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Discipline is about learning

January 14, 2008

by Jenni Sebora

When we think of the word discipline, many of us associate it with negativity and having to “lay down the law” with our children.

In an article, “The 8 Golden Rules for Good Behavior,” by Susan Lapinski, Child, November 1997, it reminds us that discipline actually comes from the Latin word for learning, and that it’s actually a positive concept.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry also noted in an article on discipline that children need rules and expectations to help them learn appropriate behavior, and that we should view discipline as teaching, not punishment.

“Discipline is about a blend of reasoning, firmness, and fondness,” Lapinski noted. We want our children to grow up to learn to manage their own actions and to know what the boundaries of good behavior are. It’s our job to teach them through setting limits using reasoning, firmness and fondness.

Limits are the messages we use to communicate rules, guidelines, and expectations for acceptable behavior.

The Child magazine article listed a plan to help us use as a guide:

• Start gently, when your child is ready. Most experts say that during the first year of your child’s life, you cannot spoil him. Calming a crying baby is one of the best strategies that we can use, because when our baby feels secure, he’s more likely to grow up into a cooperative child who respects others and himself.

Lapinski also recommended being careful of expecting too much too soon.

Even at 18 months, a toddler does not learn anything when we scold her for knocking over the waste basket for the tenth time. Just move the waste basket.

Small children are very egocentric – that is, they only see the world from their own perspectives. They are not trying to be manipulative to make things hard for us.

• Help your child cooperate. We know at certain ages and stages our children will challenge the limits – test the waters. The “terrible twos” are really our children just exerting their independence.

We just need to help our children along with this stage. Give them opportunities to explore their environment safely (a busy box, etc.)

Empathize with your little one. “I know you want to do it by yourself, but maybe I can help you with your shoes, etc.,” Lapinski suggested.

Much of what we think of as misbehavior is really limit-testing behaviors on our children’s parts. They are trying to get questions answered.

• Make rules simple and share them ahead of time so your children know what is expected. Giving them a simple verbal reminder ahead of time (“remember, you must stay in the backyard, so I can see you.”) can ward off unwanted behavior.

• Limit the limits, so it seems that following the guidelines aren’t so overwhelming.

Communicate clearly. Using a matter-of-fact tone, not a condescending tone, will come across to your child better than if you us a negative tone. We can show respect to our children while teaching them limits.

Have your child repeat what you have told him back to you, so you know that he heard or understood you.

• Allow your child to help make and set the rules. Children (as well as all of us) are more willing to follow the guidelines if they helped set them. We as the parents and adults have the ultimate decision if the solution is workable, Lapinski reminds us. Involving your children in this process, though, is very helpful.

• Tie the consequence to the offense. Make the consequence immediate (if possible), reasonable and logical, the articles offer. Our children have a better chance of then making connections between what they need to do and what will happen if they don’t do it, Lapinski noted.

The AACAP states that having logical consequences for misbehavior helps our children learn that they are accountable for their actions, without damaging their self-esteem. If your child spills milk while goofing around, have the child clean it up.

If your child’s room is messy, have them clean it up before they can have friends over.

Make sure to follow through with your limits, and if you can’t consistently, don’t set the limit.

Don’t threaten with a consequence, if you can’t, won’t or are not able to follow through with. If we don’t follow through, our children will not take our efforts to teach them about limits and guidelines to follow seriously. We call these soft limits (in which are rules in theory, but not in practice). Soft limits send a mixed message to our children.

We want our children to learn to respect others and themselves, and it is our job to help them with this.

Discipline means showing children positive alternatives and an opportunity to see how their actions affect others. It teaches children to share and cooperate, to learn to handle their anger and to feel successful and in control of themselves.