Are you at your wits’ end trying to control your naughty children? Are they going through a maddening phase of ‘testing the boundaries’? How come they are little angels for their teachers at school? Are you starting to wonder if there is anything different you could be doing to make them behave better? Surely there has to be a better way than time-out, ‘naughty chair’, bribing and shouting?
Is there a different approach or a change of attitude that might help?
Repeat and Wait
Trying to instil healthy moral values and self-discipline into young children can seem like a never-ending task. I usually reckon on about a thousand repetitions for any new piece of learning to take hold. Waiting for their brains to mature sufficiently to understand and put it into action seems to take forever. Sometimes it is only by looking back over the past year or two that I can see any progress at all.
There’s no getting around the fact that it does take a huge amount of energy and consistency to train children to be well-behaved. As they get older and it all sinks into their developing and maturing brains, which become able to put it into practice, I am exploring less energy-intensive tactics.
To this end, I’ve recently been reading a couple of fascinating books called Positive Discipline, and the Science of Parenting. I’m starting to understand a lot more about how a young child’s brain operates. It seems a lot of irritating behaviour is simply age-appropriate or driven by tiredness or low blood sugar. The immature brain can’t do stuff like self-control and sitting still. And apparently, according to these books, we can do away with all the nagging, shouting, bribing and coaxing that we usually resort to in an attempt to make our kids behave. Using kindness and firmness gets much better results in terms of cooperation.
There’s one very memorable phrase in the book Positive Discipline: “Where did we get the idea that children have to FEEL WORSE in order to DO BETTER?”
How do you feel if you are shouted at for making a mistake? Resentful, angry, defiant, defensive? And how do you feel when you are praised or encouraged? Happy, empowered? Motivated, eager to please and do more?
Control, humiliation and punishment or blaming and lecturing lead to defensiveness, resistance and sneaky rebellion. The children’s problem-solving skills get used to find ways around our restrictions instead of finding positive solutions to misbehaviour. Punishment does not improve behaviour long-term. For good behaviour, you need a head that is calm, happy and thinking clearly. Distress and anger switch off the rational brain, which is immature under the age of 5 or 6 anyway. Treating children with dignity and respect shows faith in their ability to cooperate. The fact is, children need to feel better in order to do better.
So what works best for a child? Carrot….Or stick?
OK, so how does ‘carrot’ work in practice?
Children are immensely intuitive and can sense your mood, understand your body language, and even on occasion read your mind! If you can relax and keep a clear and calm head, a stable, happy atmosphere is far more achievable. The child takes his cue from you. If you are calm and relaxed, the child is contented. His rational (thinking) brain is in charge and so he can reason, think and accept direction from a gentle tug on the reins. If you are stressed and snappy, he will ‘play you up’, as he protests the turbulent atmosphere you are creating. If you shout, he literally stops being able to listen to you, because stress causes his rational brain to switch off and revert to a primitive animal mode. His emotions rather than reason dictate his response and he becomes defiant or defensive. This is why shouting at children to control them rarely works, and a quiet word is often more effective.
Jumping on them too hard, especially while they are very young, can either go over their heads and desensitise them, or result in a cowed, quiet, timid child with little visible personality. It does nothing to teach personal responsibility or conscience. Allowing the child to control you results in a demanding, whiny spoilt brat. It really is a balancing act.
They Give What You Expect
If I tell a child what I expect from him, he will usually deliver. He has no real concept of himself yet, apart from what he sees mirrored in my eyes. Self-image builds up through the reactions of the adults in his life. If I tell him he is naughty, he will act naughty. If I tell him he is kind, or beautifully behaved, that is what he will deliver. My lovely neighbour has five children aged 1-9, and she reacts to any sibling rivalry by saying, “I can’t accept that you just hit your sister, because you’re such a sweet, kind, gentle little boy.” She gets much more positive results this way than by shouting, “Stop being so naughty!!” Her children know they are good children who just occasionally act in silly ways. So it’s important to believe in a child no matter what. He might be having current behaviour difficulties, but it doesn’t mean he is a bad child. Never give up with the positive messages and reinforcing every bit of good behaviour with praise. Eventually you will see results.
Sometimes, when the kids are being naughty, disobedient or stubborn when I ask them to do something ~ like running off and hiding when I say it’s bath or bed time ~ I remember an old tip I read once. I take a few deep slow breaths, swallow my irritation and tell myself, “Well, maybe you can’t control what they do. But you can choose what YOU will do.”
I think about the situation, how important it really is, is it worth fighting over or getting angry? Will I lose face or their respect if I let them get away with it? Or is the issue more important than that? Is somebody getting hurt? Must I impose sanctions to get compliance? If a sanction must be imposed, I try to make it scrupulously fair so as not to appear vindictive (a trait I do not wish them to learn). So if one child takes another’s favourite toy and throws it into a ditch, I might quietly go up to her bedroom, take her favourite doll from her bed and say to her calmly but firmly, “How would you feel if I threw your dolly away? No, you can’t have her right now. I will put her up on top of this cupboard until you have gone into that ditch and got your brother’s doggie back for him. Then you may have your dolly back.” I would hope that this will teach her how her brother feels, and remember this next time she wants to do something unkind.
Teaching Right from Wrong
Rather than imposing my will on children, I try to teach the notion of personal responsibility. This helps them develop a conscience of their own, rather than waiting for me to tell them what they’ve done wrong all the time. At the girls’ school they teach about “Personal Power, Good Choices and Bad Choices”. This seems to be having a very positive effect. I do a similar thing, combined with stickers. I’ve made 2 charts of good choices and bad choices, with little pictures. If they do something from the Good Choice chart, such as sharing or helping, they get a hug, praise or a sticker. If they do something from the Bad Choice chart, like hitting or stealing, they must do something to put it right, or face a fair sanction. “You made a bad choice, so you must put it right.” I love the idea of being able to try again and get it right. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn.
The book ‘Positive Discipline’ advises showing empathy and understanding for how the child feels and for his point of view. Tell your child about a situation when you felt the same when you were his age. Then say how you feel about the situation now, and invite the child’s help in solving the problem by asking for ideas that focus on a solution. Use a caring attitude to create an atmosphere of closeness and trust. Asking, rather than telling, helps the child feel capable of helping solve the problem with you.
For example, “I used to hate my little sister too. It seemed like she was always getting me in trouble. But now I understand that my mummy loved us both very much and was only trying to protect her. What can we do to help you get on better with your sister?”
I’ve developed a few ideas myself after trying out numerous tactics over the years.
Put It Right
One positive technique I’ve developed is the “put it right” approach. If a child misbehaves, makes a bad choice or has an accident, for example scribbling on the wall or spilling her juice, I aim to stay calm and say, “You made this happen, so it’s up to you to put it right.” I ask the child what she could do to put it right. This shifts the emphasis off anger or punishment onto a mistake being a learning tool.
I tell her, “We all make mistakes, that’s how we learn. Well done for putting it right. What might you do differently next time? Did hitting him help him share with you? How did your cuddle make him feel?”
This step-by-step acting-out of the resolution process teaches children vital emotional skills for solving difficulties.
Make It Better
Another tool I often use is Making it Better. This is like ‘Put It Right’ for deliberately hurtful actions. It allows a ‘sinner’ to undo the consequences of his ‘crime’ by doing a positive, caring, kind act for his ‘victim’. I hope it helps the children understand more about repairing relationships than an empty hollow ‘sorry’.
If one child hits or hurts another, first I separate the warring siblings into different rooms and take a minute to speak to each, or comfort the injured party. I suggest a cooling-off period to think about how to make things better. When the ‘aggressor’ suggests a way to make things better again, I praise her for good thinking and encourage her to try it out. This usually involves hugging the other child. I congratulate her: “Oh good, look, now he knows you love him really, you stopped him crying.” It’s a win-win: they both feel better, and she feels empowered in a positive way.
I also help an older child look for an opportunity to make amends in a more active way. For example, to make up for pushing her brother down the steps, I suggested the older sister wash his hair and body at bathtime, help him into PJs and get him ready for bed. This worked really well, as the act of gently caring for him helped her realise that she did like him after all. It’s helpful to bear in mind the AIM. Are you trying to teach them to feel ashamed of themselves, or capable and kind?
Sometimes if a child acts impulsively and the action is plainly unacceptable, e.g. snatching or destroying another’s property or becoming angry and aggressive if they can’t get what they want, I will say, “Woah, hang on. Let’s rewind here, go out of the room a moment and come in again. Now, how would you do that differently if you were being really polite?” The hope is that by actually replaying and acting out the desired process, it will embed into the neural circuits and become a learned behaviour. I let them demonstrate to themselves that the polite way works better, then ram it home with a comment such as, “Wow, that worked much better – he gave you the pen when you asked politely! Well done!” The child hopefully begins to understand and take the lesson on board.
It is sometimes useful, rather than impose a punishment or think of amendments, to simply allow a natural consequence to take effect. If I take all the responsibility for their actions, in an attempt to save them pain, the kids never get to learn cause and effect. These consequences are immensely helpful to their development. It shifts the emphasis away from “the nasty grownup who punished me” to “I made this happen myself”. It removes the ‘not fair’ factor. Thus, by deliberately not protecting a child from the effects of his behaviour, you teach him how life works. This takes a lot less effort than nagging and is massively more helpful to the child. To learn “I made a mistake, but I can find a solution myself” is so much more helpful than “I got it wrong and mum will punish me.”
for instance, a child spills his drink on his homework. Instead of blaming, shaming or shouting, I could say, “Whoops – what do you need to do about that?” The child fetches a cloth and wipes it up, then has to redo the homework. Job done.
If a child leaves his jumper at school, the natural consequence is being cold next morning.
Rather than battle over putting a raincoat on a reluctant child, I could let her get wet in the rain. It won’t kill her.
We tend to protect our kids from this kind of reality check, don’t we? But learning is always much more effective when derived from experience. Could we trust them to make their own decisions based on what they remember happening last time?
Can you think of examples from your own life where you could use consequences as a teaching tool?
Hit and Run Away
The Science of Parenting talks about the small child’s ‘stimulation hunger’. A bored child impulsively provokes someone to get a reaction. He just wants attention. I had noticed myself always protecting the youngest, who was 2, from his sisters’ angry reactions. I had tried to teach them restraint and gentleness 100 times, because he was “too little to know any better”. But having watched him run up to the 4 year old, impulsively hit her and run away laughing at her scream of anger, I decided it was time to change my tactics. I started allowing her to chase him and hit him back. (I did say to her, “I can see he’s being very annoying. But you’re old enough to ignore him, aren’t you?” hoping one day it might be true.) Then I told him each time as he came to me for comfort, “When you hit people it makes them angry, doesn’t it?”
I’m also doing all I can to encourage them to play together nicely. I lavish praise on every instance of cooperative play or kindness.
I’ve started noticing he’s being annoying a lot less often now! He’s learning about cause and effect – the hard way, yes, but sometimes the only way. Now he’s 3 and she’s 5, he rarely does ‘hit and run’ anymore and she is starting to be more restrained and ignore provocation, or come to me for help instead of immediately hitting him. Hurray! 😀
Here are a couple of links to buy these two books on Amazon.