Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Our Toolbox

Photo by Goaliej54
I think that one of the biggest hurdles to gentle discipline is that most people have grown up with the false dichotomy of choosing between spanking (or other punitive methods) or doing nothing. They don't want to be permissive, and think that the only other option is punishment. If the only tools in your    parenting toolbox are spanking, time-outs, shaming, etc, the prospect of giving them up is very scary. So what are some gentle, effective tools?

* 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.

* Play
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!

* Stories
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.

* Redirect
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.

* Listening
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.

* Connection
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.

* Rewind
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.

* Help
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.

*Brainstorm together
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.

* Example
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.


Maria said...

My favorite tools all in one post! I'm sorry I have been absent from commenting for a while!

dulce de leche said...

Thanks so much! I always appreciate your comments, but I totally understand--I enjoy your posts tremendously but sometimes get interrupted or in a hurry and don't leave the comments that are in my head. :)

I'm a full-time mummy said...

What a great post!

mamapoekie said...

great post, putting it in sunday surf

Nev said...

What a great article indeed. I shall share it on my Blog if I may. :)

dulce de leche said...

Thank you! We would be honored to have you pass it on. :)

Hippie Housewife said...

What a great summary of some of the best gentle discipline tools. I really enjoyed reading it. Appreciated some of the reminders, too!

The Savage said...

(Regarding consequences) 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?

The single most important point (for me) to grasp. Thank you for a great "how to" post!!

Anonymous said...

Hi, what a fantastic post! I came from a link on Facebook and I think I'll stay and read a bit more ;)
I'm muslim so I appreciate that God is taken in in your parenting tools so to speak:)

Thank you very much for writing this and for inspiring other parents.

Kind regards Noor

Anonymous said...

what would you do if say, they said why? about doing house work, i mean i would say so its clean and we are all happy... but then come the.... but i dont wanna... and at this point is where my parents would say "because i put clothes on your back an a roof over your head" and i am going to very much avoid that response, i do those things because i love my daughter not because she does the dishes. i have a while before that attitude kicks in my daughter is only 4 months.

dulce de leche said...

That is a great question! You might actually be surprised at how much they want to do when they are small. They like feeling as though they are competent and helpful. If you do encounter resistance, try finding out what they would like to do. It may be that they hate washing dishes but are happy to clean the bathroom or vacuum the floor. If it is something like cleaning up a specific room, try games like setting a timer and racing, or pretending to gobble up the dirty clothes or finding another way to make things fun. :)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I am NOT an expert at discipline, but the child's work is one area I feel we are doing well in. Basing my ideas of some readings of Maria Montessori, I try not to do ANYTHING for the child that he or she can do for themselves. I try. Also, I model from the beginning that if you spill water, I hand you a towel. If you are 1 yrs old, I watch you, say thank you, and then finish up when you toddle away. If you are 2 you can carry your plate from table to sink. My children are 6,4,and 2. I do not require the 2yo to do chores yet but the 4 and6 yo are to do half as many chores as they are old per day. I spell it out clearly (one chore equals puttng away 10 items of clothing, for example, or cleaning 3 sets of toys,or wiping the table down after a meal.) I have never really gotten a I don't wanna comment from them as far as "chores" (there are plenty of other things they don't want to do!) and I like to think i's because my requests are NOT spontaneous - they know what to expect, how many per day - I have never expected them to do something perfectly (yes,you will have to live with jobs not done as well as you would do them!) and not criticize but gently teach and praise. Also chores should be what your child can really do. Think about it. If you wipe up all spills, put away his clothes, pour his water, even load the washer with his clothes every day until he is 10 then he will assume that's the way life is. Why should he start doing it all the sudden? like dulce said,when they are small and want to, start the habits!!! Pick a few and let the others go! If it's not a struggle in the beginning, you may save yourself some headache later. I now have a 6yo who can clean a bathroom with vinegar and water in a spray bottle all by himsef. And you know what? He does a good job. (But wiht my eldest I had more time to teach him than with the next two...) Give them child sized tools when they are toddlers - a sponge cut in half, a little wash cloth, a little spray bottle. Children may not hate to work as much as we do when they are very young unless they see that we hate it...