I once had a co-worker with two children who never set any limits for them. Those kids were scary to be around because you never knew what they would do next. I saw them suddenly start screaming, or climb up on my desk, or tip over all the potted plants, and their mother never said a word. I often thought if it were scary to be around them, think of how scary it must be to be them. They kept pushing, trying to find the limits of their world, and there weren’t any. As a result, no one wanted to be near them, including kids their own age. In effect, they were frightened, lonely children because their parents didn’t know how to control their behavior.
Discipline is the system whereby we civilize our children to live peaceably and happily in our society. It is not necessarily punishment, although sometimes that too is needed. Mostly, however, it is teaching and guiding. Even very small children understand when you tell them in a certain tone that something is unacceptable behavior, so follow through by teaching them a better way.
WARNINGS VS. THREATS
Warnings and threats are not the same thing, although some parents seem to use them interchangeably. A warning is a one-time statement that must always be carried out. A threat is an empty promise that probably won’t happen, a lie that betrays the reality and certainty of natural consequences. Don’t ever threaten to do something and then not follow through! I can’t say this strongly enough. If you ignore this advice and threaten without follow-through, you lose all credibility with your kids. You might as well save your breath because ever afterwards they will merely tune you out, no matter how dire your threats are. If you do finally snap and carry out a threat, your kids will be disbelieving and indignant. “What was that all about?”
Also, Mom should never threaten their kids about what Dad will do when he gets home. What would you be teaching them about their father? Do you really want them to fear him? That doesn’t seem healthy for anyone.
As I’ve said before, choose your battles carefully. What things can you be consistent about? These will probably be the same things you feel most strongly about. They will vary from family to family. Some parents can’t abide disorder of any kind, others will not allow sassing, still others will not condone any fighting. Whatever your strongest feelings are, that’s where you’ll be consistent. This is a good thing, because, frankly, consistency is one of the hardest things in the world to achieve when you live with kids day in and day out.
When our kids were younger, their friends all thought they had very strict parents. When they got older, their friends commented on how lenient we were. Guess what? We were the same parents. We may have been a little older and tireder, but we set certain standards when they were young so we could ease off when they became teenagers because they had internalized those standards.
I once knew a family counselor who told me his philosophy: when kids are young, they need more Dad (meaning more structure and discipline) and less Mom (meaning gentle, loving acceptance). When they’re teenagers, they need more Mom and less Dad. In his opinion, problems usually arose when it was the other way around. He said what often happened was that dads left the care of their young children almost entirely to moms. But when their kids are teenagers, Dad panics and steps in with a heavy hand, trying to make up for years of his hands-off approach. This occurs just as the kids are trying out their independence. Not only does it not work--he can’t really change their behavior no matter how hard he comes down on them--but it also causes terrible rifts in the family.
NATURAL AND LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES
Whenever possible use natural or logical consequences when your child misbehaves. Unfortunately, natural consequences can be dangerous. For example, the natural consequence of children running in the street is that they get hit by a car. Therefore, you try to come up with a logical consequence for the same behavior, such as not allowing the child to go in the front yard by himself. If a child won’t brush her teeth, the natural consequence would be that her teeth all rot and fall out. The logical consequence is not to allow her any sweets at all until she does brush her teeth. See the difference?
At one time we could not prevent our kids from climbing and jumping on the sofa. Granted, it was an aging couch, but it was the only one we had, and we wanted it to look as good as it could. Repeated scoldings made no permanent difference. After a lecture, they stopped jumping for a while, but soon they were back at it. I knew they just forgot in the frenz y of the moment.
Finally, thinking of logical consequences, we made the decree that no one except Mom and Dad could be on the sofa or even touch it in any way for one month. During this time they could sit only on the floor or a chair, not the sofa. The first few days there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but they eventually accepted the situation. To a child a month is an eternity, and so it seemed to them. They all remember sitting around on the floor because the sofa was off limits. Afterwards, when they were allowed back on the sofa, they were much more aware of what they were doing. For a long time, they treated that old couch respectfully and didn’t take it for granted.
There is a very good book on this subject called Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, which we’ve found to a great resource. Here’s what Amazon.com says about it:
This parenting book shows you how to raise self-confident, motivated children who are ready for the real world. Learn how to parent effectively while teaching your children responsibility and growing their character. Establish healthy control through easy-to-implement steps without anger, threats, nagging, or power struggles.