Most early childhood professionals believe that mothers and fathers parent their children in one of two ways; they either raise their kids the same way they themselves were raised or, completely opposite.
Lucky for my kids I'm not nearly as strict as my folks were. Although, they don't believe me.
Discipline is a touchy subject for a lot of parents, mostly because it means different things to different people. If I polled a room of parents and asked what discipline means to them, I would get a wide variety of answers including: yelling, spanking, time out and loss of privileges.
However, discipline is none of these things. Discipline actually comes from the word disciple, which means to teach. Discipline teaches our children right from wrong. Punishment, on the contrary, is what we do after our children have already misbehaved. In addition, punishment is hurtful and doesn't teach our children what we want them, or expect them, to do. Instead it more often causes pain and, if anything, teaches children that grownups can hurt.
Which is fine if you want to be a bully.
If you want to parent, raise up your children in such a way that they will be able to thrive and survive in the type of society in which they will live, you might want to begin by hitting and yelling less.
Sometimes we think that if our kids suffer a severe enough punishment that perhaps they will remember that unpleasant feeling and make a better choice in the future. And while this may work on older children who have developed the ability to be rational, for most children, and certainly very young children, this method will not work.
And here's why.
Children are not naughty to ruin your day. They don't wake up with a vendetta against their parents. They aren't out to get you. It's just generally not plausible. On the contrary, most children want very much to please their parents and strive to earn affirmation. When they flush our watch down the toilet, wreck the car or leave an empty gallon of milk in the fridge, it's easy to forget that it's not personal.
Children, especially young children, are developing a sense of independence and autonomy. That drive to do and explore, touch taste and experiment is not naughtiness, it is developmentally appropriate behavior. The problem comes when a child's drive for curiosity becomes unsafe or is against your rules.
Take a normal, exploring toddler. He will want to climb on tables, squirt all the toothpaste out from the tube and feed the dog his toast. He doesn't do these things to tick you off. It is not his intent to mess up your house. That child is doing all those things and more because through his experimenting he is learning. (He's probably having a lot of fun too, but mostly he's learning!)
But just because a child is behaving in a developmentally appropriate way doesn't make his behavior acceptable. And this is why parenting is hard. We must keep our kids safe and, at least attempt to, keep some semblance of order in our homes. So what's a parent to do?
The job of a parent is to understand a child's needs at each age and stage but teach the rules while redirecting the child's energies into a safe alternative.
Your son can't feed the dog table food but he can help scoop out the dog's food. Toothpaste may be off limits but you can find an alternative, and equally pleasant, squishing game like old shampoo bottles in the tub or finger paints. The point is you don't have to nix their drive to experiment; you just have to funnel that energy.
As children get older, their ability to reason matures and they become better able to weigh their choices and, hopefully, make better decisions. But again, kids are kids, and we can't expect them to always do the responsible thing. If that were possible car insurance rates for a teenage boy wouldn't cost an arm and a leg.
When our children misbehave would the best way to correct the behavior be to shame them, belittle them and verbally assault them or does it make more sense to teach them our expectations and help them understand how to make better decisions next time?
This isn't to say the some situations don’t deserve consequences. Certainly life is full of them. But before you start dolling out punishments ask yourself if you've taught your child right from wrong, how to behave under those circumstance and what would be a better option the next time they are angry or bored.
Then sprinkle a little grace on the situation because we all mess up. Each one of us is prone to misbehavior. Learning how to conduct ourselves in those situations are difficult lessons to learn. Let's raise our children to understand errors happen and that what is most important is trying to improve in the future.
After all, there will probably be a day that your child will really need your help. If you've not taught them that you are a safe place to come, that forgiveness is possible and most anything can be worked out, how will they ever know how to raise your grandkids? And since I'm imagining a fun filled future full of grandbabies I'd better pay attention to how I'm raising my kids today. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so! That's why!
Stephanie is a mother of five children and a parent educator for the Tiny Titan PreK program for Monmouth-Roseville school district. This is a part of her weekly parenting series for The Review Atlas, a GateHouse Media Company. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org