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What Parents Should Know

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 ways
  • 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 child
  • 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 each stage.

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 his action.

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.

MORE:  COMMON ALLERGY TRIGGERS

 
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