What does a perfect child look like? Well-behaved, well-mannered, honest and thoughtful? Never dirty, unkind or angry?
A perfect child is happy, rude, mischievous, helpful, stubborn, curious, rebellious, funny, lazy and adorable – because perfect children are trying out everything. And they’re learning and growing through their experiences.
So our job is to teach them to recognize what does and doesn’t work in life, and how to choose behavior based on that – which is what discipline is really about.
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 get 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 always make the best teachers, because children listen better to them than to us.
STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting) recommends weekly family meetings for “making decisions, giving encouragement, and talking about problems.” My family began meeting regularly when our youngest was a toddler. Children feel involved 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 later.
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 purposefully, and that emotions are manageable.
It takes a belief to have an emotion. People, especially children, can’t affect us emotionally until we’ve chosen what to believe about them and their behavior. We observe something, we decide to believe it’s good or bad, right or wrong, etc. And then we decide how to respond based on what we want out of it. The reason we choose anger as an attitude is because we want control. And we use it to manipulate our children.
The opposite of anger is understanding. That means discovering why our children do what they do – 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, fearful and yelling. Instead, our attitude will teach them that the world is a scary place.
So the point 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 for your child.
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.
Our children can be scarred more deeply by an expression of hate and anger than by anything physical we could do. Even if we don’t raise our voice – just by the message we send through our eyes, or our heart.
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 out of control – shouting, blaming, 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 way for your child to self-correct.
We tend to believe that punishment rehabilitates people and makes them better. And that, if we can get our children to feel guilty enough, they’ve learned their lessons and we’ve fulfilled our role as parents.
The only thing punishment teaches is guilt and resentment. It doesn’t inspire children to become different, and it doesn’t teach better behavior or result in a positive change in character.
Rehabilitation means to restore what was lost. By providing a way 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. More important than showing them our disapproval is teaching them how to recognize what is and isn’t effective and how to make wise choices.
So it’s important when pointing out what’s wrong 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 will 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, then doing something with that purity, like an act of kindness. All of this teaches children how to correct situations and relationships.
Forgiveness equals empowerment. 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 ask him to look around for someone who feels unloved and remind him that he’s been there and knows how that feels, and we encourage him to go over and help that person feel loved. 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 establishing a different attitude in ourselves, 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 let go of everything that’s happened and we just scoop them up and wrap them in love.
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 feel a lot 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.
One of the best ways to lift ourselves out 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. And their purpose is to receive love and to give love. For children to feel complete and worthwhile, they need 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 mouth and 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.