(this article originally appears in the 2/22/11 edition of the Monmouth Daily Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series)
Picture a mother who is busy rushing around the kitchen preparing dinner for her family. She bounces frantically between the stove, sink and refrigerator gathering ingredients for the evening meal. Naturally her toddler is underfoot. He too stumbles around the small space imitating his mom's every movement. His natural need to explore however becomes a problem when he reaches into the open refrigerator and pulls down a container of pudding. It spills all over the floor and makes a mess.
His mother has a very important choice to make.
Most of us, if we would be honest enough to admit it, would yell, accuse and/or demean our little one for playing in an off limits area. Some might hit or spank the child and most of us would banish him from the kitchen. The entire scene would be loud, tearful and painful. This is what child development experts call punishment. It is the action parents take after a child has already misbehaved.
Or the mother could use a discipline technique that recognizes the child’s need to explore while keeping them safe and out of trouble at home.
Did you notice that this entire scenario could have been avoided? Parents should remember that in many instances problems can be prevented before they even occur. Toddlers are curious, incredibly persistent and unbelievably quick. It should not have taken this mother by surprise that trouble would be on deck with an agape refrigerator. The entire moment could have been one hundred percent preventable if she would have simply closed the door behind her. Problem diverted. Yelling unnecessary. No tears shed.
But alas, many parents act surprised when young children misbehave. They think that children ought to know better and that they should want to cooperate. To this I ask, “What parenting book are you reading?” Neither my first, nor second, nor third, fourth or fifth child were ever agreeable. Not when they were in the throes of the terrible twos and certainly not....well, ever! I think it’s pretty safe to assume that this is normal.
But let’s go back to our kitchen scenario. A more positive discipline technique, the A.C.T. Method, as coined by Dr. Michael Popkin, would have been an excellent way for this harried mother to correct her nosy toddler. The three steps include: A - accepting the child’s feelings, C – communicating the rule or limit and T – targeting a positive response.
Most parents discover they are already familiar and utilizing portions of this technique. Consistently combine all three steps together however, and parents create a sort of super nova of discipline.
In the first step; accept the child’s feelings; the mother would say in our scenario, “I know you like to explore things,”. Since the kitchen, especially the refrigerator can be a very unsafe place for a child, she should then communicate the limit by saying, “but the refrigerator is not for exploring.” Notice this is a very short and to the point sentence. No long explanation is needed. Often parents get embattled in a long dissertation with a two year old! This is an unnecessary use of your time. Toddlers are not rational. If you waste your time explaining why the fridge is off limits, point out everything inside that could harm them and all the electricity they will waste by being in it, your words will fall on deaf ears. They don’t care about any of your reasoning. They simply feel like exploring. So let them!
That’s where the third step of A.C.T. comes in handy. Don’t forget to target a more positive activity for your child. Be prepared to move and show children another activity that satisfies the same need to explore. Say, “Here’s a drawer full of fun things for you to play with!” In this case (and I confess, even in my own home) we created a play place in our kitchen because my children were always following me in there. So instead of being crabby about it, I recognized that I needed to create an environment where they could be in the kitchen but more importantly be safe.
We have a drawer full of leftover kids meals toys, lids, containers, wooden spoons, blocks and hot pads. When my children would toddle in, I’d direct them to the drawer, sometimes repeatedly depending on how ornery, er, I mean persistent they were being. But eventually, they learned, "I can’t climb on the table. I can’t play by the stove, if I’m gonna be in here I gotta play in this drawer".
The A.C.T. method is a fantastic technique that allows children to be children while moms can keep their sanity. Instilling a new discipline method hardly ever works the first time. A good technique, no matter how brilliant, is not a magic wand. In addition implementing the three A.C.T. steps make take some practice. It can take some time getting used to mentally formulating your words in a concise, orderly manner. Master this method, however, and it has the potential to revolutionize your parenting journey.
Your spouse will be impressed with how well your kids listen to you! You’ll sleep easier knowing you are fighting with your kids less and your children will be happier because they feel as if you understand their needs. Now isn’t that a recipe for success? Give the A.C.T Method a try today. Why? Because I’m the mom and I said so! That’s why!
Stephanie is a Professional Parent Educator for the Monmouth-Roseville School District and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.