When it comes to raising children, discipline is the hot button issue, says leading parent expert and author Justin Coulson...
There may be no question I hear from parents more than, ‘How can I discipline my child?’ A central element to effective discipline – that is, effective teaching and instruction – is that it cannot happen when emotions are high. Yelling and shouting are all-too-typical reactive responses to challenging situations, and while we yell and shout, we are ignoring the needs of our children and failing to see them as real people with feelings that can be hurt through harsh words. Yelling is essentially a poor teaching strategy because when our children are yelled at, they get scared. They only think of escape (or fighting back if they’re older and feeling feisty). They do not take in anything we are trying to ‘teach’ them. Instead they consolidate feelings of resentment and defensiveness. If you rely on yelling, screaming, shouting or ‘speaking in an outdoors voice’ more than you would like, the following alternative discipline strategies might help. Photo: Julie Adams
Go to your children and get softer
When we get frustrated at our children, the typical response is to make ourselves heard by getting bigger, louder and angrier. However, have you ever considered perhaps doing the opposite can be more effective? If we wish to discipline our children effectively, we must practise what we preach. We cannot lift our children to greater heights if we are not standing on higher ground ourselves. The model we set for our children will be the most powerful form of discipline they experience. So when you want your children’s attention, walk to them and speak to them softy, calmly and kindly. Your children will be more likely to respond positively because you have shown them respect. They will also respond because they can’t pretend not to have heard you – you’re standing right in front of them
Understand development and opt for teaching rather than punishing
I speak to many parents who are concerned that their two-year-old isn’t sharing or that their three-year-old is defiant. It is natural to be frustrated by this, but what we often fail to appreciate is that it is normal for our children to be unable to manage these challenges at these ages. Our children need to develop, and certain abilities take longer to develop than others. When we approach our children’s challenging behaviour with an understanding of their development, we tend to discipline in more patient, compassionate ways. Rather than punishing them and yelling at them, work with them in kind, constructive ways and focus more on teaching, guiding and instructing.
Induct your children
The most effective form of discipline will often be induction – which means giving specific and explicit instructions to our children about how we want them to behave. As parents we spend a great deal of time teaching our children what not to do. But our children learn better when we help them to understand what they should do. Instead of yelling, ‘Would you all stop shouting?!’ (which is, ironically, lousy modelling), we can softly ask, ‘Would you mind speaking quietly? Our house is a soft-speaking home’. Essentially you explain what you require briefly, then provide a clear rationale for it. When inducting children, it may help to keep in mind that because of their relatively limited cognitive development (compared to ours), they often take much longer time than adults to retain things they are taught. So be prepared to induct them again when they get excited, distracted, frustrated or forgetful.
Perhaps the most valuable form of teaching, guiding, instructing or disciplining our children is going through a process of careful questioning. Adults often have a wonderful time expounding rules, however, we really only have an audience of one – our self. The children have zoned out. It is far more effective to engage them with questions. When they won’t answer or if they grow defensive, we can acknowledge their feelings and let them know we can talk later, when they’re feeling a little more open. Asking questions helps our children think through their position. And it helps us understand how much they know and understand, which enables us to fill the gaps in their understanding without giving them long lectures on what they already know. In turn, they will do far better at internalising the rules than through listening to our boring lectures.
Give gentle reminders
Most of the time our children know the rules, but their impulsiveness, excitement or distractedness gets the better of them and they momentarily forget. Giving a gentle reminder is a technique that helps our children do the right thing with minimal fuss of effort, and maximum calm. When they show you they are listening, say what you would like them to do in as few words as possible. For example: ‘Josh, the rubbish bins’ or ‘Jasmine, soft words, please.’ Gentle reminders teach children what is expected, and they model kind ways of being assertive and clear in order to get things done. Parents regularly tell me that gentle reminders have led to immediate and significant changes in the atmosphere of their homes. So the next time you are faced with a discipline challenge, move away from punishment and start talking. Your children (and family) will be happier as you focus on teaching and working with them, rather than doing things to them. Dr Justin Coulson is the author of Parenting Expert & Author of 21 Days to a Happier Family, available to buy now at Dymocks.