Cause and Effect: Learning From Mistakes
The expert: Julia C. Torquati, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Science at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; married to David, a locksmith; mother of four
Her professional philosophy: Dr. Torquati believes in letting kids learn from the consequences of their actions, as long as they're age-appropriate and fit the misbehavior. If a child's actions affect another child, you also need to help him see the emotional connection, says Dr. Torquati. ("How do you think your brother feels when you hit him or use things without asking?")
It's also important for parents to pick their battles. Dr. Torquati prefers to prevent conflict whenever possible. One way is by making sure the environment is child-friendly. For instance, it's easier to keep fragile objects out of your toddler's reach than to be constantly telling him not to touch things. She also likes giving kids a sense of control by offering choices. (Instead of telling your child she has to have her hair brushed, say, "Do you want one ponytail or two?") These strategies are great for kids 3 and under because they're still learning to control their impulses and don't have the cognitive ability to understand why something needs to be done.
Her own discipline dilemma: As the mother of four kids, ranging in age from 20 to 4, Dr. Torquati has had to deal with her share of typical discipline issues, such as kids ignoring rules because they want to look cool. In addition, "when Sonora was a toddler there was some boundary testing," says Dr. Torquati. "One time she said she didn't want to put her shoes on before preschool. Another time she threw a toy and hit her older brother Gabriel on the head."
At-home solutions: With the shoe struggle, Dr. Torquati gave her daughter two choices -- Sonora could either put her shoes on or her mother would bring her to school without them. "By the time we got there, she let me put them on and forgot she didn't want them on in the first place," says Dr. Torquati.
When Sonora hurt her brother, however, Dr. Torquati used a different tactic: "I said, 'Look, Sonora, you made Gabe sad. He's hurt. This is why we don't throw things at other people.'" Sonora obviously felt bad but didn't know what to do. So Dr. Torquati and her older daughter, Francesca, modeled the preferred behavior. They kissed Gabe and showed Sonora they felt bad he was hurt. "I asked her if she would give him a hug or a kiss too," says Dr. Torquati. "She wasn't ready to do that yet, but she hung around him with her head down. I didn't have to force her to apologize. She knew she had done something wrong."
This process works because you're conveying the consequences of your child's actions, says Dr. Torquati: "It reinforces what she did was wrong and shows her how to make it right. When you draw your child's attention to somebody else's sadness or hurt, it makes an impact. We remember things that are attached to strong emotions."
"With my older kids, I make the disciplinary action connected to the offense," says Dr. Torquati. "For example, if I see that their homework isn't getting done because they're trying to watch the end of a TV show or finish a computer game, I'll remove the show or game. And once, when my son Michael was in eighth grade, he rode his bike to school without his helmet. He was trying to impress a girl and didn't want to mess his hair. When I found out, I went to his school and brought his bicycle home. The school is four or five miles away, and he had to walk all the way home."
Her parting advice: Explaining to kids why they need to do certain things helps because it gives them the tools to regulate their behavior. "I know Sonora is learning to do this because I can hear her talking to herself," says Dr. Torquati. "She says, 'The street's dangerous; don't go into the street.' She plays in the car with her stuffed animals and tells them, 'You have to sit in the car seat.'"
It's also okay to sometimes let older kids suffer the consequences of their actions. You don't want them to be dependent on you for knowing what to do. The long-term goal is to help them think for themselves and internalize the reasons why they should behave a certain way, says Dr. Torquati. You do this by giving explanations, letting your kids know what's expected, and allowing them to learn from their mistakes.
Originally published in the August 2005 issue of Child magazine.
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