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DIY Discipline

Trouble is brewing in the block area at the nursery school where I teach. Rory, 5, is building a castle right where Emily, 4, is playing. Emily crashes her toy pony into Rory's masterpiece. "You wrecked my castle," Rory yells. "But that's where the pony is going," Emily says. Rory grabs the pony. Emily yanks it back. Now what?

As a parent, you may think the solution is to take the pony away from Emily or to tell Rory she should build her castle in a quieter spot. But as a preschool teacher for more than six years, I've learned that it's far more effective to teach children how to solve their own problems rather than telling them exactly what to do.

"When parents encourage kids to come up with their own solutions, children are much more likely to be satisfied with the results," says Myrna Shure, PhD, author of Thinking Parent, Thinking Child. "And they're also more likely to be willing to carry out their ideas without a fuss." Here are some strategies that work for me in the classroom.

The Problem: Your 4-year-old, Anna, grabs the pink flower stickers from her older sister, Katie. And that's when the argument starts: "I want some." "No, they're mine." "You never share." "I'm telling!"

The Predictable Response: "How many times have I told you and your sister not to fight? Since you two can't seem to play nicely with the stickers, I'm going to put them away, and neither of you can have them."

A Better Approach: Confiscating the stickers may stop the yelling for a minute, but it's likely the girls will soon be fighting over something else. A more effective tactic is to break the cycle once and for all. Start by saying, "It looks like there's a problem." By stating the obvious, you give yourself time to think and also get the kids to calm down and pay attention to what you're saying.

It's important that both girls feel heard, so ask them individually what they think the problem is. This will also force them to listen to each other's point of view. Once they see both sides, ask helpful questions to guide them to a solution: for instance, "Katie, can you and Anna think of a different way to solve this problem without fighting?" If one girl decides that she'll give her sister a pink sticker for two purple ones, make sure that this is okay with the other sibling too.

The Problem: Your 4-year-old, Sam, is kicking the ball around with his buddy, Jason. All of a sudden your child yells, "Jason hit me." You didn't see what happened.

The Predictable Response: "If you can play nicely for the rest of the time we're at the park, I'll take you out for ice cream on the way home."

A Better Approach: Bribery doesn't help kids solve disagreements; rather it teaches them that they'll be rewarded for misbehaving. Instead, get to the root of the problem. I've found that if I ask a child why something happened, the answer is usually, "I don't know." But if I ask for the facts ("What happened right before Jason hit you?"), kids are more forthcoming. For example, Sam might answer, "Jason wouldn't let me have the ball, so I called him 'stupid' and then he hit me."

Once you know the whole story, you're better able to help them end the spat. Let them know that name-calling and hitting aren't ever acceptable. Then, brainstorm with them until they come up with a good solution, such as playing catch with the ball. When you ask kids, "What are your ideas?" "What else could you do?" you give them the power to think for themselves. If you believe they can resolve their conflicts, they are likely to believe it too.

The Problem: Your 5-year-old, Matthew, grabs the only free swing at the playground. His 3-year-old sister, Jane, runs to you crying and says, "Matthew won't let me have a turn."

The Predictable Response: "Matthew, let Jane have the swing. You know she's younger than you are."

A Better Approach: Arbitrarily choosing sides creates enemies. Have the kids talk to each other, not to you. Children in my class often want me to fix problems for them because they're nervous about approaching another kid. When they say, "Tell Daniel he has to share," I respond, "Let's go talk to Daniel together." When the aggrieved child finally does speak directly to the other one, he feels better and becomes more confident about handling it on his own the next time.

Still, you should keep an eye on things from the sidelines. If the kids need help working it out, ask a leading question, such as: "What can we do when you both want the same swing at the same time?" The solution the kids come up with might be as simple as taking turns for three minutes each.

It's good to let kids solve their own problems. But you should get involved if your child is...

The Boss

  • If he has an it's-my-way-or-the-highway attitude, it's time to set some ground rules: Each kid gets to take a turn playing the game he wants.

The Pushover

  • Pull your kid aside and let her know that it's okay to speak up: Her friends don't always have to get their way.

The Negotiator

  • Your kid constantly uses bribery ("Let me play with the ball, and I'll give you candy") to get what he wants. Explain that friendship is about give-and-take -- not about getting the upper hand.

The Victim

  • Teasing can be a tough thing for preschoolers to respond to on the spot. Help your child come up with what to say ahead of time by asking, "What's something good to do or say when you're teased?"

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine