To Spank or Not to Spank, that is the question.
Chris and Jennifer McKinley, with twins Ian and Patrick, seven months, and Brenna, two.
Chris travels for work during the week, which leaves Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom, in charge of discipline. "Even when Chris is home, he doesn't get involved the way I think he should or he'll say, 'Take it easy' if I lose patience with Brenna," Jennifer says. "And when he does take action, I'm judgmental about it. For example, he might try to make Brenna laugh if she's whining. I don't think that's teaching her anything."
Misbehavior Makeover:The McKinleys can get on the same page by following a simple guideline: Whoever speaks first, rules. That is, if Chris steps in first to discipline Brenna, he calls the shots for that occasion, says Karen Deerwester, an early-childhood specialist and owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, in Coral Springs, Florida. If Jennifer disagrees with his method, she should talk about it with him after Brenna is asleep. "Each parent's approach helps a child learn different ways of coping," Deerwester says. "It's important to recognize that there's not one right way to handle a situation."
When Chris is home, Jennifer should ask him to take charge of the kids so she can have some time to herself. "It's not realistic to expect anyone to parent 24/7," Deerwester says.
Three Weeks Later:
The "who speaks first rule" paid off immediately. "It was so simple, but it worked," Jennifer says. "As a result, I let Chris handle more situations with Brenna." For his part, Chris has been happy to take control more often. "Before, I'd just walk away," he says. "Now I'm dealing with behavioral issues because Jennifer allows me to." Their new discipline approach has made a world of difference, says Jennifer. "Now we can agree to disagree without arguing about it. And Brenna's listening to me more because I'm less stressed."
Janine and Michael Sillat, with Emma, two months, and Ethan, two.
Ethan has meltdowns whenever his Sippy cup isn't filled to the very top or he doesn't want to put on his pants. Michael thinks spanking is the next step. "I was brought up with spanking, and it wasn't such a bad thing," he says. "Maybe that would help Ethan listen." Janine is opposed to the idea, but she hasn't been able to derail Ethan's tantrums using a softer approach.
First, the Sillats need to understand that this behavior is completely normal at Ethan's age, says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Massachusetts. Ethan's defiance stems from his growing awareness of the power he wields by saying "No!" or having a fit. Moreover, baby Emma's recent arrival means he's no longer the center of attention -- a big blow for a child this age.
Next, they must accept that spanking is a no-no that won't solve anything. "It merely teaches a child that grown-ups can hurt him," Kendrick says. Instead, to temper Ethan's tantrums, Janine and Michael need to give him lots of extra attention. They can also emphasize the big-boy things he can do -- run, sing, and eat by himself, for example -- that Emma can't. And when they sense that he's approaching a meltdown, the Sillats should distract him. For example, they might set an egg timer and challenge him to see how fast he can get dressed.
Three Weeks Later:
Giving Ethan extra affection has had a positive impact. "Before I leave for work, we go through a hugging ritual in which he has me give everyone, including him, a big hug and then a little hug," Michael says. "He gets such a kick out of it." Diversionary tactics have also reduced Ethan's tantrums. "And even when Ethan does act out, knowing that his behavior will ease up as he matures makes it easier to deal with," Janine says.
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the March 2005 issue of Parents magazine.