[This is a revised version of the first article in a two-part series. Click here to see the second four mistakes.]
Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.
Common Discipline Mistake #1: We lay down the law in an emotional moment, then realize we’ve overreacted.
Have you reacted in a way that was a bit “supersized” for the behavior you were trying to address? Maybe your child’s actions didn’t warrant such a dramatic pronoucement: “You can’t go swimming for the rest of the summer!” Or maybe the consequences even had to do with something you were counting on: “Stop calling your brother names or you can’t go to Grandma’s house today.” Of course, she again calls him “stinky-head” and calls your bluff. Your options at this point are to either miss your lunch with your friends or show your child that you don’t mean what you say.
In these moments, give yourself permission to rectify the situation. Obviously, follow-through is important once you’ve set boundaries; otherwise, you’ll lose credibility in your child’s eyes and your child will not have the security of knowing where the limits are. But there are ways to be consistent and still get out of the bind you’re in. For example, give your child one more chance to make a good choice. The “one more chance” card can’t be played too often or your child will start to count on it; but if you maintain clear boundaries in the situation, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I didn’t like what you did, but I’m going to give you another try at handling things the right way.”
With an older child, it’s even OK—and sometimes healthy and actually important—to admit that you overreacted and apologize. Then you can go back and still address her behavior, and you can offer new and more appropriate boundaries.
The point is that once you realize that you’ve made a mistake, there’s nothing wrong with going back and trying to make things right. After all, isn’t that a good thing to model for them?
Common Discipline Mistake #2: Our discipline becomes consequence-based instead of teaching-based.
The goal of discipline is not to make sure that each infraction is immediately met with a consequence. The real goal is to teach our children how to live well in the world. But many times we discipline on auto-pilot, and we focus so much on the consequences that they become the end goal, the entire focus.
So when you discipline, ask yourself what your real objective is. Yes, you want to be consistent. But don’t confuse consistency with rigidity. There may be times you decide to offer your child a “do-over” because having them respond in an appropriate manner will teach them more than punishing them for their inappropriate actions. Likewise, the opposite may be true. You may decide to refuse a second chance, simply because you want the lesson to be that sometimes there are natural consequences even when we apologize. (“Sorry” doesn’t fix the broken Buzz Lightyear nightlight that was thrown in anger. An apology and buying a new nightlight with his own money might teach more.)
So the next time you respond to a misbehavior, don’t discipline just to discipline. Do it to teach, and to help your kid move more towards being a person who handles himself well and makes good choices.
Common Discipline Mistake #3: We think that if we’re disciplining, we can’t be warm and nurturing.
It really is possible to be calm and loving and nurturing while disciplining your child. In fact, it’s very healthy, and even important, to combine clear and consistent boundaries with loving empathy. Don’t underestimate how powerful a kind tone of voice can be as you have a conversation with your child about the behavior you’re wanting to change. Find out more about WHY they did what they did and talk about how to do things differently. If the behavior persists, you may need to think of ways to encourage your child to make different choices. There are many ways to do this that don’t require taking things away, but if you find that you need to remove a privilege, do it in a way that’s considerate and warm. (If you are punitive and “mean” in your tone, your child will focus on YOUR bad behavior and not on their own!)
Here’s how setting a limit and warmth can go together: think of it as a two-step process. First, you provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone: “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and we talked about how bike riding is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. You broke the helmet rule, so the bike will stay in the garage tomorrow and you’ll be more likely to remember how important the helmet is next time you are deciding if you will wear it.” Then second, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences: “I know that losing the privilege of riding tomorrow is disappointing.” You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m making this decision about the bike because I love you and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be responsible.”
Ultimately, you’re trying to remain firm and consistent in your discipline, while still interacting with your child in a way that communicates warmth, love, respect, and compassion. These two aspects of parenting can and should coexist.
Common Discipline Mistake #4: We forget that our children may sometimes need our help making good choices or calming themselves down.
The temptation, when our kids begin to get out of control, is to demand that they “stop that right now.” But sometimes, especially in the case of small children, they actually may not even be capable of immediately calming themselves down. That means that you may need to step in and help them make good choices.
For example, when your three-year-old is throwing a tantrum and ripping books off the shelf, it may not be the best time to raise your voice and insist that he settle down. Again, your goal with your discipline is to teach him, so do your best to recognize—and I know it’s hard to do in a high-emotion situation—that your little “angel” is nowhere near an emotional state of being receptive to learning.
So instead, help him calm down; it doesn’t feel good to your child to be out of control. You can scoop him up and hold him close, saying, “I know you’re really mad right now. I will help you stop if you can’t stop yourself. Let’s go see what’s over here!” Use redirection and your right-brain faculties like bodily touch, voice inflection, and nonverbal cues and facial expressions, to help him understand that you’re aware of his frustration, to help calm him down, while stopping him from his tornado-style destruction. This will help diffuse the meltdown, so that you can then begin to discipline once he’s receptive to learning.
Again, this is not about forgoing discipline or boundary-setting; it’s about being smarter and more loving in the way we go about it.
[This is the first in a two-part series. Click here to see the second four mistakes.]