Imagine all the ways that you were disciplined as a child. I'll let you take a moment and create your inventory. Imagine or write down all the different ways your parents disciplined you and your siblings. Perhaps the same, perhaps differently. Today, my goal is to shift your mindset regarding how you were disciplined as a child. As a result, I hope that you are able to shift your mindset regarding how you discipline your own children today.
When I first practiced this exercise, I wrote down things like "spankings with a wooden spoon", "yelling and threats", "banished to my room", "restriction", "one time a belt to the leg". These were not happy memories. These were moments when my parents laid into me as they tried different methods to get me to comply. I cannot imagine the frustration they must have felt as they did their best to parent five vastly different children who required five vastly different parenting styles. At the time, they were disciplining us the best they could.
Now, what if I were to tell you that the list that you and I both came up with is not quite the full picture of what discipline is? The list we came up with was the list of punishments that were inflicted on us when we were non-compliant to our parents’ requests. Discipline, by definition, means “to teach.” As such, parents are disciplining their children all the time, not just when their children misbehave. There is much power to be found through looking to kind and firm techniques to discipline your children – not just the punishments.
Punishments are the easy way out. It is easy to spank a child who is misbehaving. It is a short-term fix that offers instant gratification. However, teaching your child the appropriate behavior while staying consistent with follow through is a much tougher practice. Reinforcing your patience as a parent, staying curious as to why your child is acting out, and quickly assessing and applying an appropriate consequence takes a lot of work and practice. The difference between executing punishments verse long-term positive discipline all comes down to building intrinsic verse extrinsic motivation.
Let's all agree that we want our children to make healthy choices. We all hope our kids would not eat the hyper-sugary fifth cookie when offered. We fantasize that they would look inside and make a more healthy choice, but doing so takes the ability to look inward and assess the consequences. When a child has been taught to rely on the external tool of a parent's management to know whether or not to eat the cookie, have no doubt that the cookie is getting eaten when the parent is not around to enforce a healthier choice. When a child's choice is fostered and reinforced using the consequence of their actions, then when the cookie is offered, the child will internally think about their choice, realize that it may be too much to have another and feel proud of his choice to stay healthy.
Punishments often create rebellion, revenge, and retreat. Positive Discipline explains these as the 3 R's of Punishment.
REBELLION: "They can't make me. I'll do what I want"
REVENGE: "I'll get even and hurt back, even if it hurts me."
RETREAT: "I must be a bad person" (low self-esteem) "I just won't get caught next time." (sneaky)
The message that often gets overlooked is children are ALWAYS making decisions in response to their experiences, and that these decisions affect them for the rest of their lives -- even when they are not consciously aware of their decisions. Being kind and firm at the same time helps children feel a sense of belonging and significance. This is often counter-intuitive to the typical parenting paradigm. I work with clients to help them lean into empathizing and connecting to their children before redirecting. When kindness is off balanced with firmness, the result is punitive parenting. Firmness off-balanced with kindness is permissive parenting. Finding the right mix of both is the sweet spot!
A client I've been working with shared that she had a fabulous win this week. Her three-year-old daughter hit her. Rather than reacting harshly, she created a pause for herself to identify how she wanted to respond. She told me, "For the first time, instead of blowing up, I labeled her emotions, and it felt so good. Being able to vocalize her feelings...you know, because she's not able to...she's three."
My client went on to explain how her child hit her out of frustration at dinner time. Instead of letting the incident last the rest of the night, she vocalized how her daughter was feeling frustrated, angry, and possibly embarrassed. She described that her daughter just stared at her, then instantly apologized and hugged her. My client was amazed! An incident that would typically last the rest of the night with "you hurt Mommy, she's upset" was over in five minutes, and they moved on to bath and cuddles, able to reconnect. My client explained that after resolving this small conflict with her daughter, she cleaned up her daughter’s dinner plate immediately and moved on to the next task for the evening routine. She ended the conversation with me by saying it just felt good. I believe she said the word "good" about a dozen times. This kind of change comes from lots of hard work and persistence. But it just feels good.
She said that the biggest gift that she gave herself and her daughter in that moment was the gift of taking a pause. In the pause, she decided how she was going to respond. In that response, she chose to be kind and firm. In that pause, she was disciplining herself and her daughter to take an honest inventory of their actions to one another and opt for connection.
And that was certainly a win.