It’s an inevitable part of parenthood. But discipline doesn’t have to be dreaded …
It’s 9 p.m. my baby’s been in bed for a couple of hours, I’ve had a glass of wine and my husband’s out of town and therefore unable to express his disapproval, so I decide to do something I’ve wanted to do for months: I watch “Supernanny.”
An hour later, I call my husband close to tears and let loose a torrent of my newfound fearful visions of our future: Something about how our wee baby is already manipulating us, and how I don’t know a thing about discipline and haven’t even given it a thought but and it is too late already and our only hope is to share our despair with America on national TV.
Discipline. It’s something no parent relishes, and many have mental blocks about, but something that every parent has to confront at some point. The first key, says Robin McWilliam, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Child Development, is to lose our negative connotations with the word “discipline,” and look at it for what it really is. “Discipline, of course, means teaching; any discipline that doesn’t teach isn’t likely to be good discipline.”
Ah-ha! Teaching. We want our kids to be welcomed by others, to get along in the world, so we have to teach them how to behave. It’s helpful to look at discipline not in the punitive sense, but with the idea of teaching kids life skills they can use even in that unforeseeably distant future when (gulp) adults are not around to monitor the situation.
When to Start?
Is it truly too late for my 9-month-old? Unlikely, but it’s necessary to understand age-appropriate behavior and abilities. Up to about 5 or 6 months, nothing a baby does is considered inappropriate. But as the months go by, and understanding of cause and effect deepens, parents should start teaching new expectations.
“Adults need to respond in a way that either reinforces or extinguishes the behavior,” says McWilliam. “Parental attention is a very powerful force, and any attention – even negative – reinforces the behavior.” He explains that sometimes the best way to extinguish an undesirable behavior is to ignore it, clarifying, “But that’s very hard for parents to do. And it’s made harder because it generally gets worse before it gets better, escalating until the child eventually realizes it’s not achieving the desired effect of getting attention and then it subsides.”
In some cases, ignoring isn’t appropriate. For example, if the behavior can hurt the child or someone or something else – like my baby ripping tiny fistfuls of fur from my patient golden retriever – a parent has to intervene. McWilliam concedes, too, that public places make a bad forum for this technique. “Sometimes it’s best to remove the child, or, possibly, to cave in. A very major thing in successful behavior management is to pick your battles.”
Somewhere around a child’s first birthday it becomes appropriate to augment this with other discipline techniques. Sound early to you? Experts agree that when kids start walking, they usually start pushing buttons, too. Danielle, a Nashville mom of two children ages 2 and 7 months, explains, “I started discipline with Joshua around that time really as a safety issue – keeping him out of the street and keeping his fingers out of electrical outlets.”
What to Do (and Not to Do)
No, no, no! Did you ever imagine that little word could cross your lips so many times in one day? But when is it called for? “If a child reaches for something dangerous, it’s acceptable to say ‘No’ and to say it very firmly,” says McWilliam. “But, if a child is saying ‘Mommy, Mommy’ over and over while adults are trying to have a conversation, it’s not best to say ‘No.’ Either choose to put up with it, or tell the child what you don’t want him to do. If he does it again, explain again and make sure that he understands what you mean.”
Skipping the explanation, and thus the opportunity to teach, and going straight to something like the conventional time out tends to work against parents. They often end up fighting with the child, or sitting and lecturing about what he did wrong, or insisting the child apologize. “Then you end up discussing the time-out and its rules and not the actual problem,” McWilliam points out. He offers a more effective version of time-out, a variation he calls “sit-and-watch.”
This is how it works: Give the child two warnings (explanations/teachings). If it happens again, take the child to the side of the activity – never into another room – so the child can see everyone having fun, or eating, etc. Then briefly explain, “I said not to do ‘X’. When you are ready to ‘play nicely’ come and join everyone.”
He might come and join the activity right away, and in that case say, “Thank you, I’m glad you want to play nicely now.” Or he might sit and pout, and that’s fine – it’s his decision. “The keys,” explains McWilliam, “are to make the interaction very brief – don’t reinforce the bad behavior with a lot of attention – and give the child the responsibility to decide when sit-and-watch ends.”
No Two Families (or Parents, or Kids) Are the Same
What is a problem for one family might not bother another, and this can be true of issues even within families. Often parents disagree on how to discipline, or what to discipline. “First, we encourage parents to identify and agree on what is a problem, and then help them come up with a solution they can both live with,” says McWilliam.
Christine, a local mom of two children ages 7 and 3, says that she and her husband talk about how they’ll handle discipline, though usually he follows her lead. “We do disagree at times; he’s tougher than me, and sometimes I think it’s too much. But I think it’s really important for parents to reinforce each other in front of the kids. If I disagree with what he’s saying or doing, I just wait and talk to him about it later.”
Just as the same technique often doesn’t work for all parents, it also doesn’t always work for all kids. Though McWilliam has a consistent set of ideas and processes he recommends to parents, he agrees that approaches can be fine-tuned and individualized. “We recognize that children don’t live in a vacuum – they live in families – and also in daycares and schools.” For her part, Christine says that her two girls could not be more different.
She didn’t even start thinking about discipline with Haley until age 2, but with Mya it was needed much sooner. “Nothing from my experience with Haley influenced how I deal with Mya. They’re just totally different kids, and I’ve had to come up with alternatives that work with their different temperaments.” Christine points out, though, that the one thing that works with both girls is consistency.
“I set limits for them and I try to always stick with them. I find that if I’m consistent in what I’m saying and doing, that eventually it works, and they understand what’s OK and what’s not OK.” Later, she laughs, “They still push the limits, but I think that’s natural.”
McWilliam agrees that limits are generally a good thing for children’s development. “Given few directives, children do end up pushing a lot of buttons. But make sure the limits are age-appropriate.” He also feels that consistency is important, but wants parents to cut themselves a bit of slack. “We should recognize that life isn’t consistent.
Again, I want to stress: Pick your battles. Don’t beat yourself up as a parent if you are inconsistent at times.” And, most importantly, McWilliam wants parents to know that the Nashville community is full of resources. “There are really good places that help families in a non-judgmental way. Parents should never battle challenging behavior by themselves. There’s a lot of support available – seek it out.”
Jen Frisvold is a local mother and frequent contributor to this publication.
When it comes to discipline, keep these helpful hints on hand:
- “Discipline” means “teaching.” View your disciplining decisions as a way to teach your kids how to function and get along in the world.
- Learn about age-appropriate behavior; if you know what your child is actually capable of doing or avoiding, you’ll know when discipline is called for.
- Say “No” when your child’s behavior can hurt him or another; otherwise explain why not to do it, then ignore the behavior, or change the environment (literally remove the child from the situation).
- Try using a “sit and watch” (a variation of time-out). Take the child to the side of the activity and tell him he can rejoin when he decides to change his behavior.
- Pick your battles, and relinquish your guilt about occasional inconsistency – life isn’t consistent!
For help, and/or referrals, call the Vanderbilt Family-Centered Positive Behavior Support Program at 936-0282.