Yes, VIrginia, there is a way to discipline kids without resorting to violence and intimidation.
I got this email from a colleague: “My son laughs in my face when I put him in time out. If you don’t spank, and you don’t yell, what do you do?”
I’ve been there and had the exact same thought. For a long time I looked for a simple, formulaic answer to this problem. If child does X behavior, then punishment should be Y. But it’s just not that easy.
A few years ago I watched a family with six children under 12 leave a school event. The kids each packed their own backpacks, and, on their mother’s first request, filed into their van and buckled themselves into their own car seats. No whining, no debating, no yelling. How does she do it? I asked her. And then I asked lots more moms. I spent two years interviewing parents of happy, obedient children. Whenever I found kids waiting nicely in a doctor’s office or obeying their mother in the grocery store, I asked them what they did for discipline. Here’s what they said:
Spanking and yelling don’t work. They might provide immediate behavior change, which is convenient for parents, but ultimately, these harsh parenting techniques breed anger and fear in your home. Yet 94% of parents still use corporal punishment.
Rather than corporal punishment, children need attuned parenting for healthy brain development. Dr. Joan Luby is a professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Her research shows that positive parenting of toddlers in stressful situations, rather than scolding or corporal punishment, is actually associated with an increase in the size of certain areas of the brain.
Parents who don’t spank usually yell at their kids instead. But yelling can hurt kids more than spanking. Yelling is a late defense mechanism, a technique we use when everything else fails. If you find yourself yelling at your kids too much, you need other options for discipline. Keep reading.
Be attuned to your children. I’ve come to realize that the key to raising emotionally healthy children is attunement—or how well you recognize your child’s needs at any given moment. Attunement, in short, is putting yourself in your child’s shoes and then meeting their needs with the wisdom of a parent.
Most books on discipline and parenting revolve around the same themes—be consistent, follow-through with consequences, don’t give too many warnings, don’t punish in anger, etc. Although I agree with these themes, there is a risk of becoming too formulaic. In attunement parenting, we don’t just give time out as a rote response to misbehavior. Instead, attuned parents ask “Why” a child is misbehaving. When we understand the root of a child’s misbehavior, we can better meet their needs, love them, and get long-term healthy behaviors.
I’ve written more on Attunement Parenting and how it differs from Attachment Parenting here.
Intervene early. Children, like adults, have patterns of misbehavior. We do the same wrong things again and again. Which kids are your repeat offenders? What are the offenses? When you start to see things headed that way, intervene early and encourage your child to make good choices.
I have a child who used to drop her pajamas on the floor every morning, and I would grumble at her every day to pick them up. Finally, I asked her over breakfast if she was going to put them away today or drop them on the floor. She smiled and made the right choice.
Do you have two kids who are like oil and water together, always trying to get a rise out of the other? Separate them before the fighting starts. We’ve had to re-arrange seating in our minivan several times to keep the peace.