The Six No’s for Toddler Discipline

First published in Living and Loving.

You’ve finally managed to have a full nights sleep, nappies are on their way out and life is beginning to look up. Then you are confronted with a screaming demon in a small (and adorable) toddler’s body. Discipline, which you have been able to delay for the most part when your baby was small, is now becoming a major issue, and it’s about as pleasant to have to deal with as those sleepless nights were.
“Life,” as M.Scott Peck in his bestseller The Road Less Traveled says, “is a series of problems.” And he goes on to write, “Discipline is the set of basic tools we require to solve life’s problems.” This means that getting your child not to yell blue murder when they can’t have the choccy bar at the supermarket till, goes much deeper than not placating a whim.

Problems will happen. Discipline teaches ways to handle these problems. Sometimes disciplining a child is in itself an act of love, as it’s harder to do in the short term.

It’s a fine line between no discipline and too much. If you have no rules and your children are allowed to do whatever they want, you will in all likehood create children who are whinny, demanding, spoiled and who cannot tolerate it when things don’t go their way. (Not fun as kids and even less so as adults!)

If you have too rigid a discipline program, you’ll have many rules, you will use spanking often, see no reason to explain why and what you do and expect immediate obedience. This creates a timid child who is afraid to trust their own judgment or alternatively, a child who will rebel against the inflexible regime they have been subjected to.
The middle road is to be firm, loving,(very important) yet create boundaries that empower the child to explore within those limitations, so they can learn through experience. This road, gives consequences and sticks with them. It allows them to be heard, without entering into a debate. This creates children who are responsible, communicative, with a good self image and who show consideration for their piers.
Not only that, an American study found that self-discipline is a stronger predictor of future academic success than IQ. So teaching your child self-discipline could be even more worthwhile than simply having a better behaved child.

Children will misbehave more when they are feeling unwell, tired, hungry, upset, discouraged, feel unloved, lack understanding, don’t feel accepted or when they feel insecure. Being aware of these triggers and working, where possible, to alleviate them, is a good first step.
Discipline is not an easy issue – we’d all rather avoid it, however to develop a well-adjusted child it’s extremely necessary. It’s a fine balance however, so here are some things to avoid doing, to make discipline a growing rather than retarding process.

1. Don’t Resort to Undisciplined Discipline

A colleague of mine used to slap her child so frequently that the child got to the point of barely reacting each time he was hit. This is undisciplined discipline. It becomes meaningless and seldom if ever achieves the required behavior.

The actual word “discipline” derives from the Latin word disciplina, meaning “instruction given to a disciple.” This origin of the word gives parents a clue as to what we should do to handle the issue. Children are our disciples or pupils and consequently they will learn from our behavior. If you and your partner, in front of your child, fight and yell at each other without discipline or rationality, get drunk, make promises you don’t keep or general act in a way that conveys to the child that your life is in disarray, then you are attempting to teach the child what you still have to learn.
On the other hand if a child sees his parents as examples of self-discipline combined with love, the child will learn that this is the acceptable way to behave. So perhaps it’s an opportunity to examine your own self-discipline or (lack thereof!). Start by looking at how you deal with problems, or when life is not working out the way you wanted it to. Do you scream and shout and throw your toys out of the cot?

Not having things pan out as planned can be painful, yet through dealing with problems with self-discipline, rather than avoidance or resorting to anger, is a way that we grow mentally and spiritually.

2. Don’t Change the Rules:

One day you allow your child to help themselves to sweets, the next you yell at them for doing so. Children battle to understand when the boundaries shift on a daily basis. It creates insecurity, which they may act out by being disobedient.

Inevitably we draw on our childhood resources as a way to respond, in that we either emulate our parent’s response or swing in the opposite direction. The problem is our parents may not always have been exemplary in their methods of discipline and so you may not want to perpetuate the cycle either, by following their example or by attempting to do the opposite.

Problems arise further when your partner may have conflicting views based on his or her own upbringing, which causes further confusion and conflict. If his parents disciplinary methods were similar to those of the Gestapo, while your swinging sixties parents were way too busy making daisy weave sandals and smoking dubious substances, to believe in any form of discipline at all, you may need to negotiate some middle ground before the situation of discipline arises. Not doing so could see your child playing one parent off against the other.

Set firm boundaries and mutually agree on what is acceptable behavior and what is not. This will give you a united front when it comes to implementing the rules.

3. Don’t Try to be Their Best Buddy

When your child finds you in the way of their desire, sparks will fly. As parents, particularly in this hectic world we live in, spending the precious time we do have with our child in conflict is not what we want, particularly if we are tired after a long days work. So the urge is to avoid discipline in order to keep the peace and remain liked. It’s an understandable but perilous journey down the road to creating a precocious brat.

Remember, they may direct their anger at you but its not you personally, but rather the aspect of you that has thwarted their desire. Just because they are angry with you does not mean you aren’t a good parent or great person. As long as what you are doing is fair, you’re ok.

If you can, find a way to help your child work through these angry feelings by getting them to hit a pillow, paint, play with clay or simply showing them that you understand that they are angry. So you might say, “I can see that you are angry you cannot have the toy you want,” will allow them to see that you do acknowledge their pain and give them the chance to open up and say how they feel.

4. Discipline When you Yourself are Angry

If you’re screaming like a banshee, it will only add to your child’s trauma. If you feel you have reached maximum tolerance level, when staying calm is simply not an option, make sure your child is safe with someone else and leave him/her to give yourself time to unwind.
Acknowledge your own anger without judgment and tell your child why you need a few minutes on your own. Take a walk, visit a friend, listen to music, do some breathing exercises, lock yourself in your bedroom – even it’s only for a few minutes, to calm yourself, so that when you return you can resume control of the situation, without having your own anger to cope with. If you have screamed at your child, apologize. That way they will learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Don’t be too harsh with yourself – we all get angry and anger per se is not bad. What creates problems is when we carry anger and resentment within us.

5. Don’t Focus on the Negatives

If your child wets his pants would you yell: “You’re a bad boy, you know you’re too old to do that!” Or would you say, “Hey, did you forget to go to the toilet? Its ok that happens.” Constant negative criticism will create negative behavior. Words such as “Oh you always get things wrong,” or “you’re just a bad boy” and “can’t you get anything right,” will perpetuate the very behavior you want to avoid. Children become what you expect of them. If your expectations of them are low they will respond accordingly. So work on the positive aspects and praise those, such as “well done for packing your bricks away.”

6. Don’t resort to physical violence

With the majority of U.K. and USA parents opting for this option I am aware that physical violence is a contentious issue. However, it’s very simple – children learn from example. If they see it’s acceptable for you to hit them when you are angry or believe they have behaved in a way that is not acceptable, then why would you expect them not to lash out at a friend who behaves in a way they feel is not acceptable to them.

By resorting to spanking, we create a situation where physical violence is ok and then expect a child who at this age has low levels of discretion, to figure out why they can’t do the same. Spanking does not teach discipline in terms of teaching a child how to change their behavior, which is what good discipline is about. Sure, fear of being hit again may make a child listen to you immediately after you have hit them, but long term the behavior will remain, albeit more covert.
While spanking may create fear of yourself for the child, it seldom teaches respect. If you have not treated your child with respect, they will not treat you with respect either. And respect is fundamental to a successful relationship. Studies have shown that spanking teaches violence as a solution to conflict, increases aggressive behavior and makes other methods of discipline harder to implement.

Spanking against the Law?

Spanking your child may soon be against the law. South African parliamentarians have voted in favor of a proposed law banning parents or guardians from spanking children. The Children’s Amendment Bill states: “No child may be subjected to corporal punishment or be punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way. Prosecution of a parent or person holding parental responsibilities and rights… may be instituted if the punishment constitutes abuse of the child.” The draft was passed in May 2007 by the National Council of Provinces. Before it is finally brought into force it has to pass through the National Assembly with final approval by President Thabo Mbeki. The law is an attempt to widen a ban on corporal punishment in schools, to the home.

Sources

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, Rider, U.K. 1978
The British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog. Article entitled: Self-discipline matters more than IQ. December 09, 2005
Gallup Organisation. Disciplining children in America: a Gallup Poll report. Princeton, NJ: Gallup, 1995.
Nobes G, Smith M. Physical punishment of children in two-parent families. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry 1997; 2: 271-281.
The Mail and Guardian, 8 June 2007: SA set to expand spanking ban to the home.

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