What does a perfect child look like? Well-behaved, truthful and thoughtful? Never dirty, unkind or grumpy?
A perfect child is joyous, mischievous, rude, stubborn, curious, lazy, courteous, rebellious, reckless, funny, helpful and adorable, because perfect children are experimenting with whatever’s possible.
Kids aren’t born knowing the rules.
They’re just doing whatever they want, without consideration for how other people will feel about it. But fairly soon, we begin to herd them into a behavior groove that we believe will take them effectively through life, or at least make dinnertime easier.
It’s not our job to pound square pegs into round holes. We’re supposed to teach our children how to recognize for themselves what does and doesn’t work in their lives, and how to choose effective behavior that will work.
“What did you want to accomplish when you did that? What did it get you? Is that what you want? If not, how will you go about it next time?” Then we’ve prepared them for what they’ll actually face in life.
Step 1. Make sure everyone understands the rules.
Children won’t follow rules unless they understand why the rules exist and how they’ll benefit from following them.
They want to guide their own lives. And if they’re not allowed to help make decisions, including what the house rules are, they may achieve control through breaking them, because it’s the only part of the rule they can own.
The reasons for the rules should be clear, and the results of breaking them should be related. Natural consequences make the best teachers, because our children listen better to them than to us.
When my kids were younger, I followed the parenting guidance of an organization called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP). They recommend weekly family meetings for “making decisions, giving encouragement, and talking about problems.” Children feel involved, respected and responsible, plus they grow up knowing that they have a forum for airing problems and feelings.
Step 2: Choose an attitude and stick to it.
Children learn more from our attitudes and behavior than from our words. What do they learn? Whether they’re valuable, and how they should interact with others.
And our attitude will show up in our bodies. The tone of our voice, the look in our eyes, the tightness in our jaw, the position of our hands – all these will send a message of whether we’re supportive. And if we’re not in the mood to discipline lovingly, we’re the ones who need a timeout.
Too often, our children see us reacting habitually, repeating patterns that we learned in childhood. “I just can’t help myself. It makes me so angry when you….”
It’s not that children shouldn’t see emotions. It’s that children should see that we choose our emotions, and that emotions are manageable.
The opposite of anger is understanding. That means discovering why children do what they do and working with the cause of their behavior rather than just trying to control their behavior.
We can’t raise our kids to be stable, peaceful and filled with love if we’re agitated and fearful. Instead, our attitude will teach them that the world is a scary place.
So the goal is to grab onto a supportive attitude and not let go. It can be as simple as a belief that life is good, and then looking for the evidence of that daily. Just that can give us the strength to stay calm, while life happens around us. Then we get to be in it, but not of it.
Step 3: Choose a method that works.
Whatever consequence we choose for broken rules, most important is to keep believing the best about our kids. When we believe they’re capable, that they can effectively deal with their mistakes and the results, they’ll feel empowered. As we’re confident in them, they’ll feel confident in themselves.
So while the methods we choose are important, the attitude in which they’re delivered matters even more. That’s why condemnation should be off limits. If we find ourselves shouting, blaming or bullying, the appropriate action is to walk away. It’s always what’s in our hearts that will make the difference in disciplining our kids.
Step 4: Provide a means for self-correction.
Punishment teaches guilt and resentment. It doesn’t teach better behavior or result in a positive change in character.
Rehabilitation means to restore what was lost. And by providing a means for self-correction, we help our children learn from their mistakes, which restores their belief in themselves as worthwhile people.
The goal of disciplining children is to teach an effective way of living life. So it’s important, when pointing out what’s not working, to also show a way out.
Children need a means to repay, which takes a shift in attitude. Then there’s no need for punishment. And healthy, creative intelligence is built instead.
Children who are punished frequently in their early years are likely to carry a belief into adulthood that they need to be punished by others. And those who are blamed and made wrong when young, without experiencing how to self-correct and also how to forgive themselves and others, will go through life finding fault and blaming.
Children need to learn the concept of forgiveness – first for how it benefits them, and then others. Admitting a mistake, which restores the natural purity of a child, and then doing something with that purity, like an act of kindness. In this way, children learn a valuable skill for correcting situations and relationships.
Forgiveness equals empowerment. And in the case of children, it’s the power to accept and correct their mistakes without sinking down into defensiveness, guilt or self-pity.
When our three-year-old spills juice, we give her a sponge to clean it up. When our six-year-old hurts another child, we remind him that he knows how that feels, and we encourage him to be kind, because it’s how he prefers to be treated. When our nine-year-old lashes out, we encourage her to try again, to express her feelings in a way that can be heard.
Eastern philosophy explains it this way: If we’ve set something in motion and we leave it to play out, it’s on a path that can’t be changed. But if we become aware of the consequences we’ve set in motion, and we’re wise enough to want to change the outcome, we’ll take steps to avert the consequences, either by undoing what we did or by choosing a different attitude, which will cause a different result.
It means that, if our children reach a point where what they did is no longer what they want to do, and they’ve become a person who wouldn’t choose to do it again, because the unsupportive behavior doesn’t fit anymore, they’ve corrected their own behavior.
Step 5: Finish off with affection.
Step 5 is where we set everything else aside and express our deep love for them. Believing that affection isn’t a part of discipline is a big mistake. This is where we need to show our greatest amount of energy. And it can’t be faked. If we can’t cuddle, we need to go back and start over, by choosing our attitude again.
If every time we were disciplined as children, we’d been hugged and told, “I love you” at the end, we’d probably feel better about ourselves as adults.
So don’t let Step 5 become unimportant. It’s where we assure our children that our relationship will always be more important than a broken rule.
Their purpose is to love.
One of the best ways to lift ourselves above of our problems is to lose ourselves in a purpose. The same is true for children. They find happiness and a feeling of usefulness as they discover that they have purpose.
Their purpose is to receive love and to give love. And for children to feel complete and worthwhile, they need many opportunities to express both ways.
Our children need to feel that they matter to us, that they’re needed, and that they contribute to the quality of our lives. As a single parent, I once told my five-year-old, “I just can’t do it all.” His eyes became as big as saucers, and he said to me, “I’ll help you!” We decided that he’d be responsible for watering the plants. Of course, supervising him took more energy than doing it myself. But the look of pride and love on his face was worth it.
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