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Discipline for Softies: Strategies for Pushover Parents

child with attitude

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."

How to Give Time-Outs
How to Give Time-Outs

Put Your Heads Together

Softies yearn to accentuate the positive rather than the negative -- a huge asset when it comes to successful discipline, Dr. Nelsen notes. Focusing on finding solutions to problems rather than creating punishments for them will not only take the blame and guilt out of the equation, but it will also help your kid develop a crucial life skill. When there's an issue that keeps popping up, instead of fixating on what's wrong ("This room's a mess!"), brainstorm possible fixes together (such as getting colorful boxes to organize toys or setting aside a time every day to tidy up).

"My 7-year-old kept playing with my camera even though I asked him not to. One day he dropped it, which caused damage," says Michael Pellet, of Frederick, Maryland. "Later, we talked about the value of the camera and photos, and I asked him to come up with ways to prevent something like this from happening again. Then he suggested that if he wanted to see the camera, he could ask me first. He hasn't touched it since." Pellet's approach is a smart one. It's impossible to effectively problem-solve in the heat of the moment, so don't bother coming up with a plan for how your son will clean up his messes right after you twist your ankle on the Legos scattered in the living room. Instead, wait for a time when you're both calm and can really listen to each other.

Let Pretend Play Pave the Way

It's still possible to instill good behavior through old-fashioned play. If there's a situation that tends to elicit tantrums or whining -- sharing with a sibling, sleeping alone -- Arnall suggests "practicing" the behavior you want to encourage by role-playing with your little one. This will give your kid a hands-on, visceral understanding of exactly what you'd like to see from her. For example, demonstrate what a quiet, calm body looks like at bedtime: head on the pillow, eyes closed. Through this method your child will not only learn the right way to behave (such as waiting for a turn to talk), but she'll also enjoy demonstrating what not to do (interrupt Mommy loudly and persistently) and taking a turn playing the softie in charge while you try on the role of the kid.

A SOFTIE'S GUIDE TO SETTING RULES

Much of the heavy lifting of discipline comes before misbehavior happens, not after. Having a few well-thought-out guidelines will result in fewer instances where you need to be the bad guy.

Step 1: Be Realistic

Setting reasonable expectations means first understanding what your child is developmentally capable of. For instance, 3-year-olds lack the maturity and social awareness to share consistently. If you insist on sharing at this age, you'll only end up fighting her. For more info on age-appropriate behavior, go to parents.com/behavior-expectations.

Step 2: Know Yourself

Only set rules that you're willing to go to the wall for every time, like no hitting. You may dream of a world where your kids make their bed each day -- but if you know you'll give in when they push back, scrap bed-making as a requirement or amend the rule in a way you can get behind (such as saying that beds must get made but you'll help).

Step 3: Make It Official

Call a family meeting to collaborate on a few essential house rules that everyone can agree to. Let kids contribute every step of the way -- offering ideas, decorating the list, and choosing a spot to post it. Then, if they break a rule, you can direct them back to the agreement they helped create.

TRAUMA-FREE TIME-OUTS

There's no discipline tactic more challenging for a softie to enforce than the dreaded time-out. But it's important for both children and parents to learn to give themselves space to cool down, author Judy Arnall notes. So revamp a time-out by turning it into a time-in, a chance for your kids to relax when they're wound up. You can even encourage them to customize a special space to go when they're upset, appointing it with favorite books and soft pillows, and naming it (i.e., The Cool-Down Den, The Feel-Good Space -- whatever they like), Dr. Jane Nelsen suggests. Then when they act up, ask if it might make them feel better to go to their Cozy Corner. If they're resistant, you can even offer to keep them company while they take a little breather, which gives you the opportunity to clear your head as well.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.