In writing my last blog on discipline, I had this persistent, nagging feeling. I felt a little stilted and quite hesitant, to be honest. I think these feelings stemmed from the fact that I do not actually implement a lot of consequences in my own parenting practices. Maybe when I am in a state of complete frustration I will do something like take a toy away from the girls. However, the more I think about it, those responses are very reactive and do not teach the girls anything in that moment either. Other than to keep their conflict quiet otherwise mom will come take stuff away. But have they learned how to share in that moment? Furthermore, when I am calm and rationale, that is not something I would do anyway. So it made sense I felt a little disconnect between what I wrote and what I practice. So, what do I really do if I don’t really use consequences?
In reflecting on what I do as a mom, I realized that I do a lot of teaching and give them lots of practice to be their own problem solvers. Often times all children hear is a lot of don’ts. Don’t hit, don’t whine, don’t scream, don’t climb…. (I hear this a lot in the schools). But they are never really given options of what they could do in that situation. And to be honest, most kids already know what they should not do. Sometimes I do hear parents tell their child what behaviour is expected, but it is often vague and abstract. “Calm down.” “Share.” What does that really mean for kids? What should they do to calm down or share? What if they think they are calm or are sharing (which often happens too)?
In their book, “Raising a Thinking Child Workbook,” Myrna Shure and Theresa Foy Digeronimo talk about how children as young as three can solve everyday problems on their own (I would say children even younger than this have the potential as well). They talk about how parents can teach their children how to think and decide for themselves of what helpful choices they can make, which can prevent behaviour from happening in the first place. Which is exactly why, I have realized, that I don’t have to implement consequences/discipline for my children, as my girls have learned what choices to make for themselves. The alternative? Adults always telling/nagging children about what they should or should not do (which often results in the child becoming externally dependent on that feedback, failing to develop their own problem solving skills, and then getting themselves back into the same situation again). The outcome is often not usually the best exchange. Think about when you’re given advice. You likely find all the holes in the advice and find a counter response as to why that advice won’t work. Or, you may feel unheard and just withdraw from the interaction, failing to take anything away at all. Certainly no learning involved here, once again.
I find I try to get as full an understanding of the situation as I can. Often times, a child may not have known any other way to get what he or she needed in that moment, so perhaps engaged in a less-than-desirable behaviour. By understanding what the need was, we can help teach appropriate skills. Rather than simply telling the child what he or she should do, we can have them think about all the ways they could handle that situation. For example, let’s say a little boy had given his friend a turn with his toy and wants it back. Perhaps he has asked and the other child says no. So, right when we walk in, we seem him take the toy away from his friend. We may jump in and tell him he needs to share and to not snatch toys away. But in that moment, there is a good chance he believes he had already shared. Understanding the full picture, we can look at all the ways he could get the toy back. Taking is one way, as is telling someone, offering his friend a different toy in exchange, and so on. Once you brainstorm your list, you can chat about what might happen after the different options (e.g., take the toy away = gets in trouble, makes his friend cry). I then often have my girls judge which choices are helpful or unhelpful.
In working through these situations, I find it best to be proactive – target key areas that you find your child often has difficulties with and do the teaching when everyone is calm, and not in the conflict situation. You can say something like, I notice its hard sharing with your brother sometimes and wanted to chat about what we can do. It is important to not leave it at the discussion – the key is to then go practice so they are able to make those choices in the heat of the moment. (I find kids often know what they should do but have difficulties doing it when they need to, so practice and practice and practice is key).