As a parent, consider it your duty to teach your child the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. That may sound like a lot of work, but, surprisingly, getting your child to behave the way you want may not be as difficult as you think. Here are a few tidbits you should remember:
• Be patient. Changes could take weeks of practice.
• Discipline and punishment are not the same thing.
Discipline is a whole teaching system based in a good relationship, praise, and instruction as to how to control behavior. Punishment is only a consequence for undesirable behavior and a small part of discipline.
Ideally, behavioral modification should have a good balance between focusing on the unacceptable and reinforcing the acceptable.
Discipline should start from the time your baby is born. It starts by making sure that you are responsive to your baby’s needs. At the same time, you’re laying the framework for consistency. Here are a few ways to teach discipline:
The first step of teaching your baby discipline is teaching her how to sleep on her own. Start with keeping a consistent nap time, meal time, and play time, and don’t waiver.
Once your baby becomes active and starts exploring the environment, disciplining is based around safety, but also understanding her natural curiosity.
When the toddler years come, the desire for independence and power struggles will become the biggest problem. Choose your battles wisely and avoid saying “no” all the time. Always offer choices. This way, your toddler feels that she is exerting independence while doing what you want anyway. (For example, ask her, “Do you want to wear your red pajamas or your blue pajamas?” Either way, she’s still going to put on her PJs.)
Also, plan ahead and don’t overestimate your child. A race as to who will brush their teeth first will, again, get her to accomplish the task.
Always be consistent, and make sure that all caregivers stick to the same set of rules and apply the same consequences. Do not discuss disagreements in front of your child. This way, you are not teaching your child to create confrontations to get her way, or from whom she can get what.
Always stick to your promises. Do not promise your child you will do something that you will probably not actually do.
Let the natural and logical consequences take over. If your child drops a cookie on the floor, she will not get to eat the cookie.
Withhold privileges closely related to the misbehavior, and try to apply this immediately after the fact. Always follow through.
Use time-out as a last resort, and use it wisely. Do not give time-outs for everything. When you are giving a time-out, make sure that you choose the most boring place in the house and that the child stays there. If needed, hold the child in your lap and explain that you are doing this because she is not staying quiet. She will probably learn that it is better if she does this herself. Once she serves time-out, introduce her again to a positive activity, but do not scold or lecture her. Wait until later.
Use praise on your child when she does something right. Children won’t know what’s acceptable if you don’t point it out to them. Also, set a good example — don’t expect that your child will know how to handle frustration, if you yell and throw a fit when things don’t go the way you expect.
Do not spank your child. It does not work, it can become a habit, you may actually inflict harm, and it will teach your child that it is OK to hit to control somebody — even somebody she loves.
Remember, always consult your pediatrician if you have questions or concerns.
Dr. Saidi Clemente is board-certified in childhood neurodevelopmental disabilities and is division director of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at Staten Island University Hospital.