Before I had kids, I thought the response to misbehaving children was that they needed more spankings. I was pretty rigid in my definition of misbehaving, too. Running around, laughing and talking loudly, making messes, picking up things they ‘shouldn’t’. You know, anything other than sitting still and quiet.
And see, I had this curse, too. Everywhere I went, there were kids. If they weren’t there when I got there, they’d show up soon afterwards. Not just a few kids, either. It was like a school bus was following me, just waiting for me to slow down so they could unload. 9pm movies? Yep, a dozen kids (2 infants!) Six Flags? Field trip day. Even a bar, once. So I had lots of opportunities to think how I would do it better. MY child would be quiet in public. MY child would respect adults. MY child wouldn’t throw tantrums.
Then my daughter arrived.
It started slowly, that second day in the hospital. The first thing to go was the idea the baby had to be in a crib in another room. I hadn’t even questioned getting a crib and bassinet and setting up a nursery on the other side of the house (we had monitors, after all).
It gained momentum when I read that you can’t spoil a child in its first year. Intrigued by the idea that gestation would ideally be 21 months for humans, if only their heads would fit through the birth canal, I started reading more about brain development. I also bought some discipline books, figuring I could avoid those common traps other parents fell into because they ‘didn’t plan ahead’. (Ah, new parents who know everything…lol)
We decided early on that we wouldn’t spank. That left us questioning what to do instead. We watched every episode of SuperNanny aired. Read countless books on different techniques. Explored natural and logical consequences. The more I read, the more I realized that kids, while not miniature adults, were indeed still people who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. That our job as parents was to nurture and guide them on their own path, not mold them into what we thought they should be.
I started learning what was developmentally appropriate for each age and what skills were being built. It really IS much easier getting through a phase when you know it’s a phase and they’re learning something really important from it. I started looking at traits as they would be when she was an adult herself and it made her determination, so challenging to deal with now, important not to squash.
Now I’m fully transformed into that liberal hippy mom who doesn’t believe in punishment of any sort. I think spanking, especially strong-willed children like mine, leads to aggression or paralyzing fear. I think increasing control leads to mindless obedience or rebellion. I think our expectations of children are beyond what they’re developmentally capable of.
It did take awhile to figure out ‘what to do instead’ because “nothing” is really just as bad as being too authoritarian. The answer lies not along the strict/permissive continuum, but in a different direction: connection. Now, I did have serious doubts about getting a 2 year old to do anything that needed being done just by ‘having talks’ with her. “You can’t reason with a toddler.” We certainly don’t discuss Plato, although that is what she calls the dog on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but she has totally surprised me in her ability to understand and be willing to comply with reasonable requests.
First, we made our list of rules very short, mostly based on safety and respect for life. Hitting isn’t allowed and anything declared dangerous by Mama and Papa is off-limits. The rest is pretty much left open. Then we model behavior we want, as children will mimic what they are exposed to. I call her my shiny little mirror. When I see a behavior I don’t like, I look first to see if I am doing that.
We explain what is happening to her, not only so she will know but so that she feels like an important enough person to be told these things. We listen to her input because she has valid thoughts and feelings, too.
We have expectations for polite behavior, but no ‘consequences’ for not following through. Adults aren’t always on their best behavior, so why do we expect our children to never have bad days?
I try to ask for behavior I want, instead of stopping a behavior I don’t. “Touch gently” instead of “Don’t hit.” “Play with the toys on the floor” instead of “Don’t throw.” It’s sometimes challenging, but it’s much easier for a child to know what behavior is acceptable if you just tell them and don’t leave them to figure it out by a series of unacceptable behaviors. “I want you to sit on this chair and read quietly while we wait” compared to “Don’t run. Don’t throw things. Hush. Don’t play with the plant. Don’t touch the water fountain.” and so on.
But what about those times we need to set limits and she’s not willing? Well, we set the limit, explain it to her in terms she can understand and let her know ahead of time (unless there’s an immediate danger) what our actions will be if she chooses a certain behavior. She can choose how she wants to behave knowing full well what will happen with either choice. Our intent is guide her in making choices, but not make them for her. For example, we may say “Someone could get hurt. If you throw another block, I will put them up. You may play with them gently.”
Early on, there was a lot of testing and “I’m putting this away because you threw it.” Since our goal was to teach her how TO do something not just how not to do it, we had lots of do-overs. By trying again, she got to see that certain behaviors resulted in getting what she wanted immediately (throwing blocks) and others resulted in getting what she wanted long term (playing with blocks).
I struggled with consequences like this as they can be perceived as negative by the child. We can’t make life sunshine and rainbows every moment, nor should we try. The main difference between allowing the child to make choices knowing the consequences and punitive consequences meted out by the parents is how everyone feels afterwards. A child is able to learn without negative feelings and we want to teach our daughter, not make her feel bad. In fact, people learn better when they are not stressed or fearful.
My unrealistic expectations of how children ‘should’ behave have changed because I now see them in a different light. They are acting in a developmentally appropriate way and the issue is the adult’s. They are more capable than we give them credit for on one hand, yet we demand things of them we wouldn’t expect from another adult, like sleeping through the night alone, controlling their emotions, being grateful for correction, and never having an off day.
Parents will issue commands, put their kids off, interrupt them, and not listen to what they say, then wonder why their children do the same things back to them. The answer is not more spankings for disobedience, but showing their children the same respect they want reflected back. If you wouldn’t treat your best friend that way, don’t treat your kids that way. Or better yet, if you wouldn’t want to be treated that way, don’t treat your kids that way.
**Picture from justquotes.org.