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It’s usually in that frazzled moment when you find yourself raising your voice after you’ve asked a five-year-old for the umpteenth time to stop hitting her sister/teasing the dog/kicking a ball against the glass sliding door that you discover your true approach to discipline. Not the one that you’d like to have. Not the one that you tell other parents you have - but the real one.
Parenting is a minefield and no area more so than managing children’s behaviour. There are many philosophies around punishment and reward and the absence thereof, but rather than waiting for crisis moments and human fallibility to decide our approach, it’s worth taking the time to consider our options.
Dr Rachael Sharman, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to an approach to discipline.
She says children are not born as "blank slates". They already have their own personality traits and behavioural patterns built in, which are evident even in the womb. They come into the world predisposed to react in a certain way.
Dr Sharman points to the behaviour of a naturally anxious or cautious baby who is unlikely to approach a puppy - rather they will wait and watch for a while, and might even need some reassurance to give it a pat. Whereas a naturally open or adventurous baby will probably crawl right up to the puppy, chase it and try to interact with it immediately.
Wired for reward
“Broadly speaking we are all wired to respond to rewards (a response that increases the likelihood of a behaviour), or punishments (a response that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour),” Dr Sharman says.
“These could be external (money for good deeds vs fine for bad deeds) or internal (feeling a sense of accomplishment vs feeling like a failure). Linking these rewards or punishments to desirable or undesirable behaviours to increase or decrease their occurrence is the cornerstone of behavioural shaping.
“Certain rewards may be more attractive to a particular personality style, for example if your child is naturally outgoing and interested in others, a social reward such as playing at the park, going on a ride would likely appeal to them.
“But if your child is more cautious and introverted, those activities that are meant to be rewarding, may inadvertently act as a punishment (if they are frightened of the ride for example). Therefore you might want to consider tailoring the rewards and punishments you use to your child's underlying personality/interests/traits for a more effective response.
“The trick is getting to know your child and figuring out what makes them ‘tick’.”
Interestingly, only 28 per cent of parents offer their children rewards to get them to do something, and 21 per cent say they would never offer their children a reward in exchange for an action, according to the First Five Years' Snapshot of Australian Families survey.
It's not always smooth sailing and despite all your best efforts you will still get tantrums and outbursts - these are also part and parcel of toddler behaviour and it's your job to help them learn to regulate their emotions, and to teach them what is expected from them in a clear and consistent manner.
Importance of consistency
Dr Sharman says consistency in your approach is very important.
Children must be able to predict with accuracy that they will get a good consequence for good behaviour and a bad consequence for bad behaviour.
Children feel safe when they clearly understand what is expected of them, and what the consequences (both good and bad) will be for their behaviour.
“While their brains and memory systems are developing, they will need plenty of examples throughout the day to remind them and help them remember. There's no point punishing behaviour ‘A’ on a Monday, but then letting it slip on a Tuesday for example - that will lead to confusion,” Dr Sharman says.
“It's not always smooth sailing and despite all your best efforts you will still get tantrums and outbursts - these are also part and parcel of toddler behaviour and it's your job to help them learn to regulate their emotions, and to teach them what is expected from them in a clear and consistent manner.”
Now, for many parents, a smack is going to be their behaviour modification of choice. Or, perhaps they think smacking is bad so they opt for the time-out. Many don't realise that there are other options including gentle parenting.
Dr Rebecca English, Lecturer at Queensland University of Technology School of Teacher Education and Leadership, says parents she speaks to have researched their choices and actively chosen not to use punishments and rewards. This means not using bribes as a positive attempt at discipline, or time out or smacking as a negative attempt at discipline.
“Now, for many parents, a smack is going to be their behaviour modification of choice. Or, perhaps they think smacking is bad so they opt for the time-out. Many don't realise that there are other options including gentle parenting,” Dr English says.
Gentle discipline is based on principles of non-violent communication and its advocates hold that the child is unique and important and deserves respect.
As such, they would argue that if you can't hit your husband or wife, your mother or father or your brother or sister, why should you be able to hit children?
Instead of smacking, they redirect, ignore some behaviours and do time-ins as opposed to time-outs. Time-ins involve the parent staying in the room while the child calms down rather than isolating them.
Parents who choose alternative options also want to separate the behaviour from the child by avoiding the use of words like 'naughty' or 'bad'.
“Instead, they might say ‘hitting hurts, I'm not going to let you hit’ when they are acting out. They will also help the child to redirect, ‘wow, it looks like you're having some trouble leaving your brother's block tower alone, come with me and I'll help you to calm down’,” Dr English says.
“They can also acknowledge the feelings or the want without giving in, ‘Hmm, I see you really want that chocolate bar. I bet when you grow up, you'll always get a chocolate bar from the counter but, today, I'm not going to get you a chocolate bar’. This approach acknowledges the child's feelings but doesn't give in.
“Gentle parenting advocates would argue you can say no as nicely as you can say yes. As you can guess, it doesn't stop the meltdown but that's just the moment and, as gentle parenting advocates say, the long game is what they're playing.
“This moment, when your child has a tantrum in the shops because you won't get them the chocolate will pass. And, they'll learn that the chocolate will not be had because of the suitably noisy meltdown that preceded it.”
Positive parenting or gentle discipline argues that rewards and punishments aren't particularly effective in getting adults to do what they're supposed to do, so questions why it would work on children.
The approach also advocates for examining behaviour to understand a child’s feelings. It also looks at parental behaviour and encourages adults to apologise for their mistakes and emphasises the importance of adults saying ‘please’ to children.
“If a child needs a break, because they're hitting or hurting or doing something we would consider 'bad', although they wouldn't use the term bad as it places a value judgement on the child's behaviour, rather than looking behind the behaviour at what the behaviour is communicating about the child's feelings, they advocate for taking the child to a quiet space, sitting with them and helping them to calm down,” Dr English says.
“Children lack the regulation to do that calming themselves and need an adult to do it.
“They also argue that, when we make mistakes, we apologise. This apology has three effects, first, it makes mistakes an okay thing to make. Second, it communicates to the child that we make mistakes too so we are only human. Third, it shows we are respectful of the child and ask for forgiveness just as we ask of them.
“Another important point is to consider how we expect children to be better than adults. It's never okay to not say please, but gentle parenting advocates argue that adults don't always say please and rarely say it to children.”
The teenage years
Dr English says parents take the gentle parenting approach in the expectation of a stronger and more positive relationship with their children.
The advocates argue that the types of teenage problems and rebellion aren't as pervasive in gentle parenting families as children have no need to rebel.
“If a child has never learned to see you as an opposition, they never need to oppose you in their teenage years,” she says.
“If you've been largely reasonable, they will be too. It's trite, but they argue you teach your child how to treat you. And, listening to them when they're little means they'll tell you the big stuff when they're big.”