Discipline for Softies: Strategies for Pushover Parents

Our no-yelling, lecture-free, zero-threat guide to getting good behavior -- without being a tough guy.
child with attitude

Stephanie Rausser

My 4-year-old was kicking and screaming on the supermarket floor. She wanted cookies; I told her she could have them after dinner. It wasn't what she wanted to hear. "You need to get off the floor," I whispered fiercely. "It's filthy!" When that didn't work, I tried coaxing: "Be a good girl, honey. I'll help you." Next, I gave bribery a shot: "If you get up, I'll let you watch Scooby-Doo! later." Finally, I tried threats: "If you don't get up now, you won't watch TV or have cookies today. I'm going to count to three and you'd better get up. One ... Two ..." My daughter shrieked. I stalled, knowing that as soon as I reached "three," I'd have an even more embarrassing tantrum on my hands. I gave in again.

If you're a softie like me, you've probably discovered that implementing old-fashioned discipline techniques is not your forte. "Softies are sensitive to feelings, especially to the strong ones traditional discipline evokes in kids," says Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress. "In order to avoid them, they tend to cave on rules and consequences." Unfortunately, this means that softies' children quickly learn that acting out can get them what they want. But that's not the only problem that can develop when parents are too permissive in an attempt to keep the peace, says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series. "It robs kids of the opportunity to develop resiliency and the self-confidence to handle problems and disappointment," she explains. In other words, discipline is a must, even for pushovers. We went to the experts for the most effective strategies.

Play Deaf

Want to make sure you don't hear "poopyhead" a dozen more times today? Pretend you didn't hear it the first time, Arnall suggests. Kids crave attention, so making a big deal out of minor misbehavior will only reinforce that it's an effective way to get your attention. Playing deaf has been an effective strategy for Tara Bizily, of Edina, Minnesota: "When my 16-month-old doesn't get what she wants, she screams and flails on the floor. I've learned to just walk away," she says. "When she sees that the crying isn't affecting me, she stops."

Childproof Your Day

If you flounder when your kid has a meltdown, put the odds for good behavior in your favor by thinking ahead about his needs and keeping environments child-friendly. That's what Pamela Mattsson, of Louisville, Kentucky, does when she's stuck taking her kids with her to the grocery store -- ground zero for tantrums and acting out. "It helps to think of jobs to keep my 8-year-old busy, like finding items and checking them off the list," she says. Spending a few moments dreaming up some distractions (a fun story to share or word games) can make a tedious errand more bearable for an antsy kid -- and prevent you from having to play disciplinarian.

Grant the Power to Pick

"When my kids were 9 and 6, they used to ignore me when I'd tell them it was time for bed," says Linda Keely, of Takoma Park, Maryland. "Then I started giving them a choice: 'Would you like to go on your own or be escorted?' If they chose 'be escorted,' I'd take their arm as if we were going to a ball, use my best English accent, and lead them to the bathroom. Having options made them more cooperative."

Offering control over small decisions (leggings or tights? two books or three?) will help even a younger child feel that her desires are being taken into account, Arnall notes -- so she won't think she needs to whine or throw a fit to be heard. Just make sure you're offering options you can live with, Dr. Nelsen says (don't offer, "Put your dirty clothes in the hamper or wear dirty clothes" if you won't actually send your kid to school with stains on her shirt). Another upside: It helps kids learn to make good choices. If your 4-year-old decides to skip gloves in the dead of winter she'll probably make a different decision next time, and you won't have to be the bad guy.

Be a Master Distractor

Your toddler doesn't want to get in the stroller? Sing "Twinkle, Twinkle." Your preschooler and his pal are squabbling over a toy? Break out some Play-Doh. It may seem elementary, but for young kids, especially under age 4, taking their focus off the heated subject at hand works wonders -- better than scolding and punishments, Arnall notes. Even for older kids, humor or a change of pace can go a long way toward deflecting tension. "When my 8-year-old is ranting, I sometimes walk out the door and enter again as if I'm just coming home,'" says Tara Hobson, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "I'll say, 'Hi, Madeline, how was your day today?' She's usually so surprised, she starts laughing and it averts a crisis."

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