Guide, Then Step Aside: Discipline
Strategies That Help Kids Think Instead
There are many ways to encourage our children to behave well. But do we want them to make better choices because it's the right thing to do, or because they're afraid of our reaction? Sure it's easy to intimidate or humiliate children to become perfect little angels, but we're talking zombie angels, here. Angels without a mind of their own. Angels who are afraid to choose, afraid to try, afraid to fail-and therefore afraid to grow.
There are many ways to encourage kids to think their way to better behavior so that they grow to become self-confident, competent, moral and independent. Here are some examples of discipline strategies that do just that. Each stimulates children to analyze both the choices they are making and the potential consequences for themselves and others.
1. Use Questions
Questions provide a framework for our children's internal dialogue as they reason out their choices and come up with decisions on their own.
If our daughter tracks mud on our freshly mopped kitchen floor after softball practice, we can ask her, "How do you think I feel when I look at this mess on the floor right after I worked so hard to clean it?" "What's our rule about wearing shoes in the house?" "What do you think you can do to make things right?"
No finger pointing, criticism or shaming should be involved in these questions. And, we must also be careful not to interrupt, "give a better answer," assume an angry tone of voice or express these questions in a way that might be construed as forms of hostile criticism. The purpose of our questions is not to belittle, provoke feelings of shame and guilt, vindicate our own feelings of exasperation, or punish our children in any way. If we remember to voice these questions calmly and respectfully, our children will have no excuse to react through retaliation.
2. Describe the Problem Impartially and Give Specific Information
Maintaining our objectivity will help our children keep their minds on their own mistakes instead of what they think are ours. This objectivity can be achieved by using impartial descriptions or by giving specific information concerning their misbehavior. Both are good substitutes for more subjective remarks like criticism and ridicule, because they don't attack our children's self-worth or make them react blindly. Most importantly, both techniques help children consider the ramifications of their actions.
Describing the problem impartially would be like saying, "I see it's already six o'clock and you haven't started your science project," instead of "What on earth are you doing! It's already suppertime, and you're sitting there in front of the television! I am so sick of your procrastinating!" The first is informative and objective. The second is accusatory and subjective. One is brief and calming. The other takes more time and effort and creates antagonism between parent and child. Imagine a child's response, both internally and externally, to each of these quite different approaches!
Giving specific information also provides children with the additional data they need to consider a situation internally. Such information would include saying "Feet belong on the floor" when our child has her feet up on the table. That's much more effective than saying, "Laurie, how many times do I have to tell you to keep your filthy shoes off my table?" When we tackle a behavioral problem by describing it or giving information about it, our children are left to reflect upon their actions and make conclusions and decisions on their own. Furthermore, by maintaining our objectivity, we retain a sense of calm, we avoid hurtful power struggles, and we further fulfill our mission to be our children's greatest guide.
3. Give Limited Choices
Another way to discipline so that our children tackle their behavioral problems through self-directed reasoning is by giving them choices. My three favorite ways to provide choices are the "this or that," the "if/then," and the "when/then" techniques. These three, although simple and easy to carry out, go far in helping parents avoid those counterproductive negatives like "no," "don't," "can't" and "stop."
Let's say our child is begging to have sugary Poptarts instead of the healthful suggestions you offered her. Before she gets a chance to become emotionally attached to something she's not allowed to have, we can say, "What would you like this morning, Corn Flakes or oatmeal?" She might be less compelled to challenge the rules by if she feels empowered by having a choice. And we don't have to be the "heavy" by telling her, "No, you most certainly cannot have that for breakfast!"
If our child is throwing a fit about putting her shoes on to go to the park, we should try not to blow up and say, "Forget it. There's no way I'm taking you to the park when you act like that!" Instead, we can calmly tell her, "When your shoes are on, then we can go to the park." Suppose our child is doodling and daydreaming instead of doing his homework. We can tell him, "If you finish you homework, then you can go out and play."
Most struggles with children involve their thirst for power and attention. Giving them choices shows them that we respect their ability to make decisions and that we are willing to give them a reasonable part of the power and attention they want. These three techniques are highly effective in motivating children to think about their predicament and correct it on their own through the use of their internal dialogue.
4. Be a Minimalist
Let's face it, the more we yak, the harder it is for our children to contemplate their behavior inwardly. We can become "minimalist parents" by using simple forms of communication like one or two word remarks, facial expressions, or gestures. Suppose Alex takes his shoes off in the middle of the foyer where others can trip all over them. If we simply say, "Alex...shoes," he's reminded to focus his attention internally on his bad choice and use internal dialogue to find ways to correct it. Suppose Nancy is going on her second hour of gossip on the telephone. We can simply say, "Nancy...enough," and sweep our index finger across our necks to give that universal "cut it off or else."
The less we say, the less our risk of annoying, insulting, over-controlling, or degrading our children. And chances are, we won't say something that can be misinterpreted. They'll usually regard gestures or solitary words as friendly but firm reminders. Like all of these other techniques, minimalism encourages children to think about what they're doing wrong so that they can correct it.
5. Use Humor
Humor is a wonderful tool capable of defusing the most explosive situations. If we use our imagination, our children can laugh their way to making better choices. For example, we can conjure up our best Italian accent and play the part of a goofy waiter to get Thomas to stop being so wishy-washy when he chooses what he wants for lunch. We can tell Megan that the jacket fairy is on vacation when she throws her jacket on the floor after coming home from school.
Humor helps kids think about their misbehavior for several reasons. First, it shows our children that we refuse to fight with them, so they have no reason to retaliate. This atmosphere leaves them free to reflect upon their poor choices. And by not going ballistic, we send them the message that we refuse to take ownership of their problem and that problem will never be more important to us than to them. This implies that we have faith in them to take care of their own behavior problmes. Finally, humor defuses explosive situations so our children aren't intimidated by the intensity of the problem and can save face while they correct their behavior through internal dialogue. A word of caution, though: This technique shouldn't include mocking. Imitating their whining, crying, or tantrums will only infuriate them and make their behavior worse.
6. Render Logical Consequences
The central focus in a strong and effective discipline program should always involve natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences are those that need no parental involvement. Going hungry during lunch would be a natural consequence if a child repeatedly forgets to bring lunch to school. A logical consequence is one that does require parental involvement. For example, if Sammy is having a tantrum, he can't go to the movie as planned, because you don't want to subject others to his tirade. Logical and natural consequences are highly effective, because they encourage children to use both self-monitoring and internal dialogue to assess their behavior and its effects. They're pressed to use their reasoning skills because the consequences make sense in the context of their behavior. They'll feel that they are getting what they deserve, and this fairness gives them no other choice but to examine their behavior and make whatever conscious decisions are necessary to avoid repeating it.
Other forms of discipline like nagging, reprimands, lecturing, and criticism give children excuses to bypass this internal dialogue altogether. Instead, they'll tend to focus their attention outward, putting all their energy into evaluating how unfair, uncaring, impatient, mean, scary, or ridiculous we're being. To avoid this external focus, we need to deliver consequences with kindness and respect. They need to know that we are not the enemy-that the consequences they experience have an inevitable, Tsunami-like quality. Above all, we are their guides and teachers, and no matter what, we're always on their side.
These discipline strategies are great for both parent and child alike. Not only do they help children become independent thinkers, they also keep us from getting emotionally embroiled in their problems, something most parents would give their eye teeth for after a long and grueling day at the salt mines. And in the end, isn't more enjoyable to be your children's ally, their benevolent guide, their friend? Beats the heck out of the mean, ugly, unfair, annoying monster role we're all accustomed to!
Copyright © Dr. Elisa Medhus, mother of five and author of the provocative new book Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, has thirteen years of experience dealing with the biggest problems families face. Her new book gives parents concrete, common-sense tools for getting through to their kids, with seven effective strategies for raising independently-minded children.