to details involving basic safety becomes second nature. We become disciplined in remaining vigilant.
Even as babies become mobile, they are not ready to learn what is and is not okay to get into. Punishment is pointless- a slap does not teach a baby not to do something. She feels only the pain, coming from the one she looks to for safety and comfort.
Babies and toddlers are curious and get into everything. We must eliminate temptations—put knick-knacks up; video equipment, and stereos out of reach. When an active baby or young toddler approaches danger, the best intervention is to remove the child from the area while calming telling him no, and distracting him with something appropriate. That is all that is needed at this age.
As their world expands, we begin to teach young children how to avoid dangerous situations themselves. This involves setting limits, creating boundaries- teaching discipline.
Discipline does not necessarily mean punishment. It can be characterized as a rule or set of rules governing conduct, involving self-control, will power, and consequence. It provides clarity and stability and intention and safety, which are necessary for the pursuit and fulfillment of our highest potential. Without discipline, our world is chaos and we become so burdened by confusion and distraction that it becomes difficult to follow any path, let alone to create and pursue meaningful life goals.
Raising well behaved and successful kids are hard work that takes the better part of twenty years of vigilance and consistent guidance. We must learn how to mold their behavior in a way that is effective in teaching them to successfully cope in this world and lays the groundwork for positive learning in all areas of their lives. Being clear and consistent about expectations and consequences regarding behavior eliminates much of the ambiguity that can interfere with having a fully satisfying life.
  • If you destroy that in anger, you will have to use your allowance to replace it.
  • If you’re not careful with your library books, the librarian won’t let you borrow more.
  • If you are mean to your friends, they won’t want to be your friends anymore.
  • If you don’t do your homework, you’ll get behind and it will be harder to learn the material.
  • If you spend all of your money on candy, it will take longer to save for that toy you want.
Over the years I have noticed a definite shift in the current approach to parenting. So many parents are more concerned with being a child’s friend than being the one who enforces (self) discipline.
In more extreme cases, there is no attempt to correct inappropriate behavior. These parents believe that it is best to allow kids to fully express themselves in the way that the child sees fit, and that by interfering with his actions, they are somehow limiting the capacity for him to be who he is.
As a result, these kids tend to walk all over their parents, becoming the literal ruler of the home-(”You can’t tell me what to do-I’ll come when I’m good and ready”). These children may be inclined to show little consideration for the rights and property of others, steamrolling their way through public venues and other people’s homes. Meanwhile, the parents are helpless to intervene, if not oblivious to the upheaval their kids are creating.
At the other end of the continuum is the overprotective, controlling parent who doesn’t let their child out of their sight, limits activities for fear of injury to the child, demands perfection in every endeavor, or constantly steps in on the child’s behalf, thereby not allowing him a chance to work things out for himself or to learn from his mistakes.
Neither one of these approaches is fair to the child.
Kids want to be given guidelines and to know what to expect. Toddlers begin to understand the meaning of no; indeed, it is one of their first words! And everyone has observed a little one mischievously, or defiantly look the parent or caregiver in the eye and proceed to do the very thing he has been cautioned not to do.
When creating rules and boundaries for young toddlers and preschoolers, remember that the bottom line is Safety. Little kids can make sense of this. 
  • Biting, hitting, kicking, pinching, pushing and throwing things at people hurt. It’s never okay to hurt someone.
  • Keep your toys picked up so no one trips on them and gets hurt.
  • Matches and lighters can burn you and start fires. They are never for playing with.
  • Sharp things cut people. Knives and scissors are not for children unless a grown-up says it’s okay and is paying attention.
  • Don’t go near the pool/pond/river without a grown-up: children need supervision near water because it’s not safe.
  • Jumping on the furniture is dangerous- it’s not safe to be wild in the house because there just isn’t enough room- you might get hurt or break something.
Setting limits is good for everyone. A child who has no restrictions lives in pandemonium; with clear limits, he knows where he stands. Being inconsistent confuses him and makes him try harder to get away with everything that he can. Children will test the limits we set, but if we remain consistent, then there is no need for a huge struggle. You both know what the boundaries are, and if they are significantly crossed, there are consequences. It’s just the way things are.

Rules for the Road

The wicked fear that was instilled in me from that young age affected me for many years. This can be avoided by approaching topics of safety (road and fire safety, stranger danger, etc.) in a calm and matter of fact way during the course of our daily activities.

Whether you live in a residential neighborhood or in the country, it is a good idea to walk around town with your child periodically so that s/he has an opportunity to experience first hand the importance of “rules for the road”.

Here are some of the points to be made in your day to day travels:
  • Teach your child to “Stop, Look, and Listen, before you cross the street. Use your eyes, use your ears, and then use your feet.” Repeat this rhyme every time you cross the street so that it becomes automatic. 
  • Discuss the importance of crossing with an adult who loves him/her, because drivers don’t always see little people on the road.  
  • Talk about the dangers of chasing balls, pets, other kids into the road.  
  • Explain the reasons for cross walks and traffic lights. When you are at a traffic light, be sure to obey the “don’t walk” light whether or not there is any traffic, for you are setting an example, and young children don’t have the experience to determine whether there is enough time to cross before the car down the street reaches the crosswalk.
  • Demonstrate looking over your shoulder to see if a car is coming from behind at the intersection. 
  •  Tell your child that running across the street is never a good idea because s/he may trip in front of on-coming traffic.  
  • Talk about the risk involved in darting into a parking lot or between vehicles: “Drivers are not expecting little children to appear from between parked cars and you     might get hit.” 

As children become a little older they may run ahead of you on the side walk. Set a limit as to how far ahead they can go (e.g., to the next driveway, or the corner, or the second tree). Get them into the habit of stopping at each driveway to check for traffic.

If the kids are riding bikes, they need to be wearing helmets (it’s the law!); and to stay on the sidewalk, always checking driveways. Be sure to remind them that sidewalks are for walkers first, and that they need to stop and wait for someone on foot to pass.

These are all things that we take for granted, but it seems that there is a whole generation of kids that were never taught road etiquette. How often do we hear the squeal of brakes; or curse under our breath at the kids walking, riding, skating down the middle of the road as if they own it; or stepping out into oncoming traffic assuming that the driver will stop for them. Little do they know whether this is a student driver lacking experience behind the wheel, or an elderly person whose sight and reflexes aren’t what they used to be. It may be someone distracted by their sound system or telephone, or driving while intoxicated.

We often forget that something which becomes so second nature to us as adults, must be taught with care, and learned by example. And that a refresher “course” may be in order as the children grow older. 

RDW. 2003; revised 2010

Grocery shopping with little kids can be fun??!

When I see parents in the store with their little ones, I feel so nostalgic for the days when I made an occasion of going for groceries with my four little boys. If you plan ahead, don’t shop when you or your child is tired or hungry, and agree on simple rewards for good behavior (stopping at the park, playing a game when you get home, reading an extra bedtime story), grocery shopping with kids can transform a necessary chore into a fun and educational adventure,
We have all been at the grocery store when a child is throwing a temper tantrum for want of a toy or candy that has caught his (or her) eye. Once you give in to a child’s tantrum, he knows that you can be manipulated to do his will. Children quickly learn that certain behaviors pay off, even if only occasionally.       
This is where being consistent in expectations and consequences becomes critical.
Ignore inappropriate behavior unless it is dangerous, destructive, embarrassing or annoying to others. If we refuse to reward a screaming fit even for the sake of peace, then it quickly becomes an embarrassment to the child, and is removed from the repertoire of behaviors called upon to manipulate parents and other adults.
 Early on, my favorite child care author was Penelope Leach. She gave me one of the best bits of advice I ever received. In response to a fervent plea for the object of a child’s desire, this works like magic: it’s called wishful thinking. When one cookie isn’t enough and a little one insists on another , try this: “I know! I wish I could have six cookies. I wish I could eat the whole bag of cookies!” or, “I wish I could get the red car and the green car!” It works.
Remember that kids are not perfect. Children are impulsive. They need your help to learn how to behave at the store. Talking with the kids about behavioral expectations (manners, not touching things or being wild, staying close to the cart), before you go to the store makes all the difference in the world.
Understanding that most rules are for safety gives them legitimacy. “If you run around you might break something or run into someone’s Grandma or Grandpa, and someone could get hurt. ”
As long as I remembered to lay out my expectations in advance, we were able to get in and out of the store without incident. But I found that if I forgot to remind them, we often paid the price. There were times that I had to abandon my cart and take the kids right out of the store to calm down.
Kids don’t like being out of control any more than we do. If things have escalated to this point, take your distraught child aside, look him in the eye and tell him quietly but firmly that his behavior is unacceptable. Wait, saying nothing, for your child to calm down. When he or she is calm, ask if he is ready to try again. If he cannot calm down, leave, and return to the store later.
At these times we tend to feel so embarrassed that we want to flee from other shoppers as well. We need to remind ourselves that many people in the store have been in the same situation and understand that this behavior is not necessarily a reflection of our parenting.
Setting limits is good for everyone. A child who has no restrictions, lives in chaos. Children will test the limits we set, but if we remain consistent, then there is no need for a huge struggle. You both know what the boundaries are, and if they are significantly crossed, there are consequences. It’s just the way things are.- RDW (10-25-09)

Independence leads to responsibility

There’s a lot of work in any family, particularly if there are young children involved. Everyone must be fed, clothed, and organized. Many of us tend to help a child with a task, either because we don’t realize that they are old enough to do something themselves, or because we don’t have the patience to wait around while they do it. I remember when my youngest was two-years old, he used to exclaim “Self!” whenever we tried to assist him in any way. It was great-unless we were in a hurry!

Three- and four-year-olds are old enough to do lots of things: get dressed, put on their own shoes and jacket, and pick up after themselves. But we must show them how, often more than once because they don’t have the experience to have gained that knowledge.

You can help your preschooler in asserting his/her independence by buying clothes that she/he can put on by himself. It is helpful to everyone if you send your young child out into the day with Velcro shoes and pull-up, elastic wasted pants, as it not always convenient to interrupt what we are doing to buckle overalls or put together a complicated outfit. Teach with patience, as many times as it takes, how to use buckles, buttons, snaps and zippers. Most three- or four-year-olds are old enough to learn these things. If we miss the window of opportunity when children are eager to try things for themselves, they become perfectly content keeping you in their service.
As a child becomes older, and is able to do more for himself, he can and should assume some of the load of family life. Here are some ways to get your kids to pitch in:

* Make sure responsibilities are clearly understood. If your children are not used to helping out, have     a meeting to discuss why they must get involved. Involve everyone in the family when assigning jobs.

* Make yours an equal opportunity household. Boys should learn about food preparation and laundering clothes. Girls need to learn how to handle simple tools. Household chores can be a way of giving your kids survival skills for later life. 

* Develop “no-nag” methods of reminding children of their responsibilities. Some families post a chart on the refrigerator. Each day, family members check off their jobs as they complete them. When I add myself and the jobs I am expected to accomplish, it puts things in perspective for everyone else in the family. My sister-in-law told me her secret as I shared my frustration over my children’s lack of willingness to do something when asked: Before the kids get up, write a list of the days expectations for each child, with the admonition that these tasks must be completed before they go out the door, watch TV, or get on the computer. By doing this, it is the paper telling them what they need to do, alleviating much of the nagging noise we are horrified to hear coming out of our mouths.

* Don’t redo chores your kids have done. If a job can only be done your way, then you have to do it. Redoing a job is hurtful to a child’s feelings, and can lead to learned incompetence: the discovery that if I don’t do a job well enough, I won’t be asked to do it! On the other hand, if you are clear with your expectations from the beginning, and insist that the job be done well (not necessarily perfectly) then you are helping to teach them a good work ethic.

* Finally, help your kids learn that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. As they do more, they should also expect more freedom: the privilege of having a friend over, pick of TV show (within reason!), what to do for a special treat, or choices in how to spend their free time.

Teaching independence and responsibility is a win-win situation for everyone. Teachers say that children who have learned to accept jobs at home are better able to accept being in charge of their own learning. And it will improve your quality of life as well! (RDW 9-17-09)

The fearful child

As parents we are given the responsibility of teaching our children to be confident, capable and productive citizens. This task is difficult given that we live in a fearful world. We need to keep our children safe from danger while tempering our own fears. 
Children are extremely sensitive to the emotional response of their parents to various situations, and will respond in kind: they become fearful in varying degrees, ranging from healthy caution to paralyzing fear, largely based on cues received from those around them. For instance:
It is good to be cautious of strangers, but one must be careful not to exaggerate the sense of danger where it is unwarranted. Approaching the topic of stranger danger can be done in a matter of fact way: “Some people are bad; but most people are good. It is okay to say hi when a stranger says hello, but never go with someone you don’t know unless mommy or daddy tells you that it’s okay…” 
A few weeks ago I was in a public restroom and a woman in the stall next to me said to her child: “You stay right with me. If you don’t, someone is going to steal you and you will never see mommy or daddy again. Do you want that to happen?!” A child who is fearful of all strangers becomes immobilized in the face of new situations involving other people.
Getting a shot is another fear common among children. Needles are scary to many of us. The trick is to be honest and matter of fact about the object of fear, sharing with your child, “I don’t like getting shots either because they hurt, but only for a minute. They don’t hurt as much as when you stub your toe, or bite your tongue. I wish you didn’t have to get a shot too, but shots are so people don’t get very bad sickness, and to help people get better…” 
As parents we sometimes say things we ought not to say either because we haven’t thought it through, or because we have reached the end of our rope. I have heard a parent telling a child that if they are not good, the doctor is going to give them a shot! Needless to say, this child is terrified of going to the doctor. Have you noticed that when your child receives a vaccination, the physician is nowhere to be seen? Many doctors purposely remove themselves from the situation so as not to be so closely associated with the infliction of pain.
I happen to be afraid of open heights. Being the mother of four sons, I had to stretch the limits of my bravery to the negligible point of stupidity on more than one occasion. I knew I was in trouble when my one-year old was climbing the arched ladder at the playground. 
Being fearful myself of grated stairs and sewer drains, I knew I did not want him to suffer the incapacitation of my fear. I bit my tongue and held my breath until he reached his destination, standing ready to catch him should he fall. Boys can be fool-hardy creatures, climbing to the top of a 20 foot tree at the age of five, jumping off a huge rock into the river when they are 12. 
I had to force myself to watch the kids graduate from one level of difficulty to the next without my interference, at times against my better judgment. Thankfully they were able to grow into the confident, skilled climbers that they are today. They are able to experience a whole world which remains inaccessible to me, as I remain rooted in fear at the foot of a mountain while they scamper up mighty peaks. RDW (11-6-09)