8.23.2009

discipline...


Somehow, I never really thought of this part of parenting when I was holding that little baby in my arms and couldn't stop cuddling and looking at him... and then, just like that, the little baby grew up and we needed to start thinking of some 'boundaries'. Like most small children he started to get a little rambunctious, a little more excited by the world, and I certainly didn't want to crush that... everything that you didn't think of when that little bundle came along.

Discipline... it's a heavier word these days it seems. But, it's never far away. My husband and I have spoken about our own childhood experiences and we couldn't have been wider apart. My mother, especially after my father died when I was very young, was quite lenient (but then we were two girls). My husband speaks of a sterner discipline in his childhood, bordering sometimes on more severe forms of punishment (well they three boys and two girls...). It's a hard topic to discuss at times, even with friends, because honestly, there seem to be a wide variety of opinions depending on who you speak to. Just the other night I was reminded of this subject while watching an episode of Mad Men, when Betty Draper finds her pre-teen daughter sneaking a cigarette in the bathroom and grabs her and puts her in a dark closet. Then, lately, I've received a few questions from parents wondering if I had any suggestions concerning the subject.

So, my husband and I were fairly determined not to be very stern with our son, and then daughter. My husband especially was clear that none of that would help, or do any good. We decided to take our cue from our pediatrician at the time, Dr. Michel Cohen. In his book "The New Basics" we followed his suggestion in the chapter on Discipline and Boundaries. I was laughing at his intro, but it all made sense and it took the edge off this sometimes difficult subject. He basically said that 'you have to stand up to your kids early and consistently.' And, both my husband and I have come to believe it. In our case, bad behavior from the kids - like unruly behavior, pushing, shoving, screaming, etc - was met simply by a consistent form of punishment.

I won't give you every detail but first of all, whatever you choose to do you need to stick with it. I think this is one of the hardest aspects of discipline: parents caving in on your crying child, or trying to explain their actions to their child, or losing control (or losing your cool) in the situation. At least it has been for me! And the second part that is hard for me is to stay calm and not show emotion. But I would like to give you a few ideas from Dr. Cohens book because I'm sure that it will help anyone and everyone create a set of guidelines early on. It handles the subject very well, it also gives me a bit of relief that it comes from him. Dr. Cohens whole approach in his book is a bit laissez-faire, but he says directly that his approach to discipline is certainly not! His approach is simple and direct and it really works.

First of all you should get the book and read the entire chapter (and this book comes in handy for many, many other questions that come up with babies and kids). I think that many parents fall into the trap of giving lengthy explanations to their kids for their discipline, but kids don't really understand all of that talk and it just confuses them. What they do understand is direct action. The best, and most basic form of punishment and discipline, is to simply take the child out of the situation (privately or publicly) and put them in their crib (this was a problem for us because we didn't have one), or a room, and close the door. If a public display ensues, then take them away from the setting however you can - in our case usually picking up our son or walking him away by the hand. This takes them out of the situation, they can throw their fit (and later they will get over that). If in a room, leave them in there for about 2-3 minutes without talking, depending on the age. Then when it's time to come out don't explain and talk about what just happened just let them out. If he or she does the same troublesome behavior again, repeat the action. It's important that you don't get upset, laugh, or get overly involved, keep your emotions on an even keel (if you can! I have had a hard time with this one, but not my husband...).

This works for various kinds of situations, Dr. Cohen goes on to explain do's and don'ts that are very helpful but you get the idea. But one thing that Dr. Cohen advocates, and I agree with him on this, is the need for a stern and consistent response to discipline. Maybe not at first, but you will soon see that it helps form boundaries and kids actually may need it. And, in the same spirit, we should not reward bad behavior just because we don't want to acknowledge or deal with it. In other words, we should not be the kind of parent who bribes their child to behave better. Because this just plain doesn't work, and you are only building a trap for yourself. Some parents believe that a softly softly approach to bad behavior is appropriate. This is where you try to softly explain to you child that their bad behavior is not right and that they should try to act better. Honestly, most of the time your kids don't really understand that you are saying and I have a hard time finding a situation where I have seen this work effectively. Our young children are watching us, and they are learning. The earliest lessons, even if it seems a bit harsh, are necessary to counter any later behavior problems.

Honestly we have one of each in our family. We have a boy who really knows how to push his boundaries sometimes and a girl who rarely does anything inappropriate - and only rarely needs light discipline, like a warning. You will learn what slight variation works best for your kids but don't be afraid to be stern with your boundaries. I think that people feel that all of this 'free range' parenting or nonchalant parenting means you let your kids run wild. But honestly, a child that does not know discipline is a child that is going to be a handful. Trust me.

My husband and I have a basic system now, still kind of based on Dr Cohen's suggestion. We started with what we loosely describe a '3 tier' method. In other words, it goes like this:

1. The warning. We will usually say 'that's not nice, stop that. I will only warn you twice' or something like that.
2. If the action continues we quickly follow up with 'I'm warning you, that is inappropriate behavior - stop it now, this is my last warning.'
3. Without raising our voices, and if the action still occurs, we rise up and take action - which whether or not it is public or not, means a form of time out. Kicking or screaming, it doesn't matter - out you go.

Very rarely now do we even have to get past stage 2. However, there are times when the situation is rougher or more egregious, and it becomes more complicated. I'm not going to pretend we are perfect, and there are times when I'd like to just roll out a cannon and blow up the whole darn room!! But, if this is the case, then I have learned (and you might too) that you just have to take a deep breath and regain control of yourself!

One other thing. Bad behavior gets punished, in our opinion, pretty swiftly after we get to #3. But, it is worth remembering that good behavior shouldn't go unnoticed either. Very frequently we make it clear to our kids when they have been nice in a situation, or gentle, or kind. We don't make a big fuss over it, but we do make mention of it, we like to use the 'big boy or big girl' rather than 'good' bog or girl (another suggestion from Dr. Cohen). Just so they know the difference, perhaps!

3 comments:

Stella said...

Thanks for this helpful post. It comes at a time when my 7 year old boy has officially ented the 'fresh' stage and challenges my parental authority on a daily basis. I realize I need to discipline the 'right' way or I'll be in trouble as he gets older. Your post makes so much sense and I will be incorporating your discipline tactics asap.
Thanks,
Stella
a mother of two sons, ages 7 & 2
Wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

Always interesting to hear other parents view on discipline. My little one is only two so there is not much need for it for the moment although i can see him voicing his own opinion a lot more recently. I haven't read the book by Cohen but i wanted to strongly recommend another parenting book by the Danish family therapist
Jesper Juul called 'Your Competent Child'. You can get off Amazon. It really makes you sit up and think about your relationship to your child and about the relationships in the family in general. Talks about the responsibility of the individual etc..However, it is really fantastic and i am so grateful i came across it (being from Sweden however, it's a very popular book there). If you get it Carina i would love to hear your thoughts.

Alex said...

Thank you, thank you Carina!

After reading your post, I realized how inconsistent I was in "disciplining" my daughter (age 2.5) and how this clearly must have confused her. We haven't gotten to a point where she has needed stage 3 (and rarely stage 2), but I've noticed that by being consistent with stage 1 she is much more responsive. The best example, which in the scheme of things seems minor but after a long day of work I haven't got the patience to deal, is when we get in the car to go home and rather than get in her carseat she begins to break loose for every possible nook in the car (where does she get the energy?!). If I try to put her in the seat from the beginning, she beginning to whine and sometimes goes limp (a trick she learned early on). I know that she loves to climb into her seat by herself so I want to give her that, but it's always a battle to get her in. Anyway, after reading your post, I started the following: after she bolts to the other side of the car I ask her nicely to get in her seat. If she says no, I tell her that I will count to 5 and if she doesn't do it herself, I will have to do it for her. 4 times out 5 she will be in her seat by 5. For that 5th time, I only need to begin to walk around to get her and she gets in her seat. As I buckle her in, I always thank her for getting in the seat herself and commend her for being a "big girl" (new phrase in our family). Well, she just loves it and even tells me now when she is being a "big girl"! I know this is just the beginning, but I feel a lot better knowing that there are other parents out there that strive to parent the way you describe. I've ordered Dr. Cohen's book and look forward to reading and blending his advice into our day-to-day. I will also try to check out the other book by J Juul. Thanks again for taking my question!

~Alex (mom to free-spirited Io)