How do I handle discipline and punishment?

Parents often feel they spend a great part of each day disciplining their young children: “Don’t use the toy that way-you might hurt someone,” “No hitting,” “Leave the dog alone,” “You have to come in now,” “That’s too loud.” Setting limits for young children can be difficult, complex, and time-consuming, but it’s essential. Parents have to teach their child acceptable behavior while controlling or changing unacceptable behavior until she’s old enough to exert some self-control and understand why rules are important. In order to handle this task effectively, parents need information about their child’s egocentric development plus realistic expectations, empathy, patience, love, and respect for their child.

Disciplining young children is an extremely important part of parenting, yet there are parents who don’t set adequate limits. Some feel overwhelmed by their child’s behavior and may not know where to start. Other parents just don’t think about the importance of setting limits or leave the job to neighbors, friends, relatives, and most commonly, teachers. Probably the major reason parents fail to discipline their child is because they fear her anger and the loss of her love. Rather than face rejection, they ignore unacceptable behavior, give in, or rationalize, “Kids will be kids.” But setting consistent limits is one of the major responsibilities of parenting and is not a job that should be ignored or put off.

Many parents doubt their ability: “Am I too strict or too lenient? Do I expect too much?” Parents are embarrassed by their child’s misbehavior in public and wonder what they’ve done wrong or why she seems worse than others. Since a child’s behavior is often a reflection on her parents, they feel vulnerable and judged by others when their child acts inappropriately; such feelings are normal. Yet, parents should realize that misbehavior is a basic art of childhood. A child learns what is correct by trying all sorts of behavior, “good” and “bad,” until she finds out what is and isn’t acceptable.

Parents should base their expectations and methods of disciplining on their child’s age and ability to understand. A child under two needs constant watching and reminding, while a four- or five-year-old is developing enough self-control and understanding to have some sense of right and wrong. Methods that work with older children, such as telling a child to spend “time out,” or spelling out the consequences of her misbehavior, are ineffective with younger children who do not understand or have trouble remembering the rules.

Children three and younger have such strong developmental needs to explore, touch, and do things for themselves that they have difficulty sticking to limits. Because their immediate needs are so great and because they focus so completely on the here and now, they usually don’t realize they’re doing something wrong, even if they’ve been told many times. When reprimanded, children this age often will look surprised and hurt.

In order to set limits, parents (or caregivers) have to stay fairly close by, offer frequent reminders, get involved with the child, and always be aware of what she’s doing. When children are not supervised, they lose sight of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If a child is playing inappropriately, her parents have to be right there, gently but firmly correcting her: “No, you can’t play that way-it’s too dangerous.” If talking doesn’t work, parents should remove her from the situation and then involve her in something else. “I’m not going to let you climb over that chair because you might fall, but you can play here on the cushions.” Sometimes offering an alternative works because children can be easily distracted by interesting objects and activities. Connecting a restriction to an activity also works because a Young child can understand the relationship: “If you want to ride your bike, you have to stay in front of the house,” “If you want to play outside, you have to keep your jacket on.”

Children three and under often reject limits and say “no,” not only because they want to continue their activities, but because they are asserting their independence and learning what they can do. And sometimes parents set limits unnecessarily because they underestimate what a young child can do. A three-year-old who wanted to hold a ‘screwdriver was told, “No, it’s too sharp.” But when she protested, her father decided to let her try as long as she sat at a table next to him so he could supervise. She was happy, and her father realized that he could relax some of the limitations he’d set.

Usually, though, parents know how they want their child to act. When she misbehaves, parents may feel angry and momentarily withdraw their love and attention. Since a young child wants parental approval, she feels hurt when she’s criticized for doing something wrong. She can’t separate her action from herself and feels that she’s being rejected for who she is, not for what she has done. The removal of parental acceptance often motivates a two- or three-year-old to change her behavior and to run to her parents for a hug after she’s been disciplined.

A four- or five-year-old may not react this way. After being disciplined, her hurt feelings and embarrassment might turn to anger and resistance, and she may test her own power and her parents’ limits. Yet, she too wants to be loved and accepted, and finds parental approval a strong motivator.

Verbal limit-setting and distraction work with four- and five-year-olds, but since they have a better understanding of consequences than younger children do, they also respond to other methods of disciplining. When a four- or five-year-old becomes angry and aggressive, her parents can try to distract her. If she doesn’t calm down, they should firmly say, “Your behavior is unacceptable. If you keep acting this way you’ll spend time in your room.” If parents have to follow through on this, they can tell their child she can come out of her room as soon as she is in control of herself.

It’s better, in such a situation, to let her determine the amount of time she’ll spend in her room. When parents set a limit, but not a time limit, the cooling off period lasts only as long as is necessary for her to calm down. If instead parents dictate a waiting period of twenty minutes or half an hour, she may calm down and then forget why she was sent to her room as she involves herself with her toys and books. Even fifteen minutes of isolation is a long time unless the choice to stay ay is the child’s. The point of taking time out is not to spend time away from the family, but to change unacceptable behavior. However, if the child abuses the right to set her own time-out period or if her behavior remains unchanged, her parents should set a time limit themselves.

Many times, parents punish four- and five-year olds by taking away toys or privileges. This can be most effective when there’s a connection between the misbehavior and what’s taken away. For instance, if a child uses her bike in a dangerous way, an appropriate consequence would be to have her give up the bike temporarily. A child who continually throws sand would lose the privilege of playing in the sandbox for an afternoon. Before taking something away, parents should warn their child about what will happen if she continues to misbehave. The object or privilege should not be removed for an excessively long time or she’ll concentrate only on the unfairness of the situation, not on her misbehavior. The point of this punishment is to help her see a connection between, for instance, abusing the bike and losing the bike. Often the warning that there will be consequences is enough to deter a child from misbehaving again.

However, it’s not always possible to find a connection. If a child hits her brother, what should her parents take away? Parents sometimes remove something unrelated, such as a toy, privilege, or dessert. Although it’s unwise to make dessert a focus of power, many parents find that their child changes her behavior when threatened with the loss of sweets for a meal. She does this not because she understands her parents’ point but because she wants to avoid the punishment.

When taking something away, or using any other form of discipline, parents should be sure the consequences come soon after the misbehavior. This gives the child a chance to connect her actions with their consequences, and it ensures that parents will follow through. Often, when parents tell a child in the morning that she’ll be punished in the evening, she knows that they may forget or change their minds.

One mother, eating lunch in a fast food restaurant with her five-year-old, said, “If you keep misbehaving you’re going to bed at 7:00 tonight.” When the child continued acting up the mother said, “All right. Now you’re going to bed at 6:30.” The punishment seemed so far away and so drastic to the child that she felt helpless and continued misbehaving. Instead of making a distant threat, the mother could have tried distracting her daughter or telling her she would have to move to the next table, or warning her they’d have to leave the restaurant. Then the child could have made the connection between her behavior and the consequences.

A disciplining method that some parents find successful with three- to five-year-olds is counting: “By the time I count to five, I want you indoors,” or, “I’ll count to ten while you get ready for your bath.” This usually offers a limit, a warning, and a bit of time, although if the technique is overused it becomes ineffective.

An important element of disciplining a child of any age is the tone of voice parent’s use. When they sound firm and sure of themselves, children often respond well, but when parents are unsure about what limits to impose, their children get mixed messages. The most effective tone is respectful but firm. Parents should begin setting a limit by speaking in a quiet, polite, firm voice. If that doesn’t work, they can assert themselves more forcefully and speak in an authoritative voice. But yelling at a child is not as effective as firmly stating a limit (although it’s often difficult to keep from yelling). It’s sometimes helpful to stand close to a child, quietly repeating a warning or prohibition.

When disciplining a child, parents should always consider their own anger. Sometimes, when bothered by personal problems, parents may overreact to their child’s behavior. They should let their four- or five-year-old know when they are in a bad mood and at some point apologize if they’ve been unreasonably mad. When they feel out of control and unable to deal with their anger, they should spend some time in a separate room away from their child until they calm down.

Parents should not be too forceful and harsh when disciplining their child. If the child always loses, or is always given negative feedback and doesn’t feel accepted, what incentive does she have to behave well? Parents who are too hard on their child only encourage her anger and aggression while causing her to feel bad about herself.

It may be helpful for parents to remember their own feelings as children. Were they disciplined harshly? Do they want their child to know the same anger and frustration they once experienced? Parents who felt unfairly disciplined often say they won’t treat their child the same way, but in moments of anger, it takes a great deal of patience to deal with misbehavior in appropriate ways.

Remember that children learn not just from your words, but from your actions. If you treat your child with kindness and respect and show that you value her, she’ll model her behavior after yours. When children feel good, they usually behave nicely and have an easier time accepting the limits you impose. And when children are treated courteously, they learn what courteous behavior is. It’s as important to praise and encourage your child when you’re pleased with her as it is to set limits when you’re unhappy.

It takes time and patience to help children learn self-discipline. Distinguishing right from wrong is a gradual process, and children these ages don’t yet have the necessary reasoning skills. If you have tried everything you can and your child still acts inappropriately at an age when she should have learned a fair amount of control see if something is disturbing your family relationship. The birth of a baby, a move, family illness, or divorce can cause behavior problems. Perhaps you’re spending too much time away from your child. If discipline problems caused by such circumstances persist, consider seeking professional advice on how to help your child.

Picture Credit : Google