Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thinking Beyond Time-Out and Spanking

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to disciplining children. Every child is different, and parents have to find what works best for them. Although my husband and I were both spanked as children, we have decided not to spank our children. This was not a decision we planned much in advance, but one we came to as we realized that spanking would really not work well with our daughter. She is generally a compliant child, and she also gets her feelings hurt rather easily.

Even trying to implement time-out as a discipline technique was very traumatic for my daughter, and I cannot imagine how she would have reacted to being spanked. The first time we did a time-out, our daughter was 2 years old, and she was upset for hours afterwards despite the fact that I had even stayed with her during the time-out! She was insecure the rest of the day, and very clingy. Our daughter is very emotionally sensitive, and she has even cried when we have read story books that told of children being spanked (even though she herself has never been spanked).

Over time, we did get into the groove of using time-out as a discipline technique fairly frequently, but it still never worked very well for us. Once my son was old enough to be mobile, time-outs really became a headache for me since I would have to drop whatever I was doing to keep him occupied so he wouldn't try to play with his sister while she was in time-out. Once I realized that I was dreading time-outs, I figured I had better come up with some alternatives.

Alternatives to Time-out and Spanking
The following is a list of some alternative discipline methods that have worked well for us.  I'm sure that as my daughter gets older, and as we start needing to discipline her 2-year-old brother more, we will need to come up with even more alternatives.    
  • Consequences that fit the behavior 
    • Whenever possible, I try to use consequences that are an obvious direct result of the problem behavior. For instance, if a toy is thrown or otherwise mistreated, that toy goes away for a period of time. If my daughter takes a very long time to eat her dinner (to where all the other dinner dishes have already been washed), then she has to wash her own dishes. If my daughter takes an extra long time getting her pajamas on before bed, then she loses some of her nightly story time. 
    • As much as possible, these consequences are administered with a cool head and a calm voice, so that the consequences are what the child remembers. These are consequences that show kids that there is a corresponding reaction to their actions, and these have worked great in teaching my children to behave responsibly.
  • Taking away a beloved toy for a short time 
    • This approach works very well with my daughter.  She typically is attached to a specific stuffed animal throughout each day.  When she is behaving badly, or most often when she is not doing what I have asked her to do, then she will lose her beloved stuffed animal for a short period of time.  This works even if she is not holding the stuffed animal at the moment the problem arises.  
    • The amount of time should be fairly short for young kids (such as a few minutes), and the time can be increased as the kids get older (15 minutes is the length of time we use with my 5-year-old). I emphasize to my daughter that the timer doesn't start counting until she is not crying, and that the time will be increased if she continues to misbehave.
  • Writing lines 
    • When there is a specific misbehavior that occurs repeatedly, it works well to have my daughter write lines.  For instance, if she whines or cries rather than asking me nicely for something, then she will have to go write "I will not cry" or "I will not whine".  This is a remarkably effective technique for us, because it stops the problem behavior almost immediately and usually changes my daughter's mood.  
    • It also works well because I am usually able to administer this technique with a calm, level voice.  I also make sure to talk about the problem behavior with my daughter and let her know that she'll be writing lines to help her remember the appropriate way to behave. 
    • We started using this technique when my daughter was just over 4 years old.  At that young age, she would just have to trace the words (you can write them with a light-colored marker on handwriting practice paper, and then the child just needs to trace them, or you could print them in the dashed font that works well for writing practice).  Now that my daughter is a little older, I just write a sample of the sentence in small print at the top of the page, and then she writes it out herself.  Since she is older, the sentences become a bit more complex, such as "I will not snatch toys away from my brother".  
    • I typically only require her to write one line per misbehavior, but will increase the amount if the behavior keeps going on. For instance, I'll tell her that the longer she keeps crying, the more lines she will have to write (I know this may sound like cruel-and-unusual punishment to some of you, but you'd have to know my daughter to know that she will sometimes cry at the drop of a hat, so this is something we really have to work on with her).
    • If your kids do not like writing, this is probably not a good discipline technique to use.  My daughter, though, loves to do schoolwork, so this discipline technique does not give her any negative association with writing.
  • Positive reinforcement of good behavior
    • Sometimes, we get into a rut and I find that I seem to be interacting negatively with my daughter more often than not.  When this happens, I make sure to implement some positive reinforcement for good behaviors.  This can be as simple as making sure to say "thank you" when she does what she is asked, or as complicated as implementing a reward chart to keep track of good things she does. 
    • Reward charts can be remarkably effective in changing the pace of the day from focusing on negatives to focusing on positives instead.  I don't use reward charts for extended periods of time, as I find that they can get my daughter into the mindset that she should have a reward every time she behaves properly.  But, I do find that reward charts are great to use when you get stuck in a negative rut.  For instance, after my son was born, I found that I seemed to be correcting my daughter often and seldom giving her positive attention.  So, for a couple months, we used a reward chart to keep track of good behaviors (such as brushing her teeth without a battle, cleaning up her toys, putting dirty laundry in the clothes basket, etc.)  Each time she did one of the "good" behaviors, she would get to put a sticker on her chart. For every ten stickers, she got to choose a reward, such as having a balloon, watching a short video, doing fingerpainting, etc.  (This also worked remarkably well in teaching her how to count with one-to-one correspondence.) 
    • One other particularly effective method of positive reinforcement is to turn any problem activity into a game.  For instance, if I want my daughter to clean up her toys quickly, I can turn it into a game just by saying "Who is the fastest cleaner?" and then starting to run around and pick things up.  Getting ready to go can become a game just by saying "Who can get ready the fastest?" and then running to get ready. With a little creativity, almost any activity can be turned into a game, and then instead of struggling, my kids are excited to participate. 
  • Setting clear expectations
    • One way to really stop bad behaviors before they start is to make sure to set clear expectations.  For instance, when my daughter was younger, she would sometimes throw a fit when it was time to leave the park. This was greatly remedied once I started to briefly talk to her each time we went to the park about how I expected her to behave when it was time to leave.  Over time, this became a very short reminder of "No whining and no crying when it's time to go home".  Reminding my daughter that she is expected to share well before her friends come over was also very helpful when she was having troubles sharing.  
    • Setting clear expectations also includes making sure that the kids know what to expect by following certain routines.  For instance, my daughter knows that I will give her a warning when we have only a few minutes left before going home, so I make sure to always follow that routine.
I think it is important to keep the end goal in mind when disciplining our kids.  I do not want my kids to cower in fear of me, nor do I want them to think they can get away with anything they want to do. I want my children to grow up to be responsible, respectful, and compassionate people, and so their discipline needs to work towards that goal.

What discipline techniques work best for you?


Nothing to see here said...

I honestly do not understand the need for punishment which ever form it takes. I do not punish my partner for doing something wrong, or that i do not like, i talk to him, as i do with my kids, rhey deserve the same kind of respect i give any other human being. they are no less worthy.

Megan said...

I appreciate these suggestions. Sometimes I feel so bad that our first has to be a guinea pig but then I remember each child is different, so whatever we find might work with her may not work on her younger brother. I, too, have found that setting expectations really helps, and trying to stay calm about the misbehavior at hand (it's the behavior, not her), helps me stay in check. She's a little bit of a pistol at times so it can be easy to go crazy in your head about the things she does, but having a plan for both her and me really helps me not lose it.
Timeouts have not worked with her either. I think I might try the consequences that fit the behavior (dawdling means less time getting to do something you like). We've finally figured out that we can help her tantrums come to an end when we correctly identify what's really upsetting her (you've posted this before in regards to Happiest Toddler on the Block), i.e., "You're upset because ____ and you wish you could ____." Once we identify it, she tends to calm down because she finally feels understood. Before she was very verbal, it was sooo difficult to have these breakthroughs with her.
Also, same thing has happened since her baby bro was born -- maybe scolding her too much and not recognizing the good things very well. Consciously trying to do better about that and being specific. "You did ___ so well! I really like how you put them in the right spot."
Thanks for sharing what's worked. I find it really helpful!

Nicole said...

It sounds like our daughters are similar. I never considered spanking, but even if I had, I think she would be scarred for life by a single spank. We use time out, and the other techniques you listed, and she has responded quite well to it. Prior to becoming a nurse, I earned a BA in psychology and one of my specialties was behavior modification therapy for children. The techniques you are using with your children are among the most effective forms of behavior modification. All of these techniques provide the child with positive learning experiences and allow them to build self-confidence by making good decisions. Whereas, punishment, especially spanking, would subject them to emotional harm and shame without necessarily teaching them desirable behavior. Furthermore, parents need to remember that scolding actually can serve as a reinforcer with many children. If a child only gets attention via scoldings when they are misbehaving, then they will be more likely to misbehave in the future--at a certain point, any parental attention is good attention to a child with busy parents. Did you read a book on behavioral techniques? I am impressed. Keep up the good work!

Brooke said...

I learned all about discipline from our daughter's beloved preschool, School for Young Children. They taught me and my husband so much about child development. I think the most important thing is that discipline is an evolving concept that changes as our children grow. Some of the things we used:

Helping one's body: We started this as young as 2. If a child isn't participating then the adult "helps" them. If our daughter didn't want to put away toys after we said it was time (5 min warning) then we would tell her we were going to help her body. And we would secure her body and use her hand to put toys away. After doing this a couple of times, usually she would cooperate. Eventually all we would have to say is "do I need to help your body?" and she would comply.

Writing a letter: If our daughter was really sad or mad we would ask if she wanted us to write a letter. If she wanted that then she would dictate what she wanted to say. All her words, not ours. Then we would read it back, make sure she was finished, see if she wanted to draw a picture. This really helped her put words to her emotions and process the feelings. This was also a great technique for visiting children who were missing parents and we taught it to whomever was babysitting. I think when they see you paying attention to their words they feel listened to, which I think is important.

Special Time: This can be a 15 min block where you have one-on-one time with your child. They get to choose what they want to do with you and you give them your full, undivided attention.

Warnings: 5 minutes, 2 minute warnings are great. "I see that you are still playing, we need to leave in 5 minutes." Even if my daughter wasn't ready to leave, I felt like I wasn't surprising her.

Age Appropriate Rules: I remember the most radical thing that I learned at my daughter's preschool was that 2 year olds don't understand the concept of sharing. (They don't even truly understand rules until 4). If you take an object away from a 2 year old they don't understand and will cry for its return. We adopted the school's rule of "a 2-yr old child can play with a toy as long as they want to-they don't have to share. If they discard it then it fair game." A child never had to share a really special toy ever. An older child could barter a toy exchange (especially if it was their toy) and also they could ask to be on a list to play with the toy next. When we understood where our daughter was developmentally we could adjust the boundaries.

The biggest lesson for me in discipline was to be present for my child. When I physically knelt down to her level it gave me a new perspective on what she sees. And I realized that discipline is part of her education.

Thanks for this post, it was thought-provoking and I wish I would have had this kind of blog conversation when my daughter was younger.

Anonymous said...

I like your idea on writing lines, but perhaps lines written in a more positive way, ie: instead of "I will not whine" maybe "I always ask nicely for what I want" then it takes the focus off the unwanted behavior and puts focus on what is wanted. I have noticed with my 3yr old daughter that if I put emphasis on what I want her to do, ie "please draw on paper" rather than "stop drawing on the walls" she seems to respond more favourably.

Lauren said...

I'm late and not thinking clearly but I want to come back to this post and its comments later to review. I am on the same page as you are with child-appropriate measures and the need to guide a child into the "responsible, respectful, and compassionate people" we hope them to become.
Of particular interest is the slow eating issue. This sends me into the red zone! We got a countdown clock with a red area that gets smaller as her time runs out, but my daughter will always take all the time given PLUS 3 MINUTES to eat her food, regardless of the portion. I don't want to get into bartering with dessert but on the occasions we have it has not made much difference. Any one else have this problem, or a solution? Most fora suggest we should let the child take as long as they want, but she's playing with food, not savouring every bite!

Sarah Smith said...

I've read random parenting books over the years. Whenever I start to feel at a loss for what to do, I think it is great to read new things and get some new ideas.

Sarah Smith said...

Thanks for sharing these great ideas! They are all great!

Sarah Smith said...

This is a great suggestion. We do sometimes do positive things instead, but strangely my daughter asks to write the negative ones instead (I think because usually the sentences are shorter). I often let he help me choose what to write.

Sarah Smith said...

Lauren, my daughter is a slow eater too. Her 2-year-old brother eats so much faster! Over the years, we've tried different things, and we still need to change things up every so often. Some things that have worked for us:
-food race - we will race to see who gets done eating first
-synchronized eating - we will make a big deal out of all taking bites at the same time
-lots of praise on the rare occasions when she finishes a meal quickly
-leaving her at the table - if she is not making an effort to eat, and the rest of us finish our food, then she is left at the table by herself. Okay, we do this, but it totally doesn't work very well sometimes, and other times it does (especially if the rest of us start doing something she really wants to participate in)
-making her wash her own dishes is she takes too long
-occasionally, we read a book at the table. I'll say "take a bite" every so often, and she will so that I'll keep reading
-feeding her - my daughter still loves for us to feed her (meanwhile her baby bro is sometimes fiercely independent and will even dump off any food we put on his spoon)
-this for that - she is much more likely to eat everything with no problems if she can alternate between taking a bite of dinner and a bite of something she really likes such as blueberries, raisins, chips, etc

Just hang in there, it does get better over time! And for those of you reading this and thinking we are putting too much emphasis on finishing the meal and force feeding too much, all I can say is that you must not have a very slow eater! This has been a huge issue for us over the years. We've tried letting her eat as much as she wants (and she ends up eating hardly anything at all which I am not comfortable with considering she is very low weight at less than 30 pounds at age 5). And we make sure her portion sizes are not very big (she and her baby bro get the same amount of food to eat, and he will often eat seconds).

Tom and Juli said...

I barely recognize Ian in that picture, he has grown up so much!

For me I have noticed that what works sometimes won't work others. Clark hated time out for a while and it was very effective... but all of the sudden he didn't mind it at all so we had to change what we did. We also reward good behavior with being able to play with things they don't have full access to (things like board games, sidewalk chalk, legos, etc.)

I'm glad you mention setting clear expectations, it's one thing I forget to do often. I always have to remind myself that they can't read my mind.

Megan @ Purple Dancing Dahlias said...

We focus on the need of the child instead of the unwanted behavior. If my children are acting out they need something, whether it be quality time, food, a nap, a snuggle or hug.

Lauren said...

Thanks for those tactics - we'll try a few out. You're right that it's not about force feeding. When she concentrates she eats like a horse, but when she's fiddle-faddling we inevitably have scenes of tears because she's hungry ("for a cookie") 5 minutes after bedtime or some other inappropriate time. I really struggle with this because we want meal times to be social but the focus on getting her to eat ruins the conversation (and I'm mindful of Nicole's point about scolding reinforcing unwanted behaviour), I don't want her to suppress her hunger cues because I say she should eat, but I'm also not a restaurant! She's offered good, varied food on a regular schedule; when is too young to say 'next meal is breakfast'? The feeding thing is a point too: I complained to a friend about having to feed my 3 year old and she said she's been known to feed her EIGHT year old for the same reason! I'm not up for that.

I just read a post ( wherein the blogger was uncomfortable to find that a technique similar to time-out which she had successfully used with her twin pre-teens was also common with puppy trainers. Controversial associations aside, the idea is to give the child a moment to regroup by having them stand beside you for a moment without interaction, possibly with a hand on the shoulder, until they've got themselves back under control enough to rejoin the fray. This is of course only appropriate for children old enough to know what is expected of them (as you said, expectations can be reiterated immediately before entering the situation) and able to bring their own emotions under control. Small children have to be coached to that point, as it's not an inherent skill. Anyone who's travelled outside of their home language and culture can tell you how easy it is to act inappropriately without a cultural guide to translate situations for you and a safe space in which to catch your breath; children are newcomers to (the many layers of) our culture, we invited them here. How unfair is it to let them sink or swim?

Lauren said...

I do help her body (after a polite request, direct request, and command) but never called it that - I like it! The letter writing is a new one to me but makes sense, and probably also some valuable keepsakes. We don't schedule special time but I'm mindful of getting some in whenever possible and certainly if there's been some acting out. I'm hoping warnings will become more effective as her sense of time develops :/

Just to add to your insights here, the authors of Baby Hearts point out that knowing what is age-appropriate for your child is highly protective against physical violence to the child. Parents who expect adult reasoning behind toddler behaviour are apt to overreact.

Lauren said...

Synchronised eating seems to be a hit; thanks!

Sarah Smith said...

Yay, great!