Finding Appropriate Discipline
When disciplining a child, thoughtful parents will
wonder, “Will I dampen his spirit if I’m too rigid
or too punitive?” Loving parents don’t want a passive
child. If you ask parents whether they want to have an aggressive
child or not, most will answer, “No, not aggressive, but
I want him to stand up for himself, too.” The job, then,
is not to stamp out the child’s aggressive impulses, but
to help him learn to channel them into acceptable behavior.
When parents ask how they can know if they are being
too strict, I suggest that they watch for the following:
- A child who is too good or too quiet, or who doesn’t
dare express negative feelings
- A child who is too sensitive to even mild criticism
- A child who doesn’t test you in age-appropriate
- A child without a sense of humor or joy in life
- A child who is irritable or anxious most of the time
- A child who shows symptoms of pressure in other areas
— feeding, sleeping, or toileting — and who may regress to
an earlier kind of behavior, acting like a baby or a much smaller
- An aggressive child, one who may be modeling his
behavior on yours, and who takes out his anger at being too
strictly punished on his siblings, peers, or even pets
Any of these symptoms is a signal to parents to let
up and confine discipline to important matters.
When asked for specific positive discipline guidelines,
I give parents the following advice.
Respect a child’s stage of development. In
particular, be aware of the kinds of learning he is exploring at
Fit the discipline to the child’s stage of
development. For an infant or toddler, try at first to divert him
to another activity. If this doesn’t work — and it won’t
very often — you may need to remove him bodily. For a child over
two, discipline should always include an explanation (but not an
excuse) for his reasons for “acting out”; try to figure
out what triggered the child’s aggressive behavior and give
him a chance to understand it himself.
Discipline must fit the child’s temperament.
Make use of what you know about your child’s temperament
and sensitivities. A sensitive child will be devastated by punishment
that may be appropriate to an active, wound-up child.
When your child is with other children, try not to
hover. Avoid protecting or punishing him in their presence. When
you involve yourself in their struggle, you change it from a simple
interchange between children to a complicated one, in which at
least half of your child’s behavior is aimed at you.
Model behaviors for the child. Help him learn controls
or ways to deal with a situation by giving him examples. Often
the way you help him settle a conflict is more instructive than
many, many words. A direct, firm, but loving approach can be the
best kind of modeling.
Hold him firmly and seriously so he cannot repeat
Use a time-out, but for a brief period only. After
it’s over, hug him and explain why it was necessary.
Ask the child’s advice about what might help
next time. Then try it. If it works, give him credit.
Physical punishment gives the wrong message. Remember
what it means to a child to see you lose control and act physically
aggressive. It means you believe in using physical aggression to
solve problems. Not only is this not respectful, but it only works
when he’s little.
Watch out for mixed messages. As you say “Don’t
hit” or “Don’t do that,” if you are secretly
not sure, it may just add to the child’s lack of self-control.
Stop and reevaluate whenever discipline doesn’t
work. Are you reacting too constantly, too ineffectively? Is the
child acting out to tell you that he is anxious or out of control,
or that he needs more affection?
Pick the child up to love him afterward. This is
hard to do, but critical. As you rock him and hold him, tell him
that you’re sorry that it’s so hard to learn self-control.
He must know that you care for him and respect him in this struggle
to learn about himself. “I love you, but I can’t let
you behave this way. When you learn to stop yourself, I won’t
have to stop you anymore.”
After the discipline is over, help him explain what
it’s all about. At the time, your own tension will just add
to his. But after the episode is over, if you or he can come to
understand it, his face will brighten and you’ll recognize
that you’ve made a breakthrough in his understanding of himself
and of his aggressive feelings.
Remember to reinforce the child when he isn’t
teasing you. “Look at you. You really are trying to control
yourself, aren’t you? I’m so proud of you.” Every
bad time deserves a good one.