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…strategizing > reacting

March 31, 2014

Because spontaneity and effective discipline rarely go hand in hand. There are lucky exceptions, but unless you have a particular genius for thinking quickly in high stress situations all the time you, like me, will not do your best creative thinking while in the middle of those didn’t want a nap today melt-down, fist pounding tantrum, sibling biting, screeching in the middle of Target, interrupting your phone call with the principal to tattle about sister hitting him with her baseball bat, 10th time today he’s taken her toy, kind of moments.

And the drama doesn’t even have to be as obvious to push our stress levels to the extreme. Just the constant repetition of authority challenges can wear on anyone’s nerves. Not the best time to be figuring out how to discipline your kid. When we don’t have a plan in place one of two things are likely to happen:

1. We use our frustration and/or anger as a punishment. Yep, we’ve all been here. We get louder and angrier and make sure everyone knows we are not happy at all – essentially, we throw tantrums. This not only damages our relationships with our children (and our self-respect), but for some kids gives them a point of manipulation they can use to wear us down. A button. A button that can be used again and again. Buttons don’t have a chance against a plan.

2. We give in. This is especially tempting in public. However, any progress made on previous attempts to change the child’s behavior in this area has just been compromised. For a second we feel like we can breathe… unfortunately, this feeling is deceptive because the onslaught has just intensified because our boundaries have been compromised. We’ve all been here. At this point denial often sets in, along with all kinds of excuses as to why we couldn’t handle it, or we tell ourselves that it’s just kids being kids and that they’ll grow out of it. Deep down we know neither are true. They may grow out of a specific way to avoid responsible choices, but they will find others; and you absolutely can handle this. You just need an effective plan.

These reactions compromise the overall goals of helping our children to have self-discipline and become responsible – to deny themselves and choose what’s right over what they want at that moment. But to accomplish this we must have a plan that we can immediately fall back onto before “Fine, whatever,” or Parent-Sized-Meltdowns start to sound like good ideas.

So, here’s how a plan looks:

Step 1: Once a week or so (more often when needed), sit down and really evaluate which areas you’re struggling to discipline each of your children in. If you’re married it is important that you do this together to have a united front. Come up with a consequence for each issue that you feel will not only be effective but, ideally, teach the moral of the story as well. For instance, if you’re kids are around 10 and 8 and your son has started making rude comments to his little sister to get under her skin (not naming names here… ;)), after evaluating the situation you might assign him the task of serving her for a day explaining that he also has to try to think of things that could be helpful to her without being asked to prove to her that he cares about her. The method you use will vary by personality and developmental age of your kid. For instance, if your kids are younger, simpler forms of discipline can be more effective. If one strategy does not work, revamp it in your next session.

Step 2: For most offenses you’ll need to communicate to the child the agreed upon consequences as soon as they’ve been established. Explain to them that they have a choice: to follow your rule, or to accept the consequences. The key is that it is then their responsibility to choose. This step is critical. The child deserves to know what your boundaries are and what will happen if they cross them. Surprise consequences often leave them with a feeling of injustice instead of the knowledge of their personal responsibility. For very young ones the consistent repetition of the decided on discipline serves as the communication (for example: every time my baby son tried to screech his displeasure we’d interrupt the screech by blowing in his face until he stopped – this was at 2 months old; for my daughter it required flicking her cheek along with a firm “no” each time because she started at about 7 months and had stronger lungs by then), but after about 18-24 months explaining in age appropriate terms becomes more and more important. Remember that little ones understand more than they are able to communicate, but action speaks louder than words.

Step 3: Follow through consistently. Consistency has been the mantra of every parenting book and guru for as long as I can remember, but practicing it still seems to be extremely difficult for most of us. Fortunately, the first two steps I just shared with you, once implemented, will make staying consistent much, much easier. One thing to remember, especially when starting a new strategy or dealing with a new issue, is that it will take some time for your kids to adjust. They may not believe that you’ll follow through if you’ve given in in the past. Generally, you’ll start to feel the positive effects within a few weeks. Just remember to be more stubborn than your child.

Also, it’s generally a good idea to think of an escalation consequence in case the first level doesn’t work right away. In other words, if he does something once he might be given a warning (especially if he’s young or the consequence for this issue is a new one) and reminded of the consequences, but if he repeats it the first level of consequence is put into effect. If that fails to convince him, the next level is used.

Obviously, your child will never become perfect. They will go through changes and with each stage they’ll need new strategies for learning self-discipline and responsibility, but utilizing a plan will make your job easier and leave you with more time to really enjoy your kids – making for a more peaceful, relaxing home and more secure, happy kids.

Ok, now after you’ve started your plan let me know how it’s going. 

 If you have any specific issue you’ve been unable to find the right consequence for, please feel free to explain your issue in a comment along with the options you’ve already tried. Full Disclosure: I believe that spanking, when limited, never done in anger, but with ample forewarning as outlined in the plan, can be effective for some types of offenses (for most kids), particularly when they’re 2-7. If you are trying to avoid it, I respect your choice, so just let me know if you’ve taken that strategy off the table.

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