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* Proactive parenting
A large amount of misbehavior can be prevented or at least dramatically reduced by meeting needs before they become a problem. As an adult, *my* behavior tends to be less than optimal if I am tired, hungry, thirsty, bored, etc. Many potential meltdowns can be headed off with a snack, a change in activity, adequate rest, etc. Another part of proactive parenting means that instead of just reacting to problems, we teach our children appropriate behavior first. It sounds simple, but sometimes our children honestly don't know what they are supposed to do. Don't leave them to flounder! Set them up for success by teaching them what they should do.
Children love to learn through play. Role-playing games can be a tremendous way to practice appropriate ways of handling conflicts or unfamiliar situations, to model empathy, and to build a connection with children. Finding a fun way to do something can make unpleasant times much better for everyone. Get silly with them!
Most kids love to hear stories. You can easily work in your own values without being overly preachy as you create characters that are learning the skills you want your children to develop. It is no surprise that Jesus told stories so often. It is a great way to open up further conversations, too.
* Equip them for big emotions
Many of us grew up where the only safe emotions to express were happy ones. It is so important to give out children healthy ways to express all feelings, including anger, sadness, frustration and so on. There are many healthy ways for our kidlets to express these. Words are one way, of course, but often words are inadequate. Dances--happy, sad, angry, wild--are beautiful ways to get those feelings out. Art work is another. My little ones would think of animals and tell me they were stomping like an elephant or roaring like a dinosaur. Building a comfort corner--a safe, soothing and comfortable place where they can retreat while they calm down--may help.
* Clear direction
So often we give vague advice ("Be careful") or a litany of don'ts without actually expressing in clear, understandable terms what we *do* want our children to do. There is research that shows that many children, especially at younger ages, do not even mentally process the "no" of a negative command. Even for mature minds, if I tell you "Don't think about crocodiles!", chances are, you are going to think about them even if you had no reason to before. Also, a long list is easily tuned out. Break things down to smaller steps, and wait before the next one if necessary.
We are so conditioned to saying no that we often overlook alternatives. If your toddler is hitting, teach them to give high-fives. If they are throwing things in a dangerous way, give them something soft like a rolled up sock or take them to a place where they can do it safely. We can find ways to honor their God-given need to explore and experiment that also honor our boundaries.
* Environmental controls
We try to structure the environment to set them up for success. When they are tiny, that means baby-proofing; as they get older, it can take other forms. Some people I know object strongly to this on the grounds that children need to learn to adapt to the adult environment. Eventually, they do. However, if we had an adult family member with physical or mental limitations, we would do everything in our power to make the environment comfortable and welcoming, and remove obstacles. Setting up an environment that takes into account the abilities of our children is part of them being members of our family.
Are there ever times when you feel overwhelmed and your day seems to spiral out of control? Have you ever felt the relief of just having someone listen sympathetically and understand, even if they didn't change your circumstances? Our children need active listening, too. Often the relief of being able to get it all out without getting judgment or a lecture or even advice in response helps them to manage their big feelings.
This may not seem like a discipline tool, but it is vital. Are *you* more likely to cooperate with people whom you feel a deep, loving connection, or those who seem to be critical, disapproving, angry or too hurried to pay attention to you? Filling a little one's love cup goes a long way towards empowering them to be able to act the way they should. If a child is begging for attention through their behavior, give them attention! Love and attention are not rewards we dole out for perfect behavior. They are legitimate needs, just as important as food, water and air. Also, I've seen people tell a child who is busily engaged in an activity instructions from across a room and then be surprised or angered that the child ignored them. I know that I get very focused on what I am doing and sometimes inadvertently tune out people around me. Make sure that you are connected and that they are actively listening!
* The Golden Rule
At the core of our parenting philosophy is treating our children the way we would like to be treated. In moments of frustration, if I pause and try to look at things from their point of view, I have been surprised at the insight I gain into their behavior and motivation. Looking at the root of the issue and not just the outward behavior is so important. Even when my actions and reactions would be different from theirs because of our individuality, they recognize when I am trying to look at their perspective and appreciate that.
If whining, unkind words, or other issues arise, it can be helpful to offer "do-overs" (for both of you!). and give the opportunity to reframe it in a better way. A bit of silliness helps, too. My kidlets tend to love verbal play, and suggesting that a whined, "Mo-om, I want some water!" be transformed into, "My beauteous mother, I would experience great pleasure and gratitude if you were to procure for me a small container with a liquid containing two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen," would give us both the giggles. (Of course, by the time they could actually say that they could get their own water, but you get the idea. :))
Get Off Your Bum. This is hard, I know. It seems much easier to say things and repeat yourself over and over until you get mad and punish, or ignore the behavior. If your words are to really have meaning, though, it will often mean that you have to get up and redirect or use other tools. And, honestly, it saves both time and emotional energy.
This can be loaded, of course, but for us it just means that we help. If one of the kidlets needs to do something and doesn't, we offer assistance. This doesn't mean doing the task *for* them, but rather doing it *with* them. If there are boundaries that need to be enforced, we help them do that without shaming.
It is amazing how cooperative and creative children can be. If we explain our boundaries and needs, they can often help us find ways that all of us can be happy. This is an incredibly valuable life-skill, too. It encourages thinking outside the box and care and respect for everyone.
* Natural/Logical consequences
I almost hate to mention this because so often the consequences I hear about are neither natural nor logical, just thinly disguised punishment. A natural consequence happens without your intervention--a child doesn't wear a jacket and might get cold. A logical consequence is clearly related--if a child gets so overwhelmed with the amount of toys that they can't keep them picked up, some might be put away for awhile. I don't think logical consequences are fair to a child who is too young to understand logic, but I think that some degree of natural and logical consequences can be helpful at times. It is important to check your motives--are you trying to make them miserable, or are you helping them to learn? How, exactly, will it help? Is it respectful or vengeful?
* Understanding and patience
While boundaries are important, so is an understanding of child development. No matter how you approach some things, whether you spank of not, a three year old is still going to be three. Knowing what to realistically expect can save you both a lot of grief. Also, even though children learn at a remarkable speed, few of us can master any new skill without practice. Many things will have to be repeated over and over and over. That is just part of the learning process. We recognize it with math, reading, writing and many other things; it is true of character and behavioral skills, too.
* Avoid foolish consistency
Parents have been taught that we must be consistent and follow through with everything, or we won't win. In real life, this is usually just stupid. Do we really want to teach our children to never reconsider a decision, even when they are wrong? I make mistakes sometimes. Part of being honest and responsible means owning up to it and making it right. I've had to apologize to my children more than once. There have been times when I've changed my mind because I reacted hastily and upon further thought realized that my response wasn't the best. I'm not suggesting we give in to every tantrum or anything like that, but if you reflect on it and realize that you said no without a real reason or that you responded harshly, by all means be honest and correct your mistake.
Kids learn from what we do, both positive and negative. How often have you seen even babies mimic gestures or expressions that you may not have even been aware that they observed? If we lack self-control, and yell, hit/spank when we don't get our way, lie (either to avoid some undesirable consequence or to manipulate others), call names/shame them, refuse to share, pout and gripe when we don't get what we want immediately, or snatch things away from them, why shouldn't they do the same things to others? On the other side, they absorb a lot of positive things just by watching us. We never forced our children to say "please" and "thank you", but they were all saying it fairly consistently before they were two, just because they were used to hearing it.
* What about rewards, praise, etc? Aren't they part of positive discipline?
Many parents incorporate things like reward charts, prizes, praise and so on into their toolbox. Personally, I tend to think that they are just the flip side of punishment if the intention is to manipulate. We do occasionally point out to our kids the positive results of their choices ("Wow--you guys helped pick up the living room so quickly. We have extra time for the park now." "Thanks for being so polite and cooperative at the bookstore today. It makes me really enjoy taking you places.") We tell them on a daily basis how much we love and like them, but that isn't contingent on their performance. We've also found that specific observations ("Hey, you did that all by yourself!" or "I noticed you remembered to put that back in the fridge when you were finished--thanks") seem to mean more to them than a generic "Good job!". YMMV.
I have been blessed with many wise parents in my life who share their ideas when I get stuck. There are message boards such as Gentle Christian Mothers or the Gentle Discipline Forum at Mothering.com and others where parents are happy to give specific tools that worked for them if you post the situations that are causing discord in your family. Prayer and teaching our children God's Word is at our foundation, and is not just a discipline response, but part of our outlook on all issues. Obviously, we are still in the learning process, just as our children are. Even when we know better, we still make mistakes, and I am sure that there are plenty of things we don't know yet! Grace is for all of us. Adding new tools to our parenting tool box has helped, though, both with short term issues and in giving us greater perspective on long term issues. I would love to hear about the tools that you have, too!
After writing this, I began a series of unpacking and expanding each of the tools. You can open up the toolbox with me here.