When it comes to parenting, there are the things that come naturally. Then, there are a few things that don’t. One thing I find particularly tricky sometimes and positive discipline. It’s not that I think that positive discipline doesn’t come naturally, I think it does. It’s logical and feels like the right thing to do; I guess it just doesn’t always come easily.
Breastfeeding, babywearing and co-sleeping, these things come easily. Oh I know, they each come with their own challenges but what I mean is that they never make me feel at odds with my emotions. Discipline, on the other hand, becomes hard when my own emotions are out of control: when I’m angry, when I’m frustrated or when I’m just at my wit’s end. It’s hard to think straight with a hysterical kid (or two, or four!)
I think about discipline all the time because I find it’s one of those things that sounds great in theory, but can be difficult to put into practice: discipline, positive discipline, consequences vs. punishment, using my power (as a parent; as a larger person) to make my kids do what I want vs. teaching them the right thing to do.
Here are my thoughts on positive discipline with a disclaimer: this is what I do in ideal situations; this is what I think about when all the kids are sleeping:
I don’t spank.
For the longest time I’d hear AP types say that time outs aren’t great; that ‘time ins’ are better. I’d always think “what the hell is a time in!” or I’d think “well, they can use time ins for their kids but I don’t want unruly kids!” Of course I realize now these statements are silly. I think a lot of people confuse positive discipline with NO discipline. I didn’t relay get it (why time outs might not be so great) until I read Barbara Coloroso’s Kids are Worth it. And then I totally got it – it was like a light bulb going off. Then the challenge became: now what do I do?
I use time-outs when I need a time out (when I’ve lost my temper and am so mad that I don’t know what to do; or when I just need to cool off) or when I need to restore calm when everyone is screaming/crying: you go sit on that chair, you go to your room, you go sit on the stairs; then I can talk to each one without another kid interrupting. I’m not really crazy about time outs – honestly I’m not, but I find most parenting books that are against time outs don’t really have any ideas; or at least not ideas that I like or that work for me. So I use them as a last resort. I don’t think time-outs are the worst thing in the world, for sure; and I certainly wouldn’t say that they are necessarily damaging, I just think that they don’t really make all that much sense, they don’t really work, and there are better ways.
A note about time outs as a punishment for temper tantrums: it has been my experience that when my kids are hysterical a time out is the worst thing I can do for them. They are not able to ‘think about what they’ve done’, all they know is that they are having a time out and they will do or say anything to get out of it – and what does this accomplish? It accomplishes nothing as far as I’m concerned.
Son-S (he’s three) in particular used to have (and still has sometimes) crazy temper tantrums and I found the best way to deal with them hands-down is to pick him up, give him a hug, console him and help him calm down. There is no way I could talk to him, reason with him or otherwise teach him anything when his is hysterical. I truly believe that when kids are having tantrums it is an awful feeling for them. They don’t want to have a tantrum. They aren’t manipulating their parents. They honestly and truly lack the skills to deal with their emotions and what they need most is our help. I really think that they can’t help themselves.
When I’m having a hard time with one of the kids, I try not to make threats that are strictly punitive. So I don’t say “Either put your shoes on or I’ll take away your favourite toy.” A favourite toy has nothing to do with putting shoes on. I will say something like “If you don’t put your shoes on, we can’t go to the park” because these two are directly related and we literally cannot go to the park if kids aren’t wearing shoes.
I hate threats and I don’t ever threaten any punishment that will affect the other kids “Do XXXX or we’re going home right now!” or “We’re not going to come to Grandma’s house anymore if you can’t behave” Of course we’re going to come to Grandma’s house again – this kind of punishment drives me crazy! Besides, these types of punishments would punish me and the other kids too. The only time I make exceptions is when safety becomes an issue: “if you keep running into the parking lot we’re not going to be able to come to this park anymore because it’s not safe.”
I also don’t believe in taking toys/TV/games away as a punishment. I honestly don’t believe this works. When a kid is sad because they’ve lost their favourite toy, hours or even days after the initial punishment, I don’t think they really make the connection between it and whatever they did to be punished, know what I mean? They don’t stop and think in the heat of the moment “oh, I’d better not hit my brother because last time I lost TV for 2 days and I felt really sad about it” No WAY are they thinking that! And even if they were, this kind of punishment is teaching them “oh I’d better not hit my brother because I will lose my TV privileges” instead of “I shouldn’t hit my brother because it is wrong and it hurts him.” Again the only exception is if, for example, someone is using a hockey stick to hit another kid. I would take the hockey stick away if they continued to hit but in my mind this is a consequence, not a punishment.
Another example (this happened recently) is this: Son-S spilled dry cereal all over the floor and was stepping on it with his bare feet making a huge mess. I kept my cool and just told him that he had to clean it up. As far as I’m concerned there is no point in yelling at him, or sending him to his room; he is dealing with the direct consequences of his actions: he is cleaning up the mess he has made.
I try (and sometimes this is really hard) to give the kids leeway when I can. They want to wear socks and shoes on the hottest day of the summer (instead of sandals), well, who cares? They want to grow their hair, get a mohawk, wear their clothes inside out, whatever – I really like to let them have little victories sometimes. So when they ask me something and my immediate response is “no”, I have to stop and think about why I am saying no. If I can’t really think of a good reason to say no, then I say yes.
I try to talk to the kids about why. Why shouldn’t they hit their brothers/sister, why can’t they eat candy all day, why can’t they watch TV all day, why don’t I like talking back/sauciness (and how people think differently of me and them when they hear them talking like this). I find this is often the best way of getting through to them – much more effective than some arbitrary punishment!
I guess I just don’t think that anything punitive really makes much sense. I think this way of thinking comes from a time when kids “speak when spoken to” and do what they’re told “because I said so”. These things are about control and fear. I want my kids to learn not be controlled.
These are things that I am constantly working on. Mr. Family Nature and I regularly talk about discipline and strategies to help us control our anger. One tip we learned was to take the blame out of the situation. If you remove blame (blaming the kids, blaming the parents, whatever) then you’re left with a teaching situation, rather than a situation in which you are trying to control behaviour or impose power.
Another tip that I try to remember (even in the heat of the moment) is that if we can take anger out of a situation … wait, that’s not quite right. It’s okay to be angry but it’s also important to recognize that you are angry and make a conscious effort NOT to make any decisions based on anger. I think spanking is done out of anger, a parent’s own anger. Does is actually prevent or correct behaviour? No, I think it’s been proven again and again that it doesn’t work.
I think about this a lot. I wish I could practice what I preach every time – I don’t always. There are many, many times at the end of the day, when I reflect on what an utter failure I’ve been that day because almost all of my discipline ideals went out the window. This is all good theory but it’s not always easy to put into practice. So these are my discipline ideals and what I’m always working toward. I do yell, I do get angry, I do use time-outs sometimes but I’m always thinking and striving to be better.