When your kids misbehave, your immediate reaction may be to offer consequences with both guns blazing. You hit your sister? That’s a time out.
You broke the book shelf while climbing to reach the matches? You just lost your playdate this afternoon.
Your kids act, and you react.
If you’ve heard me speak, or if you’ve read other pieces I’ve written about discipline, you know I’m a big believer in setting and enforcing boundaries. At times, giving consequences may be the best response in order to teach lessons about appropriate behavior and observing boundaries.
But here I want to make the case for stepping in before things escalate, before you have to start thinking about consequences. I’m talking about proactive parenting, as opposed to reactive parenting.
When we parent proactively, we watch for times when we can tell that misbehavior and/or a meltdown are in our kid’s near future, and we step in and try to guide them around that potential landmine. Sometimes you can even catch the misbehavior as it begins to surface, and redirect your child in a better direction.
Yesterday, for example, my sweet and usually compliant eight-year-old was getting ready to go to his swim lesson. I noticed that he overreacted a bit when I asked him to apply sunscreen – Why do I have to use sunscreen every day?! – but I didn’t think much about it. Then while I was getting his little brother ready, he sat down at the piano for a minute. He started playing one of the songs he’s learned, then when he missed a couple of notes, he slammed his fist down on the keyboard in frustration. I stopped what I was doing and walked over and set an apple in front of him. He looked up at me, and I simply offered him a knowing smile. He and I have been talking lately about his tendency to lose control of his emotions when he gets hungry. He nodded, ate the apple, and moved back into a place where he felt in control of himself.
I’m not always this quick at reading cues, and of course, sometimes no obvious signs present themselves before our kids make bad decisions. But this particular morning, I saw the signs and, out of justifiable fear at what was coming, took one simple, proactive step to address the situation.
Sometimes all we can do is react. But other times, we can take proactive steps to stay ahead of the discipline curve. That might mean enforcing a consistent bedtime so your kids don’t get too tired and grumpy. It might mean stepping in to begin a new game when you hear that your children are moving towards significant conflict with each other. It might mean telling a toddler, with a voice full of intriguing energy, “Hey, before you throw that french fry across the restaurant, I want to show you what I have in my purse.”
Parenting proactively isn’t easy, and it takes a fair amount of awareness on your part. But the more you can watch for the beginnings of negative behaviors and head them off at the pass, the less you’ll end up having to lay down the law and give consequences, meaning you and your children will have more time to simply enjoy each other.