Ron Thow is the father of an 11 year old boy and currently a teaching assistant in family psychology at the Psychology Dept, Canterbury University.
He has a research interest in family and developmental psychology. This is the first of a regular parenting column for Father & Child.
I thought that I’d start with the easy stuff, so I’ll talk about discipline. OK, so I lied about the easy stuff.
Discipline can be a very tricky thing for parents. Sometimes you just do what your parents did, other times you deliberately do the opposite, depending on your own childhood experiences. Everyone has advice and ideas on how you should and shouldn’t discipline your children and usefully it almost all contradicts.
First of all, what am I talking about when I say discipline? Discipline is not punishment but punishment is part of discipline, confused? Well, by discipline I mean the teaching of your children, the things that they need to know to become ‘good’ socially well-adjusted adults.
Manners, not rioting in the supermarket, not pounding on their classmate in the sandpit or having a tantrum to get that vital last turn on the swing, that sort of important stuff.
So, in this context, discipline means ‘to learn’ (as in disciple). In order to teach our children, most parents build up a ‘toolbox’ of skills, tricks and tips. Ideally it’s a big toolbox with just the right tool for the job but in the beginning most of us start off trying to fix every problem with a hammer. So a large part of being a ‘good’ parent is picking up new strategies or tools to make discipline more effective.
Here are a few potential tools to consider for your toolbox :
Catch them being good:
Most children have a fairly deep-seated desire to please their parents, so one really effective technique is to simply catch them being good. It is just as simple as it sounds. Instead of taking it for granted when they behaving themselves, comment on it, tell them how well-behaved they have been and how impressed you are with them.
This has other benefits too, you get to feel all warm and fuzzy, as a ‘good’ parent should – a reward for you as well then.
Explain clearly what you want:
So basic but if you don’t seem to be getting through to your child then step back and check they understand what you are trying to say.
Don’t assume that your child understands what you expect of them. Ask them what they think you mean, then correct any misimpressions and clarify your expectations.
Make sure that you’re setting them behavioural goals that are achievable.
Nothing undermines a child’s perception of behaving appropriately than a parent who sometimes punishes or rewards and sometimes ignores things. Imagine your boss sometimes praising you and sometimes ignoring you at work. Part of this is picking your battles. Decide which issues you are going to tackle and stick to them.
You can’t fight every battle and shouldn’t try but if you select the right ones to take a firm stance on then you won’t need to.
Don’t make threats/promises that you aren’t prepared to carry-out:
This is a biggie, countless parents have blown themselves out of the water by making an ultimatum then whimping out when it needs to be implemented.
If your child understands and believes that you will do what you say you will then life gets a great deal simpler. It goes for good as well as bad, don’t promise things then forget or miss them. Nobody’s perfect but your child needs to be able to trust and rely on what you say and do.
Sometimes you are wrong. It’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake, jump to the wrong conclusion about a situation or snap at the end of a bad day. Apologise, then explain what went wrong and start again. At least then you are teaching your child a valuable lesson about mistakes and how to deal with them.
Pick the right reward. Hugs and praise never go out of fashion but other rewards need to be selected carefully. Especially for star charts and the like, the delay between desired behaviour should be fairly short, so use smaller more immediate rewards (especially with younger children) rather than bigger more distant ones.
A small treat at the end of each day rather than a bigger one at the end of a week may prove more effective in shaping behaviour.
You are dreaming if you think you can fill a child with junk food, sugar and excitement and not have it end in tears. Why do you think birthday parties so often end in tantrums and crying? Mini quiet-times to let a child calm down and limiting consumption of sugar and soft drinks can really help prevent behaviour issues before they even happen.
Younger children don’t have the energy reserves that adults do, they burn energy fast and crash hard when they run out, so thinking about the situation before it occurs can really make a difference. By the same token remember the snacks and water when you go out, otherwise shopping day can get ugly, very quickly.
These items are a starting point.
They have the advantage of being easy to try and not having any real disadvantages. As part of the parents toolbox they are a good stepping stone to more involved methods.