Honestly, I don’t love the term "discipline" because it is implies a system of delegating punishments, but "behavior education" sounds so L.A. that I know my oldest sister will tease me relentlessly for using that term. And, I probably deserve it.
Educating our children is what we’re doing by painting the lines between right and wrong, right? We’re teaching them how to navigate socially. We’re helping them learn to accept responsibilities and meet expectations. We’re showing them alternative ways to deal with emotions that don’t involve kicking and screaming on the floor at a CVS Pharmacy.
Whatever you want to call your approach to helping your kids discern acceptable behavior from unacceptable behavior, there are some hard and fast rules that apply across all strategies.
As a babysitter for twenty years, a teacher of little ones for fifteen years, and a mother for four years, I’m confident that these ten universal standards of disciplining your child will give any parent a good starting point for dealing with some of the difficult situations they’ll face over time. Now, that doesn’t mean that I always stick to these standards in the heat of the moment, it just means that I believe in them.
(In a cruel twist of fate, I’m writing this as my daughter refuses to nap. She’s pulling out all the stops, so I’ll be attempting to apply all these rules in real time as I write them out.)
1. Different kids require different strategies.
A few years ago I had the perfect example of this in one of my dance classes. I had two students who were very similar in their abilities and very different in their motivations.
One student would sometimes speak out of turn in a burst of uncontrolled enthusiasm. The second student would disrupt class if she felt frustrated by an exercise she couldn’t master immediately.
Student One’s behavior could be corrected in front of the class with a joke or a silly voice and a smile as I reminded her to take turns. Student Two responded best to quick and private encouragement.
Time-outs would not give me the result I sought in either case. The first student would be embarrassed and lose her enthusiasm. The second student would be relieved to have a time-out so she could quit doing the exercise that frustrated her.
2. Prevention is the first priority.
There are universal meltdown triggers like hunger, thirst, tiredness, illness, and boredom. Avoid those things when you can and pay attention to your own child’s triggers.
My own example: One of my kiddos has a two-hour time limit on play dates. After two hours the whining and fussing begins.
3. Don’t match childish behavior.
Yes, it sounds like a no brainer until you’re in the bathtub playing tug of war with your three-year-old and the shower curtain and you hear someone whining, "Will you please just let me take a shower for five minutes. Pleeeeeeeeease!" And then you realize that that person is you.
Your kid reacts like a three-year-old because she is a three-year-old. If you catch yourself reacting like a three-year-old, take a break until you feel like an adult again.
4. Be the example.
We need to show our kids how to deal with emotions by being aware of how we deal with our own emotions in front of our kids.
Our kids are watching. When we get angry at the driver who cuts us off, when we’re frustrated because our partner forgot the milk, when one of our friends leaves and we talk about her with the friend who hasn’t left, when we’re texting at the dinner table, our children are learning how to be.
We show them how to be a good friend, a good student, a good listener, and a good human. It’s confusing when we tell them to behave one way while we behave in another way.
If we want our kids to be playful, empathetic, kind, and present, we need to be all those things too.
5. Yelling is never an effective form of communication.
Yelling can get a child’s initial attention because it startles them. It makes their little hearts pound. It scares them. If that’s the only way we’re getting our kid’s attention, then we’ve already lost the battle.
Think of it this way, have you ever been yelled at in a way that made you want to change your behavior?
6. Never threaten a consequence you won’t follow through on.
Everyone knows that an idle threat derails an approach at disciplining your child. That’s why you end up following through on consequences you regret – like turning the car around halfway to the family reunion that you wanted to go to.
It’s important to know ahead of time what consequences are worth the follow through. My husband and I recently decided that bedtime books are no longer bargaining chips. Our kids don’t get rewarded with a book if they brush their teeth the easy way and they don’t get a book taken away if they brush their teeth the hard way. We read books no matter what.
It’s our family time together and it’s a great way to end the day. A not-so-great way to end the day is… a partial meltdown over brushing teeth followed by a full meltdown over losing book time.
7. Focus on earning more than taking away. Give positive behavior more attention than negative behavior.
What’s a more effective incentive program for you at work, a $500 bonus for finishing a project on time or a $500 docking of your pay if you don’t finish a project on time? Either way you’re probably going to get the project done by the deadline, but you’ll have a much better attitude about it the first way.
It just takes a little practice to put a positive spin on behavior requests.
Instead of saying, "Kid, you get three stickers today and every time you screw up, I’m taking away a sticker," say, "You can earn a sticker if you get dressed for school in the next five minutes."
Turn, "We’re not going to the park if you keep whining, " to, "When you feel better, we’ll go to the park."
And give lots of undivided attention and praise when your child is practicing positive behavior. Don’t wait until the diaper hits the fan to put down your work and give attention.
8. Don’t talk too much.
My father reminded me of this last year after he listened to my futile attempts to negotiate with a crazed toddler. I walked out of the bedroom leading a screaming child behind me and my father said, "You talk too much."
I resisted the urge to scream, "YOU talk too much!" and run back into the room and slam the door.
But he was right.
Don’t repeat yourself. Say what you mean once then take action. If your child’s behavior wasn’t affected the first time you said it, it’s not going to magically be affected the second or tenth time you say it.
And during a meltdown, there is absolutely nothing you can say that will make a difference.
9. Have a plan and stick with it.
For the same reason you have a plan in case of a fire, have a plan in case of a meltdown. When you are emotional or taken off guard, you panic and say and do things you shouldn’t say or do. But when you know the plan, you follow the plan and you stay out of trouble.
10. Be on the same page as your partner.
It sucks to have a parent who disciplines, and a parent who threatens to send a kid to the parent who disciplines. It’s not fair to the parent who disciplines to be the bad guy/gal, and it’s not fair to the parent who doesn’t feel like the kids listen to him/her.
The only way to navigate discipline is to be on the same plan. Then there is no "I’m going to ask Mom because Dad said no."
11. Follow up with attention and love.
We’re educating our kids on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. In the same way you wouldn’t be upset all day because your two-year-old confuses D and B, don’t stay upset that your two-year-old confuses being tired with the end of the world.
She’s learning. There’s a lot to learn. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of adults who don’t know how to behave.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I get to go hold my daughter while she wakes up from her nap.