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main_6_keys_loving_disciplineResearch shows that a responsive, respectful connection between a caring adult and a young child is the most powerful predictor of a lifetime of good health, appropriate behavior, and success in school. These strategies can help you guide your child’s actions with love and limits.

At their best, young children are curious, inventive, eager, and independent. At their worst, they are obstinate, inhibited, and clingy! Their chameleonlike personalities and inability to use adult logic make them tough customers when you’re trying to sell them on life’s most important behavioral lessons.

And the irony is that the hardest time to build a positive, loving relationship with children and to teach them appropriate behavior is also the most important time to do so. That’s because the earliest years of children’s lives are their prime physical, emotional, and intellectual learning years. This is also precisely the time when children need to learn what they may do, what they may not do, and how to regulate their own responses when they get angry, frustrated, or fearful. That’s what self-discipline is all about.

These six strategies can help you discipline children in a positive way—and teach them how to become responsible, self-sufficient adults.

  1. Be Empathetic All of us are born with the capacity to be empathetic. Research indicates that this ability varies from child to child and that girls have a greater capacity than boys to read emotions. But by 2 years of age, both boys and girls are able to understand the feelings of others. By age 4, children have the ability to comprehend the reasons for other people’s feelings. If empathy is to flourish in a child, however, adults must nurture its development.

    The most important factor in building and maintaining empathy in children is modeling empathy, understanding, and caring—regardless of how difficult their behavior may be to manage. By beginning your response to inappropriate behavior with the statement “I’m sorry you chose to do that,” for example, you’re showing your child that you care about his feelings and have empathy for him because he’s in the hot seat. In addition, parents can develop their child’s potential to be empathetic by pointing out the impact of his behavior on others by asking, “How do you think Andy feels when you push him out of the game?”

    Conversely, reacting with anger to children’s behavior erodes their ability to be empathetic. Studies have found that while greater maternal warmth is associated with increases in children’s empathy during the second year of life, controlling children with anger is associated with decreases in children’s empathy. And without empathy, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn to share toys, play well with others, avoid angry and violent reactions to adversity, and take personal responsibility for their actions.

  2. Be Present In today’s tech-centric world, multi-tasking is the norm, with a constant bombardment of electronic noise demanding your attention. All of us have become accustomed to this reality and tend to focus on the most immediate noise while tuning out everything else. When infants and young children are introduced into this mix, their “noise” can become just another distraction trying to pull us into their world. Babies are preprogrammed to be the greatest of noisemakers because their survival depends on attracting the attention of a caregiver. They can cry at the same decibel level as the noise from a jackhammer!

    In addition, young children are naturally egocentric. They believe they exist at the center of the universe and everything should orbit around them. So a young child who tries to gain a parent’s attention will continue to try until, if no attention comes, she is left with the choices of fighting for attention (by having a tantrum, whining, or name-calling), threatening to run away, or making the cause of the stress (the parent) irrelevant by ignoring him when he finally does pay attention. When a parent becomes irrelevant, the child experiences unrelenting stress and the parent-child relationship becomes toxic.

    So it’s important to avoid ignoring your child—and to give her your undivided attention when playing with her. Make eye contact, talk to her, listen to what she says, repeat her words and phrases, guide her play, and be a trusted companion. Turn off all electronic gadgets unless you’re using them to watch or listen to a program together and discuss it. Get down on the floor with your child so she can see your face—and know you’re there for her and her alone.

  3. Talk and Read to Your Child Talking and reading to children are vital to building a positive relationship, as well as for helping them develop good behavior and social skills. The more words they know, the more they can think—because they think in words.

    Landmark studies over the past 30 years have demonstrated the importance of language in building a child’s future. These studies found a tremendous achievement gap between children who had a rich language experience during their early years and those who didn’t.

    You can start building your child’s experience during infancy by imitating his sounds. If he’s making mouth noises, such as “ba ba ba,” repeat those sounds so he begins to understand that making sounds means connecting with a significant person in his world. He will know that you are there and that you are holding a “baby conversation” with him.

    Conversation can involve simply describing the activity in which you and your child are engaged. In the car, talk about what you’re seeing—buildings, people, activities. In the supermarket, describe the items you’re buying by their size, color, and weight.

    Research on language development in children has discovered that the style of words used is also important. When talking to your child, use affirming words, such as “Good listening” or “Let’s try it this way,” rather than discouraging phrases like “That’s not the way to do that” or “That’s wrong.” When you must reprimand, state the desired outcome, such as “It’s important to leave the dirt in the flowerpot so the flower can grow,” rather than saying “No!” or “Stop that!” And when having any conversation with your child, get on his level physically so you can see each other. Talk to your child as an equal, the way you would to any adult you care about.

  4. Increase Your Child’s Frustration Tolerance One result of living in a world where we’re connected to everyone and everything 24/7 is that we feel frustrated and disappointed when we don’t get immediate feedback to every text, tweet, social media post, or phone call. When we lack frustration tolerance and the ability to delay gratification for ourselves, it’s hard to teach our children the virtue of patience.

    So begin the process by practicing patience yourself. When you’re stuck in traffic with your child, don’t fume at a stoplight or yell at other drivers to hurry up. These actions teach her that when she’s frustrated, anger is appropriate and yelling is coping—two lessons you don’t want her to learn! Instead, model your ability to delay getting what you want and keep your frustration in check by saying, “The traffic is really heavy today, but we can sing songs and make it fun while we’re waiting for the traffic to move.”

    You can also take small steps like delaying delivery of what your child wants for a few seconds at first and then gradually extending the time until the payoff. This teaches her that what she wants will eventually be there. Talking to her while she waits (“We can get a snack when we’ve put the blocks in the box”) will further build her frustration tolerance and give her words she can use to help herself in the future. Longitudinal research has found that children who learn to delay gratification when they’re young have a better chance of becoming patient, trustworthy adults.

  5. Think About Both Agendas All children have needs and wants, as do their parents and the other adults who care for them. Problems arise when the two agendas don’t fit together: Parents want to have the power to control their child so their own needs can be met—and their child also seeks power and control to meet his own needs.

    Let’s take an example of a common conflict: You want your child to get dressed and he wants to play. Your first thought may be to exercise the power you believe you possess as a parent, but his is to control his own agenda. Depending on the strength of your need to have the power in this situation, the conflict can escalate or it can be resolved.

    Instead of telling yourself that you must have control, you can tell yourself that you don’t need to overpower your child to meet your own agenda. You can say, “I understand you want to continue playing instead of getting dressed. But we need to get ready to go to school, so I would like your cooperation”—which calmly validates your child’s agenda while letting him know about yours. You can also tell him, “When you get dressed, you may play until we need to leave. You are so good at getting yourself dressed.” By understanding your child’s needs and your own, you can resolve the power-control conflict and thereby gain his cooperation.

  6. Separate Yourself from Your Child “Oh, you won’t believe how smart Samantha is. She just amazes me. She is such a genius.” How many times have you heard such statements from friends and acquaintances? Maybe you’ve said similar things yourself. It’s important to be excited about your child’s skills and abilities and to encourage the development of those skills—your child needs your support. But bragging may be a slippery slope if you do it within earshot of your child. Why? When your child becomes part of your “I’m a successful parent” résumé, she will come to believe that she controls your happiness. If she succeeds and meets your expectations, you will be happy with her. But if she fails, you will be unhappy with her. This is a dangerous position for your child to be in.

    That’s why it’s so important to separate yourself from your child. You don’t have any control over her skills or abilities or even her desire to use those skills. But you do have control over your words and actions. And that’s where you want to put your effort.

    It’s also important to separate your child from her behavior. Her behavior, after all, is what she does. It’s not who she is. If she acts out at the supermarket, that doesn’t make her a bad child, and her behavior is not you, even though you may be saying to yourself, “My child is bad, and that makes me a bad parent.”

    So your parenting résumé can certainly include your children but not their successes or failures. What needs to be on your résumé is that you share loving connections with your kids and are teaching them the limits that are appropriate for their behavior. This is what children need most as they grow and develop.

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