A toddler has just spent a good 20 minutes putting his favorite stickers all over his bed’s new wooden headboard. He thinks his work is beautiful. But they are very sticky stickers and even when he tries to pull one up the paper tears, leaving glue behind. Oh, and now Mommy is here at the door, staring hard and she looks really, really upset. She actually looks mean and the toddler is scared. Mommy wants nothing more than to give his cute, little behind a nice, firm smack.
Only there’s just one problem. Mommy’s smart. And she knows that swatting won’t solve anything. What to do?
“Disciplining children is not easy, but it is an essential part of raising a child,” says Patti Williams, M.D. a pediatrician with Brentwood Pediatrics. “There is also good evidence that punishment by yelling or spanking can increase the risk of negative behavioral, psychosocial and emotional outcomes in children,” Williams adds.
So Mommy can forget the regret and guilt SHE may feel later if she ends up spanking her little one; the toddler will bear the brunt of her misguided lesson, even if she thinks he’s learned from it.
But what else could Mommy have done in the moment? When she was seething? When she wanted to spit nails and tan his little hyde — that new bed cost plenty!
She could have, after opening the door to discover her toddler with the stickers matted everywhere, taken a deep breath and 1) paused to gather herself; 2) Calmly walked to her child, placed him in her lap and said something like, “Ryland, Mommy is so upset that you put the stickers on your new bed. The bed is not where we put stickers.”
Ryland, for his part, now knows that he did something “wrong,” and that Mommy is unhappy. He’s scared, though, so he freezes.
Mommy remains calm. She notices her little one’s fear and she decides to sooth and teach.
“Ryland,” she says. “Mommy is going to have to work very hard to get the stickers off of the brand-new bed Mommy and Daddy bought you.”
“I wike my stickohs,” Ryland says in his tiny, barely audible voice.
Stay calm, Mommy.
“Mommy will give you a book for your stickers, Ry. And if you aren’t sure where you can put stickers or not, will you please ask Mommy?”
“Otay, Mommy,” Ryland says, sad that he disappointed Mommy.
Here’s the best part that Mommy gets to add in:
“I love you, Ry-Ry.”
And Ry-Ry’s little arms go around Mommy’s neck because she is just such a good and gentle Mommy.
But it rarely goes like that. In fact, it takes a lot of patience and calmness for anything to go like that. Some people will laugh at that scenario and make fun of it. “He needs a good spank!,” they’ll say. And many, many parents fail at discipline in the moment because punishment in the moment is quicker and more satisfying … even if it’s common knowledge that it’s harmful.
Positive discipline is when you clearly communicate what behaviors are appropriate or not from your child. Positive discipline also rewards good behaviors, and if need be, outlines reasonable consequences of “bad” behaviors.
SCRAMBLING TO DISCIPLINE
Possibly the most popular form of discipline today is Time Out. And while it can be effective for helping little ones calm down and regain control, parents often misuse the technique, getting into battles to get the child to return to the Time-Out chair, corner or room. With a little inconsistency, Time Out can collapse altogether leading to parent frustration. And frustrated parents, worn out for trying, can resort to yelling, guilt tripping, giving the silent treatment … or spanking.
Only two years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement that parents should not spank their children citing its harmful effects. And while spanking is on the decline (countless studies show that physical punishment can lead to aggression, antisocial tendencies and mental health problems), the South remains steeped in spanking, whether it’s “wrong,” “right,” or somewhere in between and that’s all there is to it.
Many of today’s parents were spanked in childhood, either by their mother, father, grandmother or all. Spanking has been a part of family culture for hundreds of years — with many people quoting the biblical guidance of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” And while it’s never best to paint a broad stroke over any issue — certainly not one related to disciplining a child — it’s worth noting that discipline actually means teaching — which is at the root of positive discipline. It takes time, energy, patience and calmness, which for many adults is a virtual sea change compared to what they were brought up with and learned.
“A parent is a valuable tool in teaching children appropriate behavior,” Williams says. “Parents should lead by example and model behaviors they would like to see in their child. It is a parent’s responsibility to provide a safe environment for children to learn and explore in, provide guidance, and redirection when needed, and to set limits,” she says.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way.
MIXED UP IN THE MOMENT
Parenting doesn’t have to be a battlefield, but parents DO need to remain aware when the kids are around. Family dynamic can change instantly. While you’re cooking dinner, an eruption from the next room can have you racing to the rescue and piling up assumptions:
“Jackson, how many times do I have to tell you not to hit your little brother??!”
“Mom, he knocked down my Lego tower! I’ve been building that all day!” Jackson cries.
“Christopher, how many times have I told you not to touch your brother’s Legos??!!”
Christopher starts to wail.
“I’m sick of him messing with my stuff, Mom! What am I supposed to do??” Jackson cries.
What IS Jackson supposed to do?
For the most part, children want to behave well, but life happens and Lego towers get toppled. Young Christopher didn’t want to upset his brother, he simply wanted a shot at playing with the Legos.
It’s up to the parent to lead the way.
“Positive discipline is most successful when a parent is calm,” says Williams. “It is important to listen and allow your child to explain, but communicate clearly, the consequences of their behavior and follow through on any consequences, if appropriate,” she adds. “Getting down on your child’s level, making eye contact and avoiding distractions like cell phone use or television while disciplining your child shows them that your actions and words are purposeful and not reactionary,” she adds.
It’s not easy to stay cool in the heat of any given moment, especially if you’re tired or stressed. Just remember, if you yell, your child will learn to yell. And if you hit, your children will learn to hit. For everyone’s well-being, it’s worth it try a little harder.
A BETTER WAY
Regardless of the traditions you were raised with and your stand on spanking, research shows that if you want to be effective in teaching your children how to behave appropriately, you need to be warm towards them and very clear about your expectations. Let empathy, a firm and consistent tone and an understanding that most of the misbehaviors children display are actually consistent with child development guide you.
“Parenting is a learning experience for the adult as well,” says Williams. “It is important for parents to have realistic expectations of appropriate behavior at different stages of development,” she adds. And it’s not hard to do a little reading up on children and childhood behavior in stages as they grow.
From the time your child is born, take a look at the world from his perspective. If your little one has placed super-tacky stickers on a brand-new wooden head board that will require scrubbing to remove, realize that he simply wasn’t seeing it that way.
While positive discipline takes more time than a quick temper does, keep this in mind: your goal is to help your children develop confidence and independence. You want them to be able to deal with disappointments in a home that encourages learning from mistakes. If you keep your home environment safe, you will spare your child emotional struggle now … and later.
TRY POSITIVE DISCIPLINE
Offers articles and ongoing positive discipline classes online via Zoom.
by Jane Nelson
by Rebecca Eanes