Oh, Behave! Discipline Do-Overs
Disciplining a child is daunting for any parent and with experts offering so many different methods for tackling the task, it’s hard to wade through all of the information available.
One important thing to consider when choosing your discipline approach is understanding it has to evolve over the years. It seems obvious that what works for a 2-year-old isn’t the same as the way behavior should be handled for a 13-year-old, and yet many parenting books don’t approach the subject by developmental stage but rather by method.
“Kids grow and the way we deal with their issues has to change because their issues change,” says Kim John Payne, M.Ed., author of The Soul of Discipline (Ballantine Books, 2015). “I know that sounds overly simplistic, but it’s often missed. This is one of the really important keys.”
Although a parenting author himself, Payne takes issue with some books on the subject that tend to “de-alpha” the parent.
“I would really say beware of parenting books that leave you feeling that you are not good enough because that’s not what you want when you’re on the spot and you’ve got to apply guidance for a child,” he says.
Instead, Payne, who has more than 30 years of experience as a family and school counselor, offers up an almost eloquent definition of discipline, which will truly change the way you look at the subject. He notes that the word discipline comes from disciple, which means to be worthy of being followed. In this way he frames the action as more or less clarifying family values. It doesn’t have to be cold and harsh, but rather warm and firm.
“When our children do things, say things that are not of our family, we correct them because we know what we want our family to be,” explains Payne. “We want our family to be respectful, we want our family to be a place that’s safe, we want our family to be a place that’s safe to fail, that each family member can take little risks and say things they might not be sure of without being belittled. If something like that happens and you have to discipline your child and say, ‘Don’t talk to your sister like that,’ all you’re doing is clarifying what your family values are.”
Put that way, discipline doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Of course as parents we know nothing is ever that easy, but it also doesn’t have to be as difficult as we might think. Because despite his decades of experience counseling kids, Payne maintains he’s never met a disobedient child.
“When a child acts out what they’re doing is looking for direction because they’re disoriented,” he says.
Essentially it’s our job as parents to receive that message and meet it with a calm but steady response. But how do we do that? Well, the answer really depends on the child’s developmental stage.
Ages 2 to 8
“Two is a really big stage,” says Payne. “We all know about the terrible twos but it’s just normal. There’s so much neurological and emotional development going on around 2 that our kids throw out quite challenging things in order to orient them.”
Remaining calm is super important when relaying discipline to our children. But that old adage about counting to 10 in order to return to a place that isn’t shrouded in anger? Well, you actually don’t need to count that high. Neurologically, Payne says those anger hormones only last three or four seconds, which can be hard to believe when you’re feeling the rush of red while witnessing your child’s epic temper tantrum over the injustice of having to go to bed at the scheduled time.
In that moment, try hitting pause and asking your child, “What is it you’re trying to tell me? What is it you need right now?” as opposed to counting out loud, which Payne notes just makes parents look weird.
He also refers to the parent disciplining a child at this stage as “the governor,” or the benevolent dictator.
“The governor is warm and kind and all of that, but is pretty absolute,” says Payne. “We do it because mommy says we’re going to do it. Why? Because they can turn into champion little negotiators, particularly if mommy or daddy buy into negotiating and over-talking. There’s no argument about it. There’s way too much talking going on now between children [and parents]. It’s giving them the impression that they can negotiate. If we start negotiating and if we set ourselves up as the managers of our family and not as the parents, or if we talk a lot and try to manage our kids, they will unionize.”
Ages 9 to 13
At this stage in your child’s development, Payne uses a “gardener” metaphor in handling discipline, citing the importance of asking kids of this age about their plans.
“To ask a 9- or 10-year-old to consider someone else’s feelings is right on the neurological money,” he says. “It’s when they start developing the understanding of cause and effect. So if a child at 10 does something that’s really horrible to a brother you can say, ‘I think you understand how that made your brother feel. I think very likely you didn’t mean it to be so horrible but you do understand.’ And even if they insist they don’t, they do, when they calm down later on.”
He explains that much like the attention you give your child, a proper gardener will watch the soil and the sun, know when to harvest and when to weed, but he or she is also very good at listening to what the soil has to say.
Payne says parents often don’t expect a shift in attitude at this age, more so looking ahead to the teenage years.
“This is when our kids are neither little kids anymore but not teenagers,” he says. “They’re right on the cusp and that’s an age when a lot of parents are surprised when they get a lot of challenging behavior.”
Ages 13 to 17
The teenage years are so rough partly because kids are feeling particularly off balance with so much changing both physically and developmentally.
For this stage Payne uses the “guide” discipline technique.
“The reason I use the metaphor guide is that our kids, when they’re 15 or 16, they’ll listen to us sometimes, but they can be spectacularly disinterested in our opinions,” he says. “The conversations I have with my 16-year-old are really good when I try to sense her direction of where she wants to go and what she’s trying to do.”
So how should a parent handle it when those conversations or their behavior aren’t so great? Explain that their behavior is going to take them on a path that makes it a whole lot more difficult for them to achieve their goals, like getting into their dream college.
“Teenagers are in a hurry and one of the key things for them to understand is, OK, they can take that route because there’s not a lot we can do to stop them, but if they do, either it’s distracting and it’s going to take them far away from where they want to be in life or, number two, it’s going to take them a whole lot longer,” says Payne. “They don’t like that. When you talk with teenagers like that, they like you briefly!”
For more parenting advice from Kim John Payne, read his Simplicity Parenting Blog at simplicityparenting.com.