What to do when your child acts up, melts down, and is having one of those days.
disciplining your child
Credit: Genevieve Kote

A Smart Start

Does discipline for babies sound Draconian?

If so, you're probably confusing discipline with punishment. But effective discipline is not about punishing; it's about teaching children to manage their behaviors and emotions so they grow into self-reliant, resilient individuals. It begins in infancy, when you gently nudge your baby onto a regular feeding and sleeping schedule. It continues when you later allow her to soothe herself to sleep or to entertain herself for brief periods. It extends into the toddler years, as you encourage her to flex her autonomy within safe limits. And it becomes paramount in the preschool years, as you nurture your child's emerging character and conscience.

"Discipline is the guidance that parents give to their children to help them develop viable social and life skills," observes Jane Nelsen, EdD, a licensed family and child therapist and coauthor of the best-selling Positive Discipline series (Three Rivers Press). If it sounds like a big job, it is -- and one that requires more than that old reliable time-out. Here are eight smart strategies for encouraging the best from your child now and in the years ahead.

Anticipate Age-Appropriate Antics

Your 12-month-old is drawn to your daffodils like a honeybee -- a 20-pound honeybee with opposable thumbs that are perfect for crushing petals! You've told him repeatedly not to touch the flowers, so why does he race straight for them, in full-destruct mode, whenever you're outside?

The Problem: Unrealistic expectations. Before about 18 months, children are developmentally incapable of controlling their impulses. They're also incapable of willful misbehavior because they have no concept yet that others' thoughts and wants may differ from theirs. And what they want, more than anything, is to explore their widening world. "The job of toddlers is to learn what their eyes and ears and fingers and tongue tell them," notes Jean Illsley Clarke, PhD, a parent educator and author of Time-In: When Time-Out Doesn't Work (Parenting Press). "So you don't want to always be saying, 'Don't touch!' because touching is how they learn."

The Fix: To the extent that's practical, childproof your home and yard so your child can roam without continually hearing "No!" If he is drawn to something fragile that can't be moved (like your garden), think distraction and redirection. Encourage him to pluck dandelions sprouting from your lawn, or blow bubbles for him to chase and pop. "Interrupt the behavior," advises Clarke, "by turning the child's attention to something he can explore."

Validate Your Child's Feelings

Your 2-year-old is happily swinging at the park until she hears those dreaded words: "Sweetie, it's time to go home." Like a flash thunderstorm, she erupts into a full-blown fit. Irritated, you insist that she stop crying and come right now, or you're never bringing her to the park again. She cries louder and clings even tighter to the swing's chains.

The Problem: No one, whether 2 or 102, likes to feel bullied or controlled, which is why demanding compliance from an angry, agitated toddler invariably escalates the tantrum.

The Fix: Acknowledge the legitimacy of your child's feelings. "Think of it from your child's perspective: you're angry because she wants to stay at the park. Does that mean it's bad to want to stay at the park?" asks Nelsen. Instead, try: "I understand you're mad because you want to stay and we have to leave. But we have to go now." Then kindly but firmly pick her up and carry her to the car (remember, at this age, actions speak louder than arguments). "Don't give in to your child's feelings and don't try to talk her out of her feelings. Just let her have them," counsels Nelsen. "It sounds so basic, but many parents have difficulty allowing children to experience their emotions because we don't like to see our kids upset. But children do better when they feel better -- and we make children feel better when we recognize their feelings and their right to have them."

disciplining your child
Credit: Genevieve Kote

Show, Don't Tell

You're chatting with a potential new-mom friend at the playground when suddenly her toddler lets out a howl. You turn to see your own 20-month-old pulling on the other child's hair as if it were the pay-dirt string on a birthday pinata. You rush over, separate the kids, and sternly admonish, "No pull hair! No pull hair!"

The Problem: Your daughter hears "pull hair, pull hair!" -- precisely what you don't want her to do -- and still may not understand what she should do instead.

The Fix: Take her hand while saying, "Gentle touch, gentle touch," and help her to softly stroke your own hair. "When it comes to discipline, children this age understand actions and energy much more than words," observes Nelsen. "It's much more effective to kindly, firmly, show them what they can do, rather than angrily lecture them about what they can't."

Fortunately, by between 18 and 36 months your child's vocabulary will jump from about 20 words to nearly 1,000, which means she'll be both better equipped to communicate verbally -- and less likely to act aggressively.

Play by the Rules

You have a rule that your child must help put away his toys before bedtime stories. But you're often too tired to enforce that routine, so you pick up his toys yourself before settling down for the umpteenth reading of One Duck Stuck. Lately, however, you've begun to worry about being too lax, so tonight you insist your son put his blocks away. Instead, he lies on the floor and whines. Frustrated, you put his blocks away and pronounce, "No stories tonight!" His whimpers turn into wails.

The Problem: Inconsistency invites power struggles, since most kids, from toddlers to teens, will push to see where their real limits are, says David Walsh, PhD, author of No: Why Kids -- of All Ages -- Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It (Free Press). In the process, children may gain a false sense of power, but they lose the sense of security that comes with defined boundaries. "Kids need predictability to feel safe," explains Walsh.

The Fix: Choose a few family rules that you care enough about to consistently enforce. "You don't have to fix everything. The goal is not to have a perfectly behaved child," reminds Walsh. "The goal is to raise a confident, competent child who can recognize and respect limits." Explain the rules, and the consequences of breaking the rules, to your child. If possible, consequences should flow naturally from the misbehavior so your child can plainly see the cause and effect. For example, if the rule is no playing with your food, a logical consequence might be taking the child's plate away. Give him a warning, and let him know what will happen if he ignores you. Emphasize that if he chooses to break a rule, he also chooses the consequence. "This way it's not you inflicting the consequence," explains Walsh. "It's your child choosing the consequence by choosing the behavior."

Ask, Don't Tell

Your 3-year-old walks over to where his big sister is drawing, grabs a marker, and puts a line across her latest masterpiece. You take the marker from his hand and scold: "You've ruined your sister's picture. Say you're sorry right now!"

The Problem: Lecturing kids about what happened, how they should feel about it, and what they should do to fix it robs them of the chance to learn from their mistakes, says Nelsen. "Demanding that a young child say he is sorry is just silly. He may say it, but he won't mean it, so what has he learned other than that he should lie to get approval from others?"

The Fix: Decide what lesson you'd like your child to learn and then ask questions aimed at teaching it: "What happened? How do you think it made your sister feel? How would you feel? What could you do to make it better?" Such questions help to teach empathy and problem-solving skills. "You want to draw out information, rather than stuff it in," explains Nelsen. "We want to teach children not what to think, but how to think."

Encourage Amends

You walk into the bathroom to find your 3-year-old elbow-deep in a water-filled sink, faucet running, a steady stream spilling onto the floor. Exasperated, you send her to the time-out chair while you mop up the mess she's created.

The Problem: While time-out can be a useful cool-off period (for you and your child), experts agree it's not a particularly effective stand-alone discipline technique. "Time-out doesn't teach anything," says Nelsen. "And with discipline, we should always be asking ourselves, 'What am I teaching my child?'"

The Fix: Enlist your child's help to mop the floor. "When you encourage your child to make amends, you help him or her feel competent," agrees Clarke. With a younger child, you may need to suggest appropriate amends: "You've spilled water. Let's get a towel and clean it up." Three- and 4-year-olds can begin to suggest their own ideas for making amends. You might ask, "What shall we use to clean this up?" By allowing your child to help right her wrongs, you'll be providing her with critical opportunities to build character and a sense of responsibility.

disciplining your child
Credit: Genevieve Kote

Make Negatives Positive

Lately your 30-month-old has been testing her independence (and your patience), and you feel like a broken (and decidedly downbeat) record: "No standing on the coffee table! No throwing your food on the floor! No pouring water into Mommy's laptop!"

The Problem: Uttering a constant chorus of no's is discouraging for you and your child. Plus, if your child hears no too often, she'll start to tune it out (regardless of how loudly you say it), just as people who live close to airports grow oblivious to the roar of low-flying jets.

The Fix: Set limits with positives, urges Walsh. "There are a million ways to say no without ever using the word," he says. Instead of "No jumping on the couch," try "Both feet on the floor." Instead of "No, you can't clean your toys with the watering can," try, "Let's water the plants instead!" By correcting with a positive, you convey the belief that your child is capable of behaving, giving her confidence and incentive to meet your expectations. And if your child doesn't hear you constantly saying no, perhaps she'll use the word less herself -- or maybe that's wishful thinking!

Catch 'Em in the Act (of Being Good)

Your 13-month-old finishes eating her peaches and doesn't throw her spoon on the floor. Your 20-month-old colors on the paper rather than on the table. Your 3-year-old shares his trains nicely with a visiting friend.

The Problem: No problems here -- unless you allow these golden moments to go unmentioned. Kids repeat things that get them attention -- for better or worse. If you harp on the bad and ignore the good, then your child will conclude that misbehavior is his ticket to the limelight.

The Fix: Praise behaviors you'd like to see again. "It's much better to let kids know what they're doing right. Don't be hypervigilant to find the negatives," advises Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD, author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Marlowe & Company). "Dwell on the positives, and that's what you'll see more of. The most powerful thing you can do to encourage appropriate behavior is to reward appropriate behavior."

disciplining your child
Credit: Genevieve Kote

Time Out for Moms

While our experts agree that time-outs are not the most constructive discipline tool for kids, they are unanimous in thinking they are a great idea for moms. If you're feeling frazzled, make sure your child is someplace safe -- in her crib, playpen, or room -- and give yourself five or 10 minutes to leaf through a catalog, sip a cup of tea, or do some stretching or breathing exercises. "Self-care is so important because you can't make objective decisions if you're fried," cautions Philadelphia family therapist Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD. "If you're burnt out or overly stressed, you're not going to be able to discipline effectively."

Striking the Right Balance

You always swore you'd discipline differently than your pushover mother or relentlessly rigid father. So why do you feel as if you're channeling your parents every time your child pushes your buttons? Breaking old patterns takes conscious effort, but it's worth trying, especially if yelling, spanking, or turning a blind eye is your default response to misbehavior. Begin by asking yourself:

* Am I disciplining in a way that helps my child's self-esteem? Yelling and put-downs demoralize a child. "It's important to speak, even to babies, in a respectful tone, using respectful words," stresses Philadelphia psychologist and family therapist Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD. You want to discourage your child's bad choices, not your child herself.

* Is my discipline style helping my child to develop self-control? Here's where both overly permissive and harshly authoritarian styles falter. If you never say no to your child, you never teach him to say no to himself, warns psychologist David Walsh, PhD. "Permissive parenting doesn't teach self-discipline, yet self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of success in school as intelligence," he says. "When we don't say no to our kids, we are really handicapping them for later in life."

But, ironically, overly authoritarian parenting also keeps children from learning how to function within limits. Kids who are given no control never learn self-control; kids who are tightly micromanaged never learn how to make their own decisions. "The authoritarian style hinders kids from being able to exercise some of these self-management muscles," observes Walsh.

So how do you strike the right balance? By setting clearly defined rules and expectations for your children -- and having the self-discipline to consistently enforce them with reasonable consequences intended to teach, not punish.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the November 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.

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