Effective disciplining depends a lot on the strategies parents adopt. Are you using the right tactics to deal with negative behaviours? Here are seven questions you should ask yourself.
By Aarti C Rajaratnam
Parents are often exposed to parenting advice that is contradictory and ineffective in the long run. This makes them feel bogged down by information that is not only impractical but also, goes against the natural grain of child development.
Therefore, as a parent, it is imperative for you to pause and question the way you are bringing up your child, especially how you discipline him.
Here are seven questions to find out how effective your strategy is:
1. Do I have a healthy relationship with my child?: Some parents confuse disciplining with exerting control over their child. Therefore, their methods never work. Disciplining a child is about helping her solve problems, making her understand the balance between freedom and responsibility, and helping her acquire skills essential for growth. This is possible only when the relationship between parent and child is deeply rooted in security, love, trust, healthy boundaries and respect. If any element is missing, no discipline strategy will work because the child is likely to use faulty behaviours to fulfil unmet needs instead of developing the 'self'. Here is an example to illustrate: A working mom was unable to spend quality time with her daughter. To seek her mother's attention and approval, the child developed the habit or lying. No amount of threatening, bribing, reasoning or rewards could make the child quit the habit. But, when the mother changed jobs and began returning home early to spend quality time with her little one, the child gave up the habit. She began to communicate truthfully.
2. Does my child feel connected or corrected?: One of the biggest myths surrounding discipline strategies is that parents should 'correct' their child. This attitude often prompts parents to say things like, 'Don’t do this', 'Is this how you behave?', 'This must not happen again'. As a result, both the parent and the child experience high levels of stress and frustration with little or no improvement in behaviour. Such conversations don't help the child learn anything. Also, when a discipline strategy makes a child experience only correction, and never a connection with the parent, it is likely to fail. Parents should understand that inappropriate behaviours are linked to lack of certain skills. Changes in behaviour happen only when the child is able to connect with parents and acquire the requisite skills. So, parents should connect with their child by supporting and helping him acquire the skills instead of trying to control his inappropriate behaviour.
3. Does my disciplining style resemble punishment or consequence?: The purpose of punishment is to impose a penalty for an offence whereas consequence aims to assist in skill acquisition, instil responsibility and bring about progressive change. Punishment focuses only on past deeds and gives rise to frustration and hostility in the parent. This often leaves the child feeling guilty and fearful. On the other hand, consequence is the natural outcome of an action and stems from love and concern. It is rooted deeply in facilitating changes in future behaviours and makes the child feel secure. For example, a father used to bring expensive toys which his toddler would promptly destroy. Often, the child's mother would hit him for such destructive behaviour. However, the more the mother hit the child, the more violent he became. And, the child's father also became more indulgent. When the parents sought counselling to deal with the issue, we came up with consequences — no new toys would be brought to replace the ones the child deliberately destroyed. Gradually, the child learnt to value what he had and also, create new toys with materials available at home.
4. Does my disciplining strategy serve as a teaching tool?: Learning is the most important outcome of discipline. So, any disciplining strategy that does not enhance or facilitate learning will likely be ineffective. For example, there was a little boy who struggled to write. To make him finish his task, his parents would offer him a bar of chocolate. Although the little one managed to finish his tasks, he never really mastered the skill of writing. His focus was always on the outcome of the task — that is, the chocolate — instead of the process. Over a period, the child assumed control of the process. He kept increasing his demands and wrote fewer and fewer words to receive more gifts. Through therapy, we were able to help him to develop the physical skills needed to master writing and wean him off the need to be bribed to complete his tasks.
5. Am I consistent?: Instilling discipline is a long-term goal and takes time. This is because, when disciplining begins, chemical changes start taking place in the child's brain which prompts the little one to learn. For the chemical changes to conclude and learning to become a habit, it takes 21–66 days. Therefore, it is important for parents to be consistent in their efforts and stick to their strategy. Here is an example: Motivated by tidbits on an online parenting group, a young mother brewed up the perfect parenting disaster by trying the tip for the day — every day! It took her a few months to realise that she needed to adhere to a tip until her child learned the behaviour she was trying to teach him. Only then could she move towards developing another skill or behaviour.
6. Is my strategy fair and age-appropriate?: In our anxiety to raise a 'good' child, some parents set unreasonable expectations and irrational consequences for misbehaviour. Consequences that are not age-appropriate and unfair only serve to increase misbehaviour. For instance, an eight-year-old was often punished by her mother for not reading two books a day. The mother would send the child to the balcony to spend time in 'isolation' — away from gadgets and toys. In this case, both the goal and the consequence were unrealistic and unfair. However, things took a different turn. Gradually, the fear the child felt at being left alone was replaced by a sense of awe. Looking at clouds, people and creating her own stories of wonder — the child began enjoying her time on the balcony. To spend more time there, she began to read less. To change the child's habit, the mother, in turn, had to re-direct her strategy. She bonded with the child over the reading task. As soon as the child sensed the bonding, security and fairness in the mother's approach, she felt motivated enough to read regularly.
7. Does my child feel empowered after being disciplined?: The discipline strategy must nurture learning, instil responsibility, and teach skills, emotion regulation and problem-solving. When these are nurtured, the child feels empowered. A strategy that uses control makes a child feel dominated, with no autonomy to think or behave in the way he wants. For example, a working mom with very little support at home found herself bogged down by the pressures of packing a healthy snack for her children every day. She often chided her children for wasting food but could never get them to eat what she packed for them. Over the summer vacation, she introduced her children to fireless cooking. Very soon, the morning ritual of preparing the snack turned into a fun and bonding session where the children planned and made their snack. They also learnt to not waste food because they understood the amount of effort involved. Such a sense of empowerment goes a long way in making a disciplining strategy effective.
When a strategy works, go back and reaffirm these seven questions. When something does not work, re-think and re-direct your efforts to see what needs to change. These seven questions serve to keep the joy of parenting alive by promoting greater balance, security, love, responsibility, autonomy and empowerment.
Aarti C Rajaratnam is a psychologist specialising in childhood and adolescent mental health, a best-selling author, and an innovative education design consultant.
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