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Discipline Beyond Time-Out

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While time-out is one of the most effective discipline techniques you can use, it shouldn’t be the only device in your parental tool chest. As children grow older, it may become less effective. Luckily, other discipline techniques can work extremely well with older children. Here are some examples:

  Catch Your Child Being Good

  Reinforce the Positive

  Don’t Expect Perfection

  Present Alternatives

  Natural Consequences When Safe and Appropriate

  Set Specific, Limited Goals

  Remember That Discipline Is Not the Same As Punishment





Catch Your Child Being Good

Frankly, this is probably the simplest and most powerful thing you can do to improve your child’s behavior. Yet many parents spend most of their time and energy focusing on the behaviors they don’t want in their child instead of what they do want.

Children love extra attention. A verbal compliment, a quick hug, or a pat on the back can work wonders in only a second or two. Praise your child when she uses a fork at the dinner table; don’t just become upset when she spatters spaghetti sauce all over her shirt. Be enthusiastic without going overboard. (Even young children can tell when you’re insincere.) This type of positive reinforcement is especially helpful when a child is feeling stressed since it relieves tension instead of adding to it. Nonverbal gestures are as good as verbal ones. If your daughter is playing quietly by herself, go over and gently stroke her hair once or twice (if that’s something she likes). At first she may stop when you do this. But after a few days she’ll keep on playing quietly as she basks in the extra attention.

If you reward a child’s appropriate behavior ("I love it when you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’!"), she’s likely to repeat it. In fact, if you ignore a child’s good behavior, she’s more likely to act inappropriately next time, because she knows that will get her some extra attention from you. So try to focus on the good stuff, not the bad.

Reinforce the Positive

Remember that positive reinforcement (adding good things) is more powerful than either negative reinforcement (removing good things) or punishment (adding bad things). Paradoxically, small rewards, such as a bit of extra attention or a special meal, can be more powerful than big rewards, such as a promise of a bicycle. Children will often stop trying if they feel they cannot earn the big reward that’s been offered.

Pay careful attention to the words you use when you praise your preschooler. Some researchers have found that the parents of boys tend to talk about the child’s specific accomplishment when they offer praise ("Wow, what a tall tower you’ve built out of those blocks!"). The parents of girls, however, are likely to offer more general praise ("You’re such a smart girl!"). Specific praise enables a child to evaluate his own achievements ("That’s a tall tower. I’m proud."). General praise, on the other hand, leaves a child dependent upon others to evaluate her behavior ("Am I still smart?"). So try to make your praise specific and focused on behaviors.

Use Natural Consequences When Safe and Appropriate

Ideally, a logical connection should exist between an act and the reward or punishment that follows. For example, a preschooler who teases a cat will most likely get scratched—a good reminder not to do it again. The punishment is small, immediate, and strongly associated with the cat, which makes the lesson easier to remember.

Similarly, if your 5-year-old can’t find a toy that he’s supposed to keep in his toy chest, don’t rush out to buy a replacement. If you do, the lesson you’re teaching is that forgetfulness doesn’t have consequences. Better to let him live without the toy for a while. (No matter what, you can expect preschoolers and early school-age children to lose things and to be forgetful. That’s a matter of brain development. But the lesson is still important.)

Don’t Expect Perfection

It’s unrealistic to expect a child to be perfectly behaved. In fact, if you do, it will make a child feel so much stress that she’ll probably misbehave simply to break the tension.

Set realistic goals so that both you and your child can succeed. For example, don’t expect your preschooler to share all of her toys when a friend comes to visit. Arrange with her to set the most precious toys aside before the friend arrives. That will help her feel more comfortable sharing her other toys.

Present Alternatives

Show your child alternative behaviors to the ones you want to change. For example, if she’s yelling and you want her to stop, demonstrate to your child how she can speak quietly and still get people’s attention. One of the reasons spanking a child is ineffective as a punishment over the long term is that it doesn’t teach the child what she should be doing.

Set Specific, Limited Goals

Decide what’s really important to you. Safety, of course, should be your first concern. But how important is politeness at this age? What about cleanliness? Friendliness? Paying attention? Don’t try to focus on too many things at once or you’ll constantly be correcting your child and you’ll both be miserable. Remember that you have plenty of time to help your child master new social skills.

Let’s say you want your 4-year-old to go to bed without kicking up a fuss. If you define your goals in terms as general and absolute as that, compliance will be difficult to measure and difficult to achieve. Instead, make your goal more specific and realistic. You should be satisfied, for example, if five days out of the week she gets under the covers in less than 15 minutes after you tell her it’s bedtime. Don’t expect perfection, either from her or from yourself.

When you do correct your child, keep your words simple so that they’re understood. Sarcasm and mockery don’t work with young children; kids this age simply don’t get it. Instead, focus on one thing at a time ("Please don’t talk with your mouth full of food. First swallow, then talk.").

Remember That Discipline Is Not the Same As Punishment

Sometimes it’s hard not to equate the two, but try to keep in mind that they’re different. Discipline has to do with teaching. Ask yourself if your own behaviors are teaching your child the types of things you want her to learn. Setting a good example is one of the most effective discipline techniques of all.

 
 
 
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