Articles by Karen Deerwester
Discipline: Teaching or TestingBy Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.
To everything, there is a season. And in every family, there is a time…a time to teach, a time to learn, a time to hug, a time to explain, and a time to sympathize. There is also a time to cross your arms and shake your head "no way", a time to stand firm despite heart wrenching pleadings, and a time to walk away from escalating power struggles. Yes, discipline is teaching. But there are also countless discipline moments that are not teachable moments. The teaching happens before or after but definitely not in the emotionally charged moment.
Childhood is a time to teach your child how to thrive in a complicated world: to be thoughtful, considerate, kind, patient, helpful, fair, compassionate, and to know right from wrong. Childhood is also your child's time to push limits and test boundaries. It is a developmental necessity for your child to push your buttons. Every time your child challenges you, he is testing the predictability of his boundaries. Every time your child gets in your face, she is experimenting with her personal power.
Your child thrives with age-appropriate power: making age-appropriate choices and mastering age-appropriate tasks. Power struggles, however, are not positive power sources for your child. Everyone loses in a power struggle. Parents lose because you are sucked into the emotional storm of anger and frustration, leaving you feeling power-less instead of competent and capable. Children lose because they lose emotional stability. Your child depends on you to feel safe, to be an anchor in the storm rather than part of the storm.
The trick to less-stressful parenting is to know the difference between the teachable moments and the power struggles. When you feel emotions escalating, stop. Put all teaching on hold, no matter how justified you feel. Your child cannot hear you until the situation is calm again.
Here are the steps out of the power struggle:
- Wait - take 5.
- Explain clearly that you do not want to continue on this course.
- Be a feelings role model. Describe what you're feeling and express those feelings in a constructive way.
- State a positive goal for your child - to become calm so you can find a solution to the problem together.
Teach before and after the power struggle:
- Emotional literacy. Teach your child how to identify and express volatile emotions in more positive ways. Learn to be a compassionate listener without "giving in". Your toddler learned that saying "please" doesn't earn the right to play with a dangerous knife. Similarly, your preschooler learns he can feel angry but that doesn't mean he will get his way.
- Self control. Learning to think and feel at the same time is a complex skill. After children learn to identify feelings, they learn to make choices about how to act. Self control requires a choice instead of an impulsive reaction.
- Social skills. Teach your child "prosocial" behavior. Teach your child that some behavior that wins friends and other behaviors bring help and cooperation. While still other behavior sabotages your efforts. Point out how other people might have a different perspective, specifically when they might feel sad or hurt.
- Good decision making. Your child is just learning to predict real life consequences, just as she is learning to predict what happens next to characters in a book or a video. Rehearse situations "if I do this, this will happen". Your child will be better prepared to see constructive options when emotions are flying.
But every so often, your child will give you the "look" - the "oh yeah, make me" look. That look is testing pure and simple. You know where this is leading. Don't take the bait.
To everything, there is a season. A time to act, a time to wait, a time to teach, a time to refrain from teaching. It is a time for love. It just happens that in the course of raising children, love is expressed in many different ways.
Karen Deerwester is the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, writing and lecturing on parenting and early childhood topics since 1984. Karen is also the Mommy & Me director at The Ruth and Edward Taubman Early Childhood Center at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton.
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