Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world—merciful proxies, caring proxies—but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you? Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
I’ve written 77 blog posts for Sunrise Montessori over the past three years and never directly penned a post about discipline. Crazy, right? It’s the biggest topic out there. Try finding a parenting book that DOESN’T mention discipline. So much of what we do to raise our little humans involves disciplining them that it’s hard to find any parenting books that ignore it entirely, yet I haven’t broached the subject. It’s because I struggled with this while raising John. When I was pregnant, I asked the Universe to give me an independent, intelligent, motivated child and boy, was I blessed. I was blessed HARD. What the gods don’t confide while you naively say these things aloud is that accompanying those traits are some other not-so-easy personality quirks to parent. Like stubbornness or the drive to push things too far or the confidence to do things that give you GERD. As Rob and I have said many, MANY times over the years, John’s going to be a GREAT adult some day (yes, he will!), but sometimes he’s kicking our hiney. And giving us heartburn. 😉
That doesn’t mean though that I shied away from disciplining my challenging child. Quite the opposite, but I lost my cool often and felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall, not a fun way to parent. Teaching self-discipline to your child doesn’t have to be this way! “If you focus on the essentials starting at around age 2, your child will catch on faster, resist less, and ultimately behave better,” says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. What I hope to accomplish in this article is to help you navigate a smoother path in your parenting journey by sharing what the pros recommend which includes feedback over the years from our Sunrise team and some of my sweat-earned parenting equity of a now-teenager.
What discipline is and isn’t
- Setting boundaries: Everyone wants to know where the railings are on a cruise ship and children are no exception. If you don’t give them boundaries, they will push and experiment until they find them, so you might as well give them what they are naturally searching for anyway. Setting limits teaches a basic life lesson that we can’t have everything we want, a vital component to adulthood.
- Modeling behavior: If you want your child to use manners, you have to, too. (And when you need a break from being so perfect, hire a babysitter and go out with adults. That way, you can get all the naughty things out of your system, away from your impressionable child. I highly recommend it. 😉
- Consistency: Boundaries are enforced every time, like “hold my hand in parking lots and crossing streets.” When you don’t, it’s confusing to your child who is figuring out the rules you want her to follow.
- Cooperation: Teach the importance of having rules to your child and why they are beneficial, so they know there’s a good reason behind every request. One of my favorite tactics I used with John to get him to do the right thing was illustrating examples of what NOT to do. One time I told John how sad it was that a child in our neighborhood was covered in a rash from not cleaning his room. At least, that’s the inference I made. 😉 This is a no-judgement zone, right?
*Pro-Parenting Tip: Never lose sight that discipline is a strategy. The most effective discipline strategies are those that proactively prepare a child so the parent doesn’t have to reactively respond. Source
Discipline is NOT:
- Punishment: Ideally, discipline precedes and prevents socially unacceptable behavior, whereas punishment follows it. Each has its place, so punishment is acceptable and necessary as a tool in every parent’s toolbox, but remember that punishment is negative and may encourage a child to be devious so he won’t get caught again, while discipline is a positive measure that develops a child’s self-control. Source
- Yelling or getting angry at your child: Yes, we all lose our cool at times and I’m guilty of this more than I care to admit, but if you are telling your child that they shouldn’t hit their friend as you yell at them, they won’t hear you. On the other hand, if you catch them doing what you WANT them to do, giving them praise will encourage that behavior in the future. And who doesn’t like a compliment?
- Micromanaging their every move: When we say no all the time or without reason, our children may begin to ignore us. Besides, NOT controlling their every move means your discipline strategies are working!
*Pro-parenting Tip: Discipline doesn’t mean punishment (punishment is what you have to resort to when discipline isn’t working). Discipline strategies are positive, built on talking and listening, modeling, and correcting. All of us would rather our supervisor at work tell us how to improve than reprimand us for not reading their mind. Your child is the same.
How do you discipline your child?
Choosing an approach to discipline is about finding the right balance. Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair. This means you set limits and consequences for your child’s behavior, while also encouraging good behavior with praise, rewards and other strategies. Source
*Pro-Parenting Tip: Discipline changes over time based on the age of your child. Check out this article that details each stage.
Here are some positive discipline strategies we use at Sunrise Montessori that work well:
- Fill their attention basket. Kids need attention, plain and simple. If we don’t keep that “attention basket” full with positive attention, kids will seek out any attention they can get – even negative attention. So at Sunrise, we give children tasks, like cleaning tables before lunch, and then praise them when they accomplish it.
- Don’t use bribes to elicit the behavior you want: Bribes, rewards and punishment are all extrinsic motivations. This means that we are getting our child to look to others to do something instead of developing internal self-discipline. A Montessori approach to discipline builds intrinsic motivation instead. Source
- Treat children with respect: When we say no all the time or without reason, children may begin to ignore us. If we shout to solve problems, they learn to shout to solve problems. Think about a supervisor in your career who you enjoyed working for. You enjoyed your job because you respected your leader.
- Freedom within limits: We say this all the time at Sunrise because it’s the cornerstone of the Montessori philosophy. This means the child has freedom and also limits to keep themselves and everyone safe. If there are too many limits, the child will feel like they live in a dictatorship and may be too scared to try new things or, worse, sneak behind our backs so they won’t be caught. And if there are no limits, the child has license to do whatever they like without thinking of others or may start to feel like no one cares about them. So give your child options that still achieve what your end goal is, such as, do you want to pick up your toys or wash your hand first? If both need to happen, give your child as much choice as possible so they feel in control of their actions.
- Become a translator: Children don’t know what’s going on sometimes that is causing them to get frustrated. Maybe they want a toy that another child is playing with. You can say, “She is playing with the truck right now but she’ll be finished soon, and when she is, you will play with it next.” Explaining things out loud prevents a lot of assumptions and frustration, nipping bad choices in the bud.
- Remind them of your expectations in advance: Children are learning new things constantly and often don’t remember life lessons on the first go around. Telling them how you want to act ahead of the action helps them to be successful. At Sunrise, we tell the children (or if older, we ask them) what they should do before grabbing new work (put away the material they were working on where they found it first).
- Redirection: Your best friend in the discipline game is redirecting, which the teachers at Sunrise do beautifully! For example, if a student is trying to climb the fence at Sunrise, they redirect them to the playscape so they can climb that. Notice that they didn’t try to stop the behavior, they just redirected the outlet a child is craving to an acceptable one.
- Give consequences: You can tell a child, model for your child, do everything to make it clear what the rule is to your child until you are blue in the face and yet they will still make the wrong decision. This is when giving a consequence (some call it punishment) is necessary. Your child needs to know that there is an unpleasant outcome if they push too far. John’s consequence almost always ended up being a time out in his room. He hated being alone, so that was his most effective punishment. What is your child’s most unfavorite punishment?
- Don’t get sucked into guilt: “Parents think that a crying child is always sad or hurt. This is simply not true. Anger is one of the most common reasons for crying,” said Jordan Peterson, child psychologist. Just as you learn over time what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are, they learn your triggers as well and what will help them get their way. Don’t let your child sway you from your mission with tears.
*Pro-Parenting Tip: Figure out what your trigger points or weaknesses are as a parent early on and try to prevent scenarios that could trip you up. Never forget that you are human and that in the right set of circumstances, you can be a momentary not-so-stellar parent. None of us wants to be a bad parent, but bad parenting happens all the time. Ask for help or support of your child’s other parent, school, family, etc. if you need it.
I’ve been reading a fantastic book called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson. If you decide to check it out, at the minimum, read the 5th chapter called “Rule 5/Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” Here’s an excerpt: “Parents must reward those attitudes and actions that will bring their child success in the world outside the family, and use threat and punishment when necessary to eliminate behaviors that will lead to misery and failure. There’s a tight window of opportunity for this, as well, so getting it right quickly matters. If a child has not been taught to behave properly by the age of four, it will forever be difficult for him or her to make friends.” For those whose child started with us before the age of four, you are already ahead of the curve because we are already practicing positive discipline techniques when your child is at Sunrise! As Peterson also wrote later in that chapter, it is an act of responsibility to discipline a child. So if you haven’t yet, write a short list of what you want for your child, then explain how your child has to act to achieve that, and finally, list strategies you may need to help you get there. By thinking about this now and laying the groundwork from the get go, your job will be easier as a parent. And hopefully, unlike me, you won’t need to take Tums in your 30’s. 😉