Looking for tips from parents who have successfully navigated the childhood years?
Teaching children how to behave is an important part of parenting. Children have to behave for their own sakes, not just for adults. When the child is at home the parent might accept his or her behaviour however intolerable. However, people outside the family will judge the child’s behaviour and the older he or she becomes, the more it will matter to the child. In fact, from school age onwards a big chunk of children’s happiness depends on being accepted as a playmate, being liked by teachers and being welcomed as a visitor in others’ homes. Therefore children need discipline for their own happiness as well as for our convenience.
What kind of discipline?
Self-discipline is the only kind of discipline that is really worthwhile. The outside kind that makes sure that children “do as they’re told” can’t keep them on the straight and narrow when they are on their own without adult supervision.
Good discipline is more about understanding than obedience. It’s convenient if children obey the thousand and one (often trivial) do’s and don’ts adults shower over them. However, in the long run it matters much more if they understand the principles on which all those rules are based.
Children gradually take those principles inside themselves as their own understanding of right and wrong, which they will one day use a part of their own conscience to t ell themselves what they should and should not do.
The long route to self-discipline starts with “show and tell”, with the positive force of a loving relationship between parents and children in which parents assume that children want to behave well. Show your children how they can have a nicer time if they behave well, so they will do the same in the future when they are on their own.
This is very different from external discipline that relies on the negative use of parental force, which assumes that children must be coerced into behaving well, waits for them to misbehave and then punishes them. No parent ever practices 100% positive or negative discipline with his or her children—we all use both of them in different circumstances.
Practicing positive parenting
Positive parenting includes positive discipline. The more effort, energy and imagination you invest into being a parent, the more you will get out of it. The more positive you can be with your children, the less tension there will be in your home ad closer you will feel to each other.
While positive discipline is not exactly an easy option, it works so much better than the negative kind. You no longer have to choose between nagging (which makes you feel helpless) and smacking (which makes you feel horrible).
If you are thinking of giving positive parenting a try, here are some basics to get you started:
- Your children are people just like you. You will never go wrong if you do as you would be done by.
- You do not have to earn your children’s love and respect. You already have it. For children, their parents are perfect.
- Your children want to be like you. They will be influenced by who you are and how you behave. If you are aggressive towards them, they will be aggressive in turn towards others.
Get positive about punishments and rewards
A lot of people think that discipline means punishment, and punishment means hurting or humiliating children. There is nothing positive about punishment. Hence positive discipline does not rely heavily on any kind of punishment, especially not on physical punishment like smacking or spanking children or locking or tying them up, which are the most negative of all.
Physical punishments are worse than useless at teaching children how to behave. Here’s why:
- Physical punishment makes children much too angry to be sorry for what they have done.
- Physical punishment can be dangerous and permanently injure a child.
- Physical punishment can easily escalate from small smacks to large blows.
- Physical punishment creates a terrible model for children to follow. If you as a parent use your superior size and strength to get your way by force, why shouldn’t they do the same thing?
Attention: your most powerful and positive tool
If small children could have their way, they would have their parents’ full attention all the time, and all to themselves! They cannot have their way, of course, since you have other things to do. However, as the parent’s attention diminishes, children continue to seek it and will not care whether they get attention for being naughty or for being good.
Because children seek their parents’ attention, receiving it is a reward and being ignored is a punishment. But do your children get more attention when they behave well or when they behave badly?
Lots of busy parents and teachers operate on “let sleeping dogs lie” principle, ignoring children when they are not causing trouble and paying attention when they misbehave. Used in that way, attention rewards children for causing trouble instead of being good. It can leave well-behaved children wondering what they have to do to get their share of attention.
Make sure that your children’s good behaviour earns them your attention and praise, while ignoring inappropriate behaviour. Save time on scolding and spend it on praising. It may not work all the time, as all forms of bad behavior cannot be ignored.
Setting limits and making them stick
A child’s freedom partly depends on somebody giving him or her secure boundaries. Limits mark out our space from other people. Thus freedom depends on being able to set limits and ensuring that those limits are well observed.
The limits on adult behaviour in a democracy like ours are mostly set out in laws and regulations that everyone is expected to follow. Children need additional boundaries to keep them safe until they are old enough to look after themselves, to control them while they develop self-control, and to make sure they don’t violate their own or others’ space while they learn vital lessons for living in society.
From positive discipline to self-discipline
What a child learns to do for him or herself tomorrow is based on what you teach them today. While you control their behaviour, you are helping them learn to control themselves. When you explain the ethical principles that lie behind your everyday discipline, such as honesty, justice, and respect for others, you are offering your own value system to your children. They will absorb your values and test them out in adolescence. They might possibly reject some, but will make the rest part of their own value system in adulthood.
Positive discipline is not easy, but it is no more difficult than the negative kind, and it is far more effective. Both parents and children have a lot more to gain over the long run.