Discipline is Not a Dirty Word

Mother on level of toddler talking about something.

By Mia Cronan

Discipline does not automatically mean punishment. Oftentimes, it involves disciplining ourselves first, before we expect trained behavior to appear in our children.

We have all heard people referring to undisciplined children, and it’s usually not said in a complimentary or flattering tone. Others, however, seem to call to mind visions of anger, spanking, and yelling when discussing discipline. It doesn’t have to be that way. Discipline with children is more a state of mind than a behavior on the parent’s part. It’s the recognition that consistency, self-control, and routines are good things and need to be taught, beginning at an early age. To be without those things leads to chaos, tardiness, sloth, and worse!

Discipline does not automatically mean punishment. Oftentimes, it involves disciplining ourselves first, before we expect trained behavior to appear in our children. If we don t always wash our hands after we use the bathroom, for instance, it’s probably not a priority for us; hence how can we expect our children to routinely wash theirs? We have to demonstrate certain behaviors first. Another example would be the parent who yells at the kids to do as they are told but gets upset when the children yell at each other. Again, modeling behavior is a great way to teach it. If they see nothing else than the good behavior, that’s all they can mimic, because it’s their norm, and it’s all they know.

Let’s look at what discipline is NOT: It’s not spanking, it’s not yelling, it’s not threatening. Rather, discipline is teaching, it’s reinforcing, it’s demonstrating consistency, and it’s sometimes unemotional. I say this because removing the emotion (anger, frustration, or despair) allows the issue at hand to come into focus instead of the parent’s emotion. It’s a way of presenting options and even consequences. If taught properly, for example, a child learns that if she leaves the screen door open for a long time, yucky bugs will get in the house and she won’t be allowed to watch the movie she wants to see, NOT that Mom will freak out and spank her. Or a child will learn that, if he doesn’t put his toys away where they go, the room will be a mess and he won’t get to go outside to play, NOT that Mom will put him in timeout for 5 minutes.

How many of us have gotten extremely upset when we tell a child to do something, and the child just won’t listen, doesn’t appear to hear, or simply doesn’t do what is asked? I’m sure it’s happened to all of us at times. It’s important to look at the environment in which we’re dealing as we’re giving instructions to our kids. We have to ask ourselves:

Did I have her attention? Did we have direct eye contact? Did I speak clearly and make my request concise and understandable? Did I use words that she can comprehend? Did she understand the consequences if this task isn’t completed? If all these factors are not present, chances are good we won’t get the desired results from our little loved ones. And it’s unlikely that our children will say after having received direction, I’m sorry Mother, I’m unclear on your needs. It’s more likely that they will go about their business and minimize the importance of what you said because they just didn’t get it, and it didn’t appear to have any significance to them. (Ever gotten that blank stare after you’ve said something sarcastic? They don’t get sarcasm.)

It’s vital to make sure the child has your attention. Say, “Susie, look at Mommy.” Then you can proceed to explain what you want. If Susie is sitting on the floor engrossed in trying to get Malibu Barbie’s bikini on, her mind is probably not a sponge for your directions.

Have her look you in the eye before you continue talking. Use her name in your statement as much as you can. (Studies show that using a person’s name in conversation ensures that you have their attention for at least the next 15 seconds. I’m not sure if this applies to toddlers, as well.) Do what you can to make sure her attention can’t be anywhere else. This sounds like a long procedure, but it can be done within the span of seconds, which is pretty much all we have to deal with anyway most of the time, right?

Use words your child can understand, or speak only on a slightly higher level than she understands. And be sure to use a firm, but gentle voice. Try to keep instructions simple, like, Put all your toys in the toy box, please, or, It’s time to put your toys in the toy box. This works better than, I can’t believe what a mess this room is. I want you to clean it up, take your shoes upstairs, and make sure you get all the crayons back in the box! A child may not be able to grasp what it means to clean up a room until she’s had a lot of practice. But simple instructions can’t be disputed. When that task is completed, you can give further simple instructions.

With older children, you can unemotionally explain that “We can’t leave to go the park until the job is done.” This way, the child understands that there are consequences to not cleaning up the room, but she doesn’t feel threatened or afraid of not doing so. The parent is not a source of intimidation, but it’s clear to the child that the job needs to get done if she wants to go to the park. Another key ingredient here is to follow through! If your child does not put the toys away, you can say, You’re telling me that you don’t want to go to the park. And stick to your guns about taking away the privilege. You can always go another day, and the follow-through will be a huge lesson learned. She’ll remember all day that she couldn’t go to the park when she wanted to!

The great thing about discipline is that it can be carried out with loving authority. Nobody is threatened, and no voices need to grow any louder. Simple follow-through and resolve will send the message that you say what you mean, and you mean what you say. This cultivates a strong sense of security in our kids. They know that if you keep your word in the less pleasant instances, it’s likely that you’ll keep your word on the other life issues, too. This tells the child, When I say that I’ll always be here for you, I mean that, too.