Disclaimer: In the diverse and sometimes divisive world of parenting advice, one parent’s mistake is another’s best practice. So, for clarification, the way I define ‘mistake’ reflects the parenting goals I personally aspire to and is based on my experiences working with parents and toddlers for the last 18 years. I consider these mistakes because whether or not they might seem to work in the moment, they can undermine the goal most of us have…a loving, trusting relationship with our child.
The word ‘discipline’ is a mistake in itself, because for most of us it connotes punishment. The Oxford Dictionary’s first definition: “The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Oops.
Since I consider punishments the biggest discipline mistake of all, I’m ditching Oxford’s meaning and going with the definition Magda Gerber shares in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect: “training that develops self-control, character”. This is more in line with the actual source of the word, the Latin root disciplina, which means “instruction, knowledge”.
So, discipline is educating our children so that they understand appropriate behavior, values, how to control their impulses. Here are some teaching methods and misconceptions that either mis-educate or just get in the way…
There are several reasons punishments (including spanking, time out and “consequences” when they presented punitively) are mistakes. The most crucial is that children who are taught through physical or emotional pain tend to stop trusting us and themselves. Expecting humans at their most vulnerable stage of life to learn through pain and shame (when healthy adults would never put up with this) doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Can you imagine taking a college course and being spanked or banished to “time out” because you weren’t learning quickly enough?
Even if punishments didn’t have long term negative effects, the truth is they don’t work. The loving, trusting bond our children have with us is what makes following our code of behavior and internalizing our values something they want to do. Erode that relationship, and discipline becomes an “us against them” struggle.
Perceiving children as “bad” rather than in need of help
There was a toddler in one of my parent/toddler guidance classes whose behavior could be considered “bad”. He was compelled to push limits, probably because his adoring, gentle mother struggled to set them confidently. She admitted that his behavior unnerved her. That, in turn, unnerved him, and “acting out” was the way he demonstrated it.
Some days I would have to calmly follow this boy, shadowing him so that he wouldn’t push or tackle one of the other 18 – 24 month olds. When I sensed an aggressive impulse coming, I would place my hand in the way and say matter-of-factly, “I won’t let you push” or gently move him away from the friend he was tackling and say, “That’s too rough.”
There was no point in reminding him to touch gently (in fact, that would have been an insult to his intelligence). He knew exactly what ‘gentle’ meant and was clearly making a different choice. But what I would often end up asking was, “Are you having a hard time today?” “Da”, he’d answer a bit wistfully, a hint of a smile on his face, recognition in his eyes. This simple acknowledgement coupled with my calm, consistent limit setting would usually ease the behavior.
Toddlers love to be understood. They also need to know that their discipline “teachers” are calm, unruffled and understanding, not thrown or upset by their behavior. And that is the way that I have come to understand challenging behavior. It is not intentionally bad, mean or a way to upset parents. It is a request for help.
Help me, I’m tired. Help me, I’m too hungry. Help me stop hitting my friends. Help me stop annoying or angering you… better yet, stop me before I do those things. Help me by remaining calm so I sense how capable you are of taking care of me. Help me by empathizing, so that I know you understand and still love me. Help me so that I can let go of these urges and distractions and be playful, joyful and free again.
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my book:
(More Common Toddler Discipline Mistakes to come)