Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Ten Commandments of Toddler Discipline

I just finished reading a post over at Her Bad Mother which was the catalyst I needed to write this post that's been brewing in my head for a while.

If you're a new reader and you've found this post first, you really must read my other post on time outs before proceeding. If you don't, I will have to give you a time out. Click through, then come back.

Just so we're clear on my qualifications, I went to school to be a special ed teacher, so my classes included a lot of child psychology, applied behavioral analysis, etc. I also worked for a couple of years with kids that had mental handicaps and behavioral disorders - the most difficult population to work with, kids who were institutionalized (Dr. Phil says that we "abused" them, but that's another post for another day. Narg...). In addition to my education and work experience, I approached parenthood the way most people approach a Ph.D. I read everything. I read books, I read blogs, I went to a shrink and got parenting advice (the famous Dr. Dave).

Most of all, you don't have to listen to me if you don't want to. I would hate to tell you to do something that goes against your own values as a parent. I wish you could see, though, before you discount my advice, how well behaved and happy my kids are. I wish you could see how my 21 month old gives herself time outs (it's too funny). I wish you could see how well they behave when we're out in the world. I wish I could show you a time lapse of how we've gotten here. But since I can't, you're just going to have to trust me.

And with all of that preamble, here are the 10 Commandments of Toddler Discipline:

1) Transition carefully.
2) Time out correctly.
3) Stay CALM.
4) Aim for 80% consistency.
5) Remember your overarching goals.
6) Don't engage in a battle of wills.
7) Look for the root cause.
8) Define house rules.
9) Be flexible, don't be arbitrary.
10) Be realistic in your expectations.

Let's examine each in excruciating detail...

1) Transition carefully.

Imagine that you're at work. You're working on a project, let's say a report. Suddenly your boss busts in and says, "I want you to work on the financials right NOW!" When you say, "Ok, boss, let me just finish this thought," she says, "No, I said financials, now. You don't listen to me! What's the matter with you? You're fired."

Ok, even if you didn't get fired, would being told to stop what you're doing and start something else immediately or else freak you out? It would freak me out. One of the things you must do as a parent is transition your kids from one activity to another carefully. If we're getting ready to go to the store, and the kids are playing, I'll have them put on their shoes about 5 minutes before it's time to go, then I'll let them return to what they're doing. The shoes show them that we're about to go. I'll say, "Hey, that's a nice Lego wall you've built. You can finish it when we get home, but it's almost time to go to the store. We're leaving in 5 minutes..." That gives them time to finish their thoughts, and it gives me time to get everything ready (so I don't forget as much as I would if I left in a hurry!). By the time we're all ready to leave, we're all ready to leave.

Of course, you can't always do this. If the smoke alarm goes off, if you get a call that your loved one is in the Emergency Room, etc. But for most everyday transitions, it's possible to give warnings before a transition, and I promise it'll make your day much, much smoother if you get in the habit of doing so.

2) Time Out Correctly

I have written about Time Outs in detail, so I won't repeat it here. I would guess that over half of the parents I know are doing time outs wrong. If you're doing time outs wrong, they're not doing you, or your kid, any good. I often hear people complain that time outs don't work, and when we get down to technique it becomes clear that they're doing it wrong. Of course, people don't take kindly to a punk like me saying, "Try doing this instead of that..." instead. That's why I write it here. You all don't know I'm a punk...

3) Stay CALM

One of the biggest mistakes I see my friends make with their kids is that they get visibly pissed off, annoyed, frustrated, etc. with their kids. Think of it in terms of your spouse. Let's say you're disagreeing over what you should have for dinner. If your spouse comes in to the argument yelling, rolling his eyes, sighing heavily, waving his arms, and so on, how do you think that discussion is going to go?

If your kids see you dialing your emotions up a notch, they will dial their emotions up to meet your level. Then you dial yours up even more, then they do, and before you know it everyone's screaming and crying and hysterical.

Don't get yourself into this mess in the first place. When your kids are annoying the snot out of you, take a deep breath. Give YOURSELF a time out. Hand them off to your spouse. Do everything you can to remain even of temperament.

This one is so hard for me, because I naturally run hot and cold (people who know me are saying, "Ya think??") I don't do neutral. But I have done little experiments with my kids, where I get mad and they get madder and then I get even madder, and in the exact same situation the next day, if I stay calm while they get mad, I bring the level of calm back down to neutral. It's hard, but it's worth it and it pays off. Be the adult. Stay calm.

Also, it's safer for your kids if you stay calm. Bad things happen when good parents lose their cool. Remember in the parenting classes when they talked about how even good parents will get sleep deprived and a little nuts and the baby won't stop screaming and that's when shaken babies happen? Well, just because your kids get bigger, that doesn't mean that they're going to be any less crazy-making. Practicing the art of staying calm will keep your kids safer.

4) Aim for 80% Consistency

Dr. Dave gave me this one. I was complaining that I always thought that being consistent would be so easy, before I had kids... Then I had kids and I realized that being consistent is one of the hardest parts of being a mother.

Dr. Dave said that "experts" recognize that consistency isn't easy... And he says that if you aim for 4/5 times, or 80% consistency, you're being consistent enough. So, bedtime is 8:30. If you are out late on Friday night, and they don't get to bed until 10, you've still been "consistent" by getting the kids in bed Monday through Thursday by 8:30.

Recognizing that there's an achievable goal for "consistency" makes it a lot more possible to hit it. It even makes me more willing to try to hit it, actually. If someone told me I had to be 100% consistent, I'd say, "That's impossible," and I wouldn't even try.

Part of being consistent is having a rhythm to your days. Get up around the same time, eat around the same times, be active around the same times, rest around the same time. A routine, which I resisted for a long time with MG, but understand a lot more now that I have two, gives your days a predictable pattern, and kids do better when they can predict what's going to happen next (see above: transitions).

5) Remember your big goals.

My parenting mantra is "I'm not raising children, I'm raising future adults." In other words, some behaviors that are super cute in a nearly-two year old are going to be really obnoxious in a 12 year old or, God forbid, a 22 year old. I parent them with the idea in the back of my head that eventually I'm going to have to put them out into the wide world on their own, and it's going to be sink or swim, and I'm not going to be able to kiss away every boo boo anymore.

So how does my mantra inform my parenting? Well, for one thing, I let them make decisions. Letting them make decisions now will help them learn how to make good decisions, so that later when they're making all their own decisions, they're less likely to screw up. "Should we have corn or peas? Should we go to the park or the museum? Should we take Daddy a coffee or a donut?" I let them make small decisions. Yes, sometimes I let them make big decisions. I remember one day we didn't really have anything going on, and I was in the mood to go somewhere, so I said to Mary Grace, "What would YOU like to do today?" She wanted to go to the book store and the fish store, then get McDonald's for lunch and then go to the park. Sounded great to me! We had a great day (and incidentally, her behavior was awesome that day).

Sit down with your spouse and make a list of 3 or 4 overarching goals that you have for your family, and parent with those big goals in mind.

Also, when you're in a conflict with your kids, think about what you're teaching them. If you are locked in a battle over whether or not they're going to try their liver and onions, what are you teaching? If teaching them to try new things is important to you, as a family, it may make sense for you to require that they try a bite before you make them a PB&J. If you are merely trying to "win," or if you're just in a power struggle, you may decide that it makes sense to give in on this issue. After all, "don't eat things that look and smell foul," isn't the worst lesson you can teach your kids!!

Remember, I said 3 or 4 goals, not 30 or 40. These will change with time, as your kids age and develop into who they are going to become. Revisit them later. See how they're working, and what you're teaching, and maybe revise them to better fit your family and your life.

6) Don't engage in a battle of wills - you are outmatched.

Your kids have a stronger will than you do. If you accept this as a given, it's easier to stay out of battles of will with them.

We have all seen the kid whose parents have told him, "You can't leave the table until you eat your peas!" and he has sat there all night. Was that a TV show? I don't remember, but I remember the kid sitting there stubbornly all night, then being told that it was peas for breakfast, too.

Why bother? They're just peas. And your kid will sit there all night, too. There's no sense in putting yourself or your child into a position where one of you is going to have to give in.

Instead, look at yourselves as a team. Try to work together toward goals. If that goal is to be healthy, maybe say, "Hey, kiddo, peas are good for you, but I understand that you don't like them. Is there another fruit or veggie that you'd eat instead?" And maybe, if they hate peas enough to sit at the table and refuse to eat them all night, maybe it's worth not making peas anymore.

Meals tend to be a source of a lot of discontent in families. I have read in multiple sources that it's only realistic to expect a toddler to eat ONE good meal in a day. They average out their nutrition over a week, and most kids, if left to their own devices, will eat a fairly balanced diet over the course of that week, even though they may only eat bananas on Monday.

We can't force our kids to eat. All we can do is provide healthy foods at regular intervals, and allow them to choose to eat when it suits them. If you find yourself fighting about food a lot, ask yourself if it wouldn't be more sensible to just let it go. Trust your kid and his appetite. After all, we're raising a lot of obese kids in this country. All of this "Clean your Plate" may not be good for them.

When I was growing up, Mom required that we try one "no thank you" bite of each item offered, and if we still hated it, we were free to make ourselves a PB&J. I don't remember eating a whole lot of PB&J as a kid.

I try to make at least one item that I know my kids like for each meal. And we do "no thank you" bites too. Guess what? My kids are pretty good eaters.

One of the "rules" in our house is that we get two stories before bed. Well, sometimes MG asks for a third, and sometimes she has picked two fairly short books, so sometimes I give in. It falls within my 20% wiggle room. I'm still being consistent, but sometimes it's ok to give in. "Just this once," or "You were awfully good today, I guess so..."

What am I teaching them? That we value reading. That we're flexible. That sometimes good behavior is rewarded unexpectedly. And it's all the better if I give in before the whining/bargaining/cajoling phase sets in.

7) Look for the root cause.

A lot of toddler behaviors that drive us nuts (tantrums, whininess, etc.) stem from legitimate needs. If your child is hungry, tired, sick, overwhelmed, overstimulated, or hurt, her behavior isn't going to be as good as if she's well fed, well rested, well, properly whelmed, properly stimulated, and free of injury. If your child is driving you crazy, go through a mental list, "Did she get a good night's sleep? When was the last time she ate?" etc. and make sure that you're not punishing your child for having a need and being unable to effectively communicate it in a non-crazy-making way. It's hard for a three year old to verbalize, "I'm sleepy," but it's easy for her to throw a tantrum. What is she trying to communicate with her behavior? Are you listening?

8) Define house rules.

Kids can really only hold a few rules in their little heads at a time (especially when they're toddlers) so make them good ones.

We don't hurt people (or the pets).
We don't take other peoples' toys.
We use inside voices inside.
We don't jump on the furniture.

That's enough for your average two or three year old to work on. When she's mastered those rules, move on to more subtle rules. Teach your kids the rules, and have them repeat them back to you. (This is one that I honestly need to work harder on).

9) The rules need to make sense to a toddler.

Don't be arbitrary. Don't set house rules just for the sake of setting house rules. Remember that the rules you remember from your own childhood were in effect when you were older than two or three. You don't probably remember being two or three with enough detail to remember what your house rules were (and, incidentally, your parents probably don't either, so take it with a grain of salt when they say, "We always," or "I never let you...") Unless a rule has a deeper value underlying it, it's arbitrary and meaningless. We don't hurt people because we don't want people to hurt us. Basic golden rule. But what's the meaning behind "Don't touch Mommy's Hummels?" If Mommy's Hummels are accessible, Mommy's asking for them to be broken. Put them up until the kids are older. Ok, sure, the meaning might be "we respect other peoples' property," but that's a little too advanced for the age group we're talking about here. Keep things simple, and lead the children not into temptation... Put the breakables, the heirlooms, and the valuables away for now.

10) Be realistic in your expectations.

We're dealing with toddlers, here. Their brains are still forming. They don't have the reasoning skills to think through their actions and see consequences. They're learning that skill, and we need to teach them. Don't expect a two year old to handle any situation the way an older child or an adult would.

I see a lot of my friends treating their kids like miniature adults. This is a huge mistake. It sets you up for failure. They're future adults, sure. But right now they don't have the reasoning ability to understand complicated instructions. Right now, they don't have the self-control to handle boring adult situations. Right now they don't have the foresight to predict consequences. Set your expectations, and your rules, accordingly.

...ok, I just went out to the freezer to get peas, and my freezer is no longer freezing. The only reason anything's cold out there is because it's cold in the garage. SO, that's a project. Leave any questions or criticisms in the comments, and we'll dialogue. :)

I'm going to go hit my freezer with a hammer for a while.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Amy. I hear you on the balanced meal myth. In the super-duper allergy hospital ward, we learned to eat one fruit for breakfast, one vegetable for lunch and one protein for dinner, which equaled a total of three foods for the entire day. Since we were eating different foods from each group on successive days, we got far more variety in our diets than typical Americans. And it was a very nutritious way to eat* (albeit not necessarily convenient in most social contexts).
*Rotary Diversified Diet (RDD)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just want to say thank you for all of your posts. Your blog is awesome & I love reading it (which is when I occasionally have time - I have a 1 year old!). These 10 commandments are golden & my husband and I are going to print them and post them on the fridge. Thanks!!

Baby Bunching said...

Just linked to this post from www.babybunching.com. Loved every one of these!!

Mama2Boys said...

followed the link from babybunching...you put my entire parenting style into words! if you don't mind I'd like to link this blog in my blog and on a couple of my parenting buddy groups! :)

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.