Making the change from punitive discipline to positive discipline doesn't just take a change of methods, it takes a change of heart and a different way of thinking. One of my first big light bulb concepts as I was making the transition was when I started to understand the idea that babies and children are people too! That sounds silly, doesn't it? Of course babies are people- they're human. But do we treat them like they're people? Do we respect them like they are? These questions can be the key, not only to your child's confidence and security levels, but also to building peace and fostering a sense of teamwork in your home.
Picture this: you're at Starbucks for a much needed mommy break. You've ordered your coffee(or if you're me, opened up the mason jar of kombucha that you brought from home), opened up your snacks, and have settled in for some very much needed relax time. This is your favorite part of the day. It's just you and your thoughts. Maybe you're reading a book. Maybe you're writing something. Whatever you're doing, you're thoroughly enjoying it. Then, out of the blue, with no warning or explanation, someone twice your size snatches you out of your chair and whisks you home to a crying baby and a cranky toddler who are both needing to be comforted and fed. How would that make you feel? Confused? Resentful? Grumpy? Would it be easy for you to care for your children with the same level of patience that you normally have? Then imagine the same scenario playing out, except this time you're really hungry, or running on three hours of sleep, or in physical pain. Imagine how upset you'd be then!
Now let's imagine the same scenario, except this time, just as you've gotten settled into your comfy chair with your favorite book, your husband calls. He says, "Baby, I'm really sorry to have to do this to you, but I need you to come home. I know you need your alone time, but I just got a call from work and I have to go in ASAP. I was planning on making dinner tonight, but I can't since I have to go to work. Sorry! I promise I'll make it up to you later." That would feel so much different, right? The problem with the first scenario wasn't so much the taking care of the kids and cooking dinner, as much as the lack of transition and the way that your basic needs were disregarded. This time, your need to know what was going on was respected. Your need for alone time, even though it was cut short, was respected, and there was a promise to make it up later. Your right to control your own body was respected- you got to make the choice to walk out of Starbucks and voluntarily drive home, instead of being forcefully carried there.
The first scenario sounds laughable, doesn't it? We just don't think of treating an adult in those terms. We all know that adults have a right to know what's going on, and the reasons why they're doing something. Most of us wouldn't dream of trying to pick up or push another adult without at least warning them first. Normal, healthy people are well aware of the fact that every person has a right to their own body, and that it belongs to only them. We all know about personal space, personal "bubbles", and that it's generally wrong to touch someone without their consent. These are no brainers- when we're talking about adults.
So why is it different when we're talking about babies, toddlers, and children? A child's size and vulnerability should not make him exempt to these basic human laws, it should make his caregivers more vigilant to follow them.
Lets take the first scenario again, but this time instead of you at Starbucks, it's your toddler playing blocks on the floor. Have you ever been in a hurry to get out the door to go somewhere, and in your rush just scooped your toddler away from whatever he was focusing on and hurried him to the car? I know I have. That doesn't usually go over so well! Blocks or books or whatever else your toddler is playing with might seem trivial to you, but to your toddler they're just as important as whatever it is that you concentrate on.
It might take some retraining of your own thought patterns, but I've found that transitions become so much easier when I remember to give my kids the respect they deserve and take the time to help them through the transitions.
So how does this work out in real life? For me, it looks something like this. Unless I have a good reason not to, I allow and encourage my kids to make choices themselves and do things themselves. When I do have to impose a decision on them, I explain it to them in an age appropriate way and give them an appropriate amount of time and help in making the transition. I use this with just about any situation that pops up, and it works really well for us. I wish I had started out parenting with this concept in mind, but unfortunately I didn't really start learning about gentle discipline until Tristan was about 18 months old. It blew my mind to see how effective the tools were, even on an 18 month old, and how much easier it was to work through things that had been challenging for me with Hayden.
I still remember one of the first times I tried out this principle on Tristan. Thad, Tristan, and I were sitting in the living room, and for some odd reason Thad had given Tristan his debit card to look at. I know that's weird. I don't remember why. Tristan was playing with the card, and then, of course, Thad needed it back. He asked Tristan to give it back to him, and Tristan pulled it closer and said "no". With Hayden, at that point, I probably would have just snatched it out of her hand and given it back to Thad. I would have thought to myself, "Well if you're going to be stubborn like that and not give it back when it's time, then I'll just take it from you!" *Insert crossed arms and pouty face here. Very mature.* By this time though, I'd just started learning about showing respect to my children, and I didn't want to snatch it away from him- I wanted to encourage him to give it back himself at the appropriate time. So I said, "Tristan, it's time to let daddy have a turn. Say 'bye bye, card!'" As soon as I said that, Tristan reached his little arm out and gave the card right back to Thad! My mind was blown! With just a simple explanation and transition, Tristan had gone from refusing to give something back to willingly giving it up- no force required. How wonderful!!!
At first it was difficult for me to think in this new way- to remember that these little ones were individual people that deserved to be treated like they were. And I'm definitely not saying that I always handle these situations perfectly. But the more I practiced, and the more I saw how effective they tools were, and how I could get my toddlers to peacefully and willingly comply with what I needed them to do, the more natural it started to feel.
Nursing provided another good lesson for me. Anyone that's nursed a toddler knows that it's not a good idea to abruptly stop a nursing session without warning. I tried that once as I was first learning these tools. Tristan was nursing, and for some reason I can't remember, I needed to get up quickly. I unlatched Tristan as if I owned him, and started to get up. His poor little face fell, and he started to cry- that super sad cry that says, "You just broke my heart!" Whatever it was I was rushing to was suddenly unimportant, and I quickly sat back down and latched him back on. As he calmed down, I thought about what I had done, and decided to do an experiment and try something different. Tristan was only about 18 months old at this point, and wasn't talking hardly at all yet, so I wasn't sure how much he'd understand. But after he calmed down, I said, "Hey buddy, mom's going to need to get up in a minute, so you'll need to be all done with num num. I'm going to count to three, and then we'll be all done." I counted slowly, and when I reached three, and he unlatched himself and happily started playing with something else! I couldn't believe how easy that was! Counting to three is still our little signal that nursing time is over. Now that Tristan's older, he'll often unlatch and happily count himself! It's so helpful to have cues like that- they help Tristan to transition, and help me to remember that he's his own person and in control of his own body and his own choices.
I couldn't believe this tiny little guy could understand when I explained that when I counted to three, nursing time was over! I definitely underestimated him!
Now of course, respecting your child's need to make choices for themselves doesn't mean that they can or should be making every choice. When it's appropriate, I believe it's good to allow kids to make decisions and do things themselves. But of course there will always be times when, as a parent, you have to override the child's choice or make one for them. But even at those times, that can still be done while keeping in mind that the child is a person that deserves respect, and to not be trampled on.
For example- Tristan likes to climb in his car seat by himself. Most of the time, that is completely acceptable. I'll buckle Hayden into her seat while Tristan climbs into his, and then I'll buckle him and we'll go on our way. But not always. Last Sunday at church, the air conditioner wasn't working right. It was 80 degrees in the service, 10 degrees hotter than we're used to. After several hours of being hot(remember, Thad is the pastor, so we have to be there early and stay late),it was finally time to go home, and I carried all our stuff out to the car. I was so ready to sit down in that seat with the air vent blowing on me, when Tristan announced that he had a "stinky bum bum".
He loves to climb in himself!
Just what I wanted- to go back inside the stifling hot building and change a dirty diaper. I was sweating. It was 90 degrees outside, and the sun was beating down. I had just been through several hours of interacting with people, which is already exhausting for an introvert like me, and then I was dealing with the heat at the same time. I was touched out, irritated, and on edge. I seriously needed some air conditioning and some time to sit down and regain the sanity that I was barely holding onto at that point. I had already let Tristan climb into his car seat once, before he announced the dirty diaper, and I didn't have the patience left to let him do it again.
I knew if I just tried to put him into his seat, he'd throw an absolute fit. Tried that before. Total. Meltdown. This time, I tried something new. The whole time I was changing his diaper, I explained to him what was going to happen. I reminded him how he usually likes to climb into his seat by himself when we were getting into the car. Then I explained that he wasn't going to get to do that this time, and that mommy was just going to set him into his seat. He said that would be ok. As we walked out to the car, I reminded him again, twice, that instead of climbing into his seat, Mommy would be setting him up there this time. As we got to the seat, I said, "Ok, here we go, Mommy's putting you into your seat now!" There was absolutely no fussing! Not even a peep. Just because I explained it to him and gave him a heads up, he willingly let me do something that he normally would have absolutely freaked out over. It's amazing how far a little respect can go.
If this is a new concept for you, I encourage you to give it a little thought, and maybe try an experiment or two and see how your child reacts. Just put yourself in their shoes, and ask yourself what you could do to help your child make a transition, or to help them accept doing something that's necessary but not particularly pleasant. When you do have to impose something on them, try to remember to empathyze with them and validate their feelings. These principles have gone a long way in helping me build my relationships with my kids, and it feels really good when we work together towards something that we can all be happy about. I hope you find them helpful too.
I'd love it if you would share your experiences in the comments- whether you've been using similar principles for years, or whether this concept is brand new to you and you're trying it for the first time! Thanks for reading.
Please join us all week, June 25-June30, 2012, as we explore the world of gentle, effective parenting. We have new posts each day by talented authors providing us with insight into why gentle parenting is worth your time and how to implement it on a daily basis. We are also giving away several parenting book and other goodies from our sponsors this week. Please stop by and enter to win! This year's beautiful motherhood artwork is by Patchwork Family Art. Visit the store to see all her work.