Saturday, 19 February 2011

Discipline, time-outs and privilege removal

After all those serious academicky blog posts about robots and gaming, I thought it was high time to do another one on useful practical things I could share about parenting. I'll try, similarly to the breastfeeding post, not to just re-tread familiar ground and restate the (generic) advice we all absorb from parenting books, websites, and forums, but fill in some more practical experience and my own views. Being me, I'm still going to wax philosophical as well though.

Discipline is hard to get right. On the one hand, we don't want to be overly controlling and turn our kids into suppressed frightened little drones. On the other hand, leaving them too free or being their 'friend' too much does not do them any favours. Apparently, according to research done by Nancy Darling on lying, children of very strict parents who enforce a lot of rules very strictly, are less likely to lie and misbehave, but they are quietly depressed. But children of lackadaisical parents with few rules and even less enforcement, lie loads, disrespect their parents, and get into trouble. They feel their parents don't really care, so why should they?

Children need boundaries and rules that are enforced. Most parents will agree on that. But opinions will vary wildly on which boundaries, which rules, and how to enforce them. So this is what I do.
It's never too early to start using discipline. If a baby does something you don't like, it's okay to tell them so and make a grumpy face at them. Interacting with babies is essential to their development, but nobody said all of it should be happy coo-ing and loving praise! To socialize them into a functioning person, they need (eventually) to learn not to do things that are socially unacceptable. So I often remark to baby that their poo is stinky and I do look forward to when they go on the toilet. I yelp when they bite or scratch and tell them it's not a nice thing to do. Obviously, I'm not expecting an immediate result. The idea is that they, over the years, build up a catalogue of things you can do that other people like, and that other people don't like. And that they aim for the ones that garner approval, of course. On another note, I think it helps my sanity to 'allow' myself to express negative feelings as well as positive in front of the baby or children.

Once a baby is old enough to move around on their own and grab things, it's time to start enforcing the rules on what they may and may not touch or do. In our case, the house is fairly baby-proof, but the games consoles are set up within reach. Which means the baby often turns them off mid-game. This is not allowed. Of course, we know that he is too small to effectively internalize these rules, so we don't expect him to follow them yet, but we still enforce them by repeatedly removing his hands from the buttons and telling him off with a stern: "No." It takes a lot of doing, but after a few months, he will learn that there are boundaries to keep to.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing wrong with the word No. It is clear and short and leaves no room for discussion, unlike 'maybe later' or 'wouldn't you rather...'. Distract and redirect is an excellent method, but for some things a simple no covers the situation just fine. To my toddler, no means no, but a distraction or redirection leaves him with the impression there is room for negotiation or loophole exploitation. He's far too clever to forget about his first impulse just because he's being distracted.

While some things require a simple and clear no, most things require us telling the kids what we do want. Common mistakes against this, even in our household, are describing the wrong behaviour or asking stupid questions. Taking the above example, describing would be: "You're knocking nails into the coffee table?!" Although this would be accompanied with some non-verbal disapproving cues, it doesn't really pinpoint what the problem is, and what we expect the child to do. Calvin's mum is giving a prime example of asking a stupid question (also popular is the 'why' question - trust me, there is no 'why'. Kids are insane). As you can see, this isn't helping Calvin understand the problem. If and when I can keep my cool, I always try to state that what they are doing is wrong (and why it's wrong - but some things just are. Don't over-explain), give them the consequences, and tell them what I want. Whenever I find myself saying something in a negative or non-informative way, I stop to think how I can say it more positively. I don't say: "Don't go in the puddles!", I say: "Go around the puddle!". Not: "Stop yelling!", but "Speak quietly!". Not: "Get out of the way!" but "Make room!". Always be positive, both grammatically and emotionally. Catch children at being good, even if it's just a little bit, and praise them for it.

So what do I use as discipline? For babies, a stern voice and physical intervention: I move their hand away or pick them up and put them somewhere else, voicing my displeasure. Otherwise, lots of hugs, breastfeeding, holding and talking. For toddlers, the time-out makes its appearance. The best thing I ever bought was the time-out pad. With just a time-out, my kids would sneak off, and if I stuck around to watch them, the whole ignoring/isolation effect is ruined. Timing was a problem as well. Several kitchen timers got broken from being thrown or fiddled with, and without a timer, it kind of depended on how annoyed I was, which wasn't really fair. The time-out pad alarms when the child gets up, and you can set it to time 2-5 minutes (to do with child's age). When there's one minute left the red light goes orange and when you're done, it goes green. It's durable and has lasted through three children venting their frustration on it. It's clear and simple and consistent. I love it. So from older babies to even primary school children, time-out works a treat. My oldest children also suffer loss of privileges for repeated bad behaviour.

Condensing my parenting tips:
  • Make your house childproof according to a 'garden of Eden' rule. A fun place to hang around in with just a very few things that are not allowed even though they're accessable. Having just one (or a few) 'apple trees' helps children learn to control impulses (it's there but I musn't touch it) and allows them to actively choose good behaviour over bad (as opposed to 'padded room' where everything is ok and bad behaviour is impossible).
  • Say no a lot, but say yes even more. Tell kids what you want, and tell them when they're doing it right.
  • Don't have too many rules. Make sure your rules matter.
  • Life isn't fair. Try to make it fair. Admit that it isn't.
  • Your family is a model for society. Without being conformist or prescriptive, I try to model (in a loving accepting way) normal societal reactions. I can personally put up with rudeness, poor hygiene, selfishness..., but other people won't. I want my kids to get along well with other people too.
  • Have fun and make everybody in your family feel they're important and are doing well.
That is all I've got for today.

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