I am no Captain von Trapp and yet, as the mother of 21-month-old twins, there lurks within me a certain envy of how the "Sound of Music" patriarch managed his brood. In the movie's party scene, his seven neatly outfitted children serenade a charmed group of guests, then march off to their rooms for bed. My kids are too young to march and just last week they mutinied out of their high chairs, climbed onto the kitchen table, and flung around wads of raisin toast, without so much as a chorus of "My Favorite Things." Stunned, overwhelmed, and prematurely fatigued, I was left once again to consider my disciplinary failings.
And that may have been my first mistake.
According to a new breed of discipline experts, parents who flail themselves for not being able to control their toddlers and make them do what they should do, for heaven's sake, might be better off taking a fresh look at the whole parent-child dynamic. Forget about time-outs, they say, forget about punishment entirely. These experts advocate no begging, no manipulation, no threats, no giving up -- and they're not talking about the kids, they're talking about how the parents behave. That's the gist of this more gentle approach to discipline: if parents can teach themselves to act assertively, kindly, and responsibly, they have a good chance of teaching their children to do the same.
While time-outs were designed as a way to let a child cool off by himself and face the consequences of misbehaving, these experts say placing an angry child alone is needlessly harsh. "What does a time-out do?" asks Martha Heineman Pieper, PhD, co-author of Smart Love. "It teaches children that when they're upset, you don't want to be around them." Her suggestion: "Say, 'I'm sorry you feel bad. I'll sit here with you until you feel better.' "
Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline for Pre-Schoolers, concurs. It's misguided to think that a child will go to her room and think about what she's done wrong, says Nelsen. "The child's thinking about how not to get caught next time or, worse, that she's a bad person."
Called "loving regulation," "turning conflict into cooperation," and "positive discipline," these gentle techniques are not easy, but experts say the benefits are enormous: self-disciplined parents breed self-disciplined children. "This is about learning to change your own behavior, and your children's behavior, so that you can embrace and resolve conflict, and enjoy life," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline.
But how? The first step, says Bailey, is for parents to look at themselves: Are they assertive or passive? Do they flee from conflict or step in to problem-solve? Parents can't teach skills they don't have, she says. Prepared with the right tools, parents needn't shrink from an angry child, these experts say. Just as adults respond better when they feel supported, instead of criticized, so do children, says Heineman Pieper, "You can be in charge of your child without ever making them feel disapproved of, or punished."
"I don't believe in punishment at all," says Nelsen. "Sometimes parents get fooled because it works, but the long-range results are rebellion, revenge, and retreat."
The root of gentle discipline, Bailey says, is to verbalize the loving thoughts that lurk behind fear-based statements. Instead of yelling, "Get over here or you'll get lost!" Bailey suggests saying, "Stay close to me in the store so I can keep you safe. If something happened to you, I would be sad. I love having you with me."
Another principle is for parents to tell their child what to do, instead of what not to do. A toddler who is told, "Don't touch the stereo!" will likely reach out and touch the stereo, says Bailey. A better statement might be, "You see the stereo. Now let's look at this truck!"
Most of all, don't forget you are dealing with joyous, curious toddlers. "It can be a lot easier," says Heineman Pieper, "if you don't feel your 2-year-old needs to act like a 22-year-old."
At my house, these new techniques have been working. At breakfast lately, there has been no toast flinging and no climbing on the table. We've made a trade: I've given up the idea that they'll sit quietly in their high chairs, and in response to my new, relaxed attitude, they seem to have softened their rebellion. Reasonably, lovingly, I place them at the table, seated in the grown-up chairs. When my daughter lifts her arm for a toast-toss, I take the toast away and give her a tennis ball to throw. For the moment, anyway, they're happy, I'm happy. We'll see what happens next.
Forget About Time-Outs?
While some discipline experts have rejected the idea of time-outs, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time-Out, suggests modifying time-outs to make them a comforting experience. Children under 3 years old should not be placed in any kind of time-out, she says, but older children can have what she calls "positive time-outs." This means a child, often accompanied by her parent, goes to a "feel-good" place to calm down before trying to learn from the conflict.
Have the child create the time-out place, stock it with stuffed animals and books, and call it by a name: the quiet-time spot or Hawaii. "Many people object that positive time-out is a reward for misbehavior," says Nelsen. "But a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The most effective way to deal with misbehavior is to help children feel encouraged so their motive for misbehaving is removed."
She suggests this approach: "Would it help you to go to your feel-good place now? Would you like me to go with you?" If the child says, no, the parent answers, "Fine, I think I'll go myself."
Parents can model the value of a positive time-out, particularly with older children. Nelsen gives this example: Barbara's 9-year-old son had come home late and Barbara had been worried sick. When Rick appeared, she realized anger had the upper hand. She said, "Rick, I'm glad you're okay -- I've been worried. But right now I'm so upset that I need to take time out to calm down before we discuss what has happened."
Gentle Discipline Tips
Three experts -- Becky Bailey, Martha Heineman Pieper, and Jane Nelsen -- who have written extensively on the new, enlightened approach to parenting young children, offer these suggestions for dealing with toddlers.
- Stop the power struggle by disengaging. Don't jump into the fray with a 2-year-old. Take a deep breath and stay calm.
- Give toddlers limited choices instead of demands. Ask, "Would you like to pick up the books by yourself or would you like my help?"
- Get children involved in working with you. Toddlers need power and autonomy. Instead of telling a toddler to stay out of the trash, ask him to help put something in the trash, and then close the lid.
- Be specific and assertive, not vague and passive. Don't ask, "Why did you take those scissors? Can't you be nice?" Do say, "Give me the scissors. These are too sharp. They could cut you. I will get you a plastic pair."
- Notice, don't judge. Noticing your children encourages them without classifying them as "good" or "bad." Instead of saying, "You are such a good boy," say "You showed your friend how to butter his bread without tearing it. That was helpful."
- If your child struggles with a going-to-bed routine, take photographs of him putting on his pajamas, brushing his teeth, reading a book, and so on. Mount the photos on a "bedtime" poster and let the poster be the boss. Ask, "What do we do next in our good night routine?"
- Take time to enjoy your children. Roll around with them, play with them, laugh with them.
- Feed yourself positive messages. When faced with a conflict, don't tell yourself you can't handle it. Tell yourself that you will figure out what to do.
Jane Meredith Adams has been a staff writer for The Boston Globe and has written for numerous other publications. She is based in San Francisco.