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How to be compassionate while disciplining your kids

UPSET CHILD
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Turns out that the old saying is true: less really is more.

When my kids act out or misbehave, I’ve made a habit of trying to understand why. I usually already know why, to be honest, but I like to help them understand what they’re feeling and how those emotions have sparked inappropriate behavior.

Theoretically, this is a compassionate and constructive approach. Unfortunately, I usually spend so much time delving with them into their emotions that the misbehavior gets forgotten or sidelined. Practically, this means that my kids have learned to get out of trouble by breaking into tears and telling me they’re having a hard time with life.

In the past few weeks, I’ve started to see just how much my kids manipulate me. I mean, they play me like a fiddle. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to be a disciplinarian without losing the compassion of guiding them through understanding the connection between their emotions and their actions.

I’ll be honest, I’m coming up short. I don’t know how to balance those two things — which is why this article at Motherly about actions to take when your child misbehaves was a straight-up goldmine:

Acknowledge their emotions, then walk away. Give both of you some space rather than try to fix, solve or teach right now. Allow everyone to calm down and then try again. You might understand how they are feeling and then say, “I’ll just be in the kitchen getting lunch ready.” You might begin slowly walking towards the car after you’ve told them it is time to leave.

Keep your responses brief and to the point. We can get into yelling matches with our kids where they talk back and then we talk back and then they talk back, and the cycle continues. Instead, we can be the adult and not contribute to the argument. Try saying something like, “That’s interesting” in a very even tone of voice. Or, “I know and I understand” but end it there. With few words and an even tone of voice, we can defuse the situation rather than making it worse.

See, the problem is that I only had one aspect of this down. I’d acknowledge their emotions, then allow that to become an hour-long armchair therapy session that usually ended with the child in question more upset then they were in the first place.

I knew when I read this that what I need to practice is the walking away part, and I definitely need to learn to keep my responses brief and to the point when I come back. So I tried it yesterday with my 9-year-old, who had intentionally “forgotten” to do a math assignment over the weekend.

When she told me she’d gotten a mark for the missing homework and began to fire up the waterworks and indignation, I stopped her. “Charlotte, I know you’re having a hard time right now. But you still have to do your math homework, and when you don’t do it you deserve a mark. Please go to your room and finish the assignment so you can turn it in tomorrow.”

Her mouth dropped open in shock, and I could see the “but … but … but” beginning to form. So guess what I did?

Y’all, I walked away. I just walked away! I went to the other room and started folding laundry.

For a hot minute I felt sure that victory was mine, but naturally Charlotte followed me and began her usual lament of the difficulties and unfairness of life, the universe, and everything.

“Charlotte,” I said firmly, “it doesn’t matter how hard things are, work still has to be done. I have laundry to fold, and you have a math assignment to do. Go do your math now.”

I wish I could say that victory was then mine, but it wasn’t. The next hour was full of repeated attempts to talk me out of making her do her homework … but the difference was that I refused to engage and just repeated what I had said the first time. She finally gave up and did her math homework, and even though she barely spoke to me the rest of the evening and loudly cried herself to sleep, I didn’t feel guilty because I hadn’t been harsh or unkind. I’d just set a boundary and let her throw herself against it.

Until this, I’d never really believed that mantra that less is more. But when it comes to setting and maintaining rules for kids, less is absolutely more. The less said, the better and more effective the boundary — and the less emotionally exhausting it is to maintain that boundary.

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