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A kinder, gentler discipline


When my oldest child was 3, she decided to pitch a fit right in the entrance of Target. She sprawled tragically on the floor, blocked the doors and wailed. When my husband tried to pick her up to get her out of the way, she screamed, “Noooooooo!” as customers glared suspiciously at him. He was flummoxed, so having no other immediate ideas, he employed a makeshift parenting technique of “dying of embarrassment.” (His longer-term solution was “never going to Target.”)

But what exactly should he have done? The cuss out/butt smack combo of our own childhoods doesn’t cut it anymore, but what’s the new standard?

In short, it’s less smacking, more talking. The idea is to equip kids with the strong social and emotional skills they need to make responsible decisions.

“Positive discipline is based on the philosophy that all humans want to belong and feel like our existence has meaning,” says Dina Eletreby, head of the New Horizon School, an independent Islamic K-8 school in Irvine where they follow the positive discipline philosophy pioneered by Jane Nelson.

Students at New Horizon are motivated by relationships and an awareness of their role in the group, rather than threats or bribes. Whether it’s called “positive discipline” or “developmentally appropriate guidance,” as it’s called elsewhere, the philosophy sees behavior problems as symptoms of a breakdown somewhere else.

“There’s no magic answer,” says Dana Van Sinden, professor of child development and educational studies at Long Beach City College. “You have to know your child and look at the behavior as a symptom of something else going on. If a child throws a fit or kicks her little brother or pulls the dog’s tail – all of those things are a symptom of something else, and that something else is not a personality flaw.”

Old-school discipline – yelling, spanking, banishing kids to their rooms – was certainly easier (and in some cases, more cathartic), but it is based on external stimuli. A kid does something because they don’t want to get punished (or, on the flip side, they want a reward for doing it).

Much more effective are intrinsic rewards, the satisfaction we get for doing something inherently pleasing.

“If I’m motivated by somebody else’s power, then what happens when that person is not looking?” Eletreby asks. “If we want to influence children to do good even when we’re not watching them, then it has to be based on something other than our power over them. That’s why purpose and belonging are so important.”

So how does this discipl---, that is, guidance, look in real life?

Ditch the spankings

Spanking has been falling out of favor since the 1980s, according to a 2016 study from Georgetown University. But a contingent of parents, especially parents who have lower education levels, continues to spank, according to a 2015 Pew study.

Yes, spanking “works” in the short term. Parent spanks; kid stops doing thing. But the momentary reprieve comes with a host of long-term effects on the spankees, including higher likelihoods of future anxiety and depression, substance abuse, bullying and partner abuse. It also has negative effects on parent/child relationships, academic achievement and cognitive abilities, according to a 2014 analysis from the Brookings Institution.

Go Zen during tantrums

Tantrums have three stages, according to research from the University of Connecticut and the University of Minnesota. Knowing what’s coming makes it easier to handle, as does remembering that this too shall pass. Stage one is screaming and yelling. Stage two is physical aggression, hitting, throwing and flailing about. Stage three is sadness.

Your job? “Just stay present, don’t talk, and keep the child safe so they don’t hurt anyone,” says Linda Hatfield, who co-founded Parenting From the Heart in Huntington Beach with her husband, Ty.

“Being logical or fighting fire with fire makes it worse,” Ty Hatfield adds. “The kid melts down even more, and the tantrum will last longer because they don’t feel heard and can’t go through those stages.”

When the sadness hits, often with a characteristic three breaths of release (phew!), just love them up. “They have lost connection with their parent – usually they’ll want to climb in your lap and cry. They want to reconnect,” Linda Hatfield says.

Get kids involved in conflict resolution

If two kids are fighting over a toy, instead of yelling or serving as the judge of who really deserves the toy, say something neutral and observational like: “I see two kids who both want a toy. What should we do about this?” See what they come up with. Sometimes it is, “I get the toy!” but a lot of times kids come up with great solutions.

“First get down to their level and stop any hurtful behaviors,” says Van Sinden, who has gone through this scenario 87 billion times at the Child Development Center at Long Beach City College. “Two, recognize feelings. Three, restate the problem. Four, ask for solutions. Choose one and try it. Five, follow up.”

This is how it works at New Horizon. If, say, one kid clocks another, instead of punishing or yelling, teachers try to get to the root of the problem. Perhaps it was retaliation because a friend grabbed their pencil. In that case, both kids would be asked what they might do differently if they could redo the situation, then each child re-enacts those more positive scenarios.

“It gives them a chance to kind of correct it with each other and lets them know the rules. The lesson for one kid is don’t grab something from somebody else, and the lesson for the other person is that you don’t react by hitting,” Eletreby says.

Create win-wins

Instead of laying down the law, get kids involved in decision-making that affects them. “They want to be heard and be part of the solution, not just be told what to do,” Linda Hatfield says. Brainstorm with teens to come up with solutions that work for everyone. This can work with anything from chores to curfews to screen time. Even after the deal is struck, make sure to keep checking in and leave the door open to renegotiation if it’s not working for either party.

Give kids a chance to rectify their mistakes

“You don’t ever help somebody do better by making them feel worse,” Van Sinden says. Find ways that kids can help make it right. A child who pushes another child, for example, can be in charge of getting an ice pack and putting bandages on the wounded kid’s scraped knee.

Learn developmental stages

A 3-year-old’s tantrum is not evidence of him being a jerk, it’s just a kid going through a normal developmental stage.

“Developmental stages are running the show 95 percent of the time, especially the younger the child is,” Linda Hatfield says.

When children’s brains are still growing, they haven’t developed the capabilities to control their emotions. So ... maybe give a kid a break when they’re acting kid-like.

“When we punish, use time out or spank, we’re damaging the relationship with our child. And our greatest influence is in the quality of that relationship with that child,” Linda Hatfield says.

Go deeper with teens

At New Horizon School, handling middle school bullying doesn’t involve just the bully, but also the bully’s family, the one who was bullied and the people who observed it.

The bullied explains how the bullying felt and the bully and observers talk about times they’ve been bullied themselves.

“We talk about all of the big issues and can use that as a context to real life,” says Eletreby, noting that the process often incorporates historical lessons, like a discussion of how the Holocaust happened partially because people were afraid to speak out against bullying.

Use reasonable consequences

“Natural consequences are the best teacher,” Linda Hatfield says. Child won’t wear coat, child gets cold. But if there’s not an obvious natural consequence, find something reasonable and be clear about what it is.

“My mother taught me not to make false threats. That has been a staple for us,” says Korinne Hannegan, a mother of seven (yes, seven) in Dana Point.

“If you say, ‘We are leaving the park if you do that again,’ you leave the park. No ‘One more time,’ or ‘Ok, one more chance, I mean it.’ … I had to pull the plug with my daughter about two minutes in the magical gates of Disneyland one day after giving her two chances. She knew not to walk away from me, was warned twice and looked me straight in the eyes and walked off. Gasp! I think I cried more than her walking out of those beautiful gates.” (Fear not, the Hannegans are season pass holders.)

Set clear limits

“If a kid has repeated behavior problems, a lot of times they’re looking for the limit,” Van Sinden says. Limit-testing is big with 4-year-olds, but also with kids whose parents give them little guidance. Children feel safer when they know what the rules are. Handle limit-testing calmly and firmly.

“You don’t have be angry. You don’t have to shame them. You can just say, ‘No, I’m not going to let you do that,’ ” Van Sinden says.

“We have clear expectations for our kids, and if they aren’t met, there is usually a warning or two, depending on the crime and age of the suspect,” Hannegan says.

“We also believe the punishment needs to fit the crime; small mistake equals small but meaningful consequence, and so on. Complaining that mom’s job is so easy will get you mom’s jobs for the day.”

Look for ‘system failures’

“Things happen. Your kid is going to forget their lunch once in awhile, but when it’s a pattern of behavior, that’s when we need to intervene,” Linda Hatfield says.

See if there’s a way to tweak the system.

“It’s not punishing them because they forgot, it’s saying, ‘What system do we need to put in place so that you can remember your lunch every day?’

“Adults have the same behavioral challenges as children, but we treat children so differently. If I spill on my shirt at the dinner table, no one punishes me. But if a child does the same behavior, they’re punished.”

Don’t expect instant results

“The hope is that the child will learn it from the first time, but that’s not usually how development is,” Eletreby says. But keep at it.

“Eventually, when they’re old enough and their brains are mature, that’s when they can go, ‘Oh yeah, these are my options,’ ” Ty Hatfield says.

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