A Primer in Positive Discipline: Tips for Consistent Parenting
Why is Consistency Important?
“Ouch!” I yelled as I tripped over my three-year-old daughter’s doll stroller. As I glared at the offending toy, I called, “Julia, you need to come get this stroller and take it into your room.” I waited a moment. Nothing. I could hear her playing in her room, so I was sure she’d heard me. I sighed and called again. “Julia, I just tripped over your doll stroller. You need to come and pick it up or I’m going to take it and you won’t get it back until tomorrow.” Her eyes wide, she darted out of her room and quickly pushed the stroller into her bedroom. “Sorry, Mommy,” she said.
Why did she do as I asked promptly and without argument? Because she knew that I meant what I said. I warned her that I was about to take away one of her favorite toys, and she knew that I would follow through. She knew because I had done it before.
Dr. Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!, says, “You want to build a reputation with your kids that when you say something, you mean it.” In other words, be consistent with your discipline.
Why is consistency so important to young children? “Consistency is the glue that sticks together for kids. It teaches them that their behavior has an outcome,” says Dr. Severe. They learn the cause and effect relationship: When I act like this, this is what happens. Good or bad, my behavior produces a result.
But when discipline is inconsistent, children do not learn about cause and effect because the effect of their behavior keeps changing. “Inconsistency teaches children to take chances. They think, ‘Maybe I’ll get away with it this time,’” explains Dr. Severe. When kids do not know what to expect from their parents, it’s almost a guarantee that they will test the limits every chance they get.
Many parents use the words “discipline” and “punishment” almost interchangeably. Dr. Severe says that the two are very different. “Discipline is everything we do to teach kids to think for themselves and to make good choices,” he says. “Punishment is only one small part of discipline. Punishment lets the child know that they made a bad choice.”
“Discipline should focus on the connection between what the child did and how they should feel about their behavior,” says Dr. Severe. When your child behaves well, you should say something like, “You shared your toys with your brother. That was so nice of you. You should feel very proud of yourself!” When your child does something wrong, say, “I’m sorry you hit your sister. We use nice touches in our house. Now you have to go to time-out. I hope you’ll make a different choice next time.”
Dr. Severe says, “Consistency is the foundation of good discipline. It is part of everything we do with kids.” So how do we ensure that we are disciplining consistently? Follow these tips from Dr. Severe.
Practice Proactive Parenting
Proactive parenting means trying to prevent misbehavior in the first place. “Tell your child ahead of time about the expectations,” says Dr. Severe. It is easier to let your child know up front how you want him to behave than to deal with misbehavior later. Dr. Severe calls this the “Smokey the Bear Philosophy.” It is easier to prevent forest fires than to put them out.
Be Reactive As Well
Reactive parenting means handling the misconduct as it is happening. “How you handle misbehavior will determine whether or not it will happen again in the future,” says Dr. Severe. Having a consistent and immediate consequence to a child’s misbehavior will go a long way toward extinguishing that behavior.
Develop Behavior Cues
“Give your child an indicator that now is the time they need to behave,” says Dr. Severe. Many parents count as a warning to their children. The kids know that they better be doing the right thing by the time Mom says “three.” Dr. Severe also encourages parents to give their child one warning and then a moment to think about their choice. Saying, “I hope you make the right choice” can act as a cue to your child that the wrong choice will have a consequence. But one warning is all it should take, cautions Dr. Severe. Any more than that, and your child will realize that you don’t really mean what you say.
Another effective behavior cue is asking your child a question. In his book, Dr. Severe describes how a parent should handle interruptions when he or she is on the telephone. Calmly say to the child, “What’s on my ear?” This question acts as a reminder to the child that Mom or Dad is on the phone and he should wait a few minutes. Other questions that can act as behavior cues are “What is our rule about that?” or “What did I ask you to do?” One that works well for me is “Who is the boss at our house?” My children know the right answer is “Mommy and Daddy,” and saying it acts as a reminder that they need to do as we ask.
Focus On The Positive
Every time you comment on your child’s behavior, you are encouraging him to repeat that behavior. If your child picks up his toys and you thank him for being helpful, he is much more likely to be helpful in the future. You are teaching him good behavior just by paying him a compliment. Be sure to catch your kids being good!
Let Your Child Know What Matters Most
Explain to your child that it is your job as her parent to teach her how to behave. Tell her that you love her and you want only the best for her, and part of that is learning good behavior. If your child throws a kicking-and-screaming temper tantrum at the supermarket, leave the store immediately.
Dr. Severe says, “Let kids know that their behavior is more important than anything else. Tell him, ‘My job is to teach you how to behave. I can finish the shopping later. You are my job.’” This tells your child that you love him, but also that you take his misbehavior very seriously.
Be Aware of your Mood (and Your Child’s)
Being consistent with discipline can be challenging even on a good day. On a bad day, it can be downright difficult. When you’ve had a hard day and you know that your tolerance level is not at its best, remember that disciplining based on your mood can be very confusing to children. Try to keep the basic rules the same, no matter how you are feeling at the time. Also, consider your child’s mood. “Kids accept your guidance more readily on good days,” says Dr. Severe.
Let Your Kids Be Kids
Dr. Severe says, “The biggest mistake parents make is to punish the annoying, attention-getting things, rather than just the deliberate misconduct.” Many preschool behaviors, while annoying to us as adults, are not actual misbehavior, but just a three-year-old being three. Talking incessantly, being messy, and not sitting still are behaviors that might fall into this category.
Reward Your Children for Good Choices
A popular saying at my house is, “When you act good, good things happen.” My children understand that good behavior will often be rewarded in some way. Being cooperative at the grocery store means that they’ll get to choose what cereal we buy on that trip. Being polite during a meal in a restaurant will usually earn them dessert or an extra book at bedtime that night. On the other hand, misbehavior will result in a time-out or the loss of a privilege. My kids know that their behavior determines what happens to them. Through their behavior, they choose either a reward or a consequence, and they are learning to choose their destiny wisely.
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