This is the fifth and final post in my Parental Guidance Suggested series. I’ve been writing not from the perspective of a parent, but from the perspective of somebody who has studied child development (and is continuing to study it) and has had some experience working with children. That being said, I do not want to pretend that I know how to parent a child, because I’ve never done it! I have tremendous respect for all of the parents out there, and I hope that my posts have been informative and helpful. When I do become a parent, I plan to post a lot about my real-life experiences and how I apply what I’ve learned in my studies. I want to be the best parent that I can be, and this series has been a way for me to record all of the methods that I want to use when the time comes.
In this post, I want to discuss proactive guidance through establishing rules, as well as defining misbehavior. Discipline is important and necessary for every child, and the first step in disciplining is to decide what behavior you expect from a child. I think that one of the most important things to remember is to keep reasonable expectations. A long time ago, a friend gave me this simple piece of parenting advice: “save your no’s!” If you say “no” to every little thing that your child does or wants to do, the word becomes meaningless. It is so important for us to think carefully and critically about what kinds of behavior are truly unacceptable.
One of the books that I’ve been reading, Positive Child Guidance by Darla Ferris Miller, offers these guidelines when it comes to deciding when and how to intervene in a child’s behavior: ignore mildly annoying behavior that is not against the ground rules, immediately interrupt behavior that is harmful or unfair, assertively shape positive behavior (by teaching the rules and encouraging good choices), and adapt situations to remove possible causes of problem behavior. Let’s look at each of these concepts in more detail.
First, we need to decide what behaviors need to be stopped. A behavior that is annoying, but otherwise harmless, can usually be ignored. Remember, we want the word “no” to be reserved for things that are truly important! There are three general rules, called the three ground rules, that can be used to determine whether a specific rule is necessary. The three ground rules are be safe, be respectful, and be responsible.
The rule be safe prohibits children from 1) intentionally harming themselves or others, and 2) taking risks that are unnecessary and/or can lead to serious injury. It is important to realize that literally everything a person can do has some risk. Driving a car, eating, and even walking all present risks because we live in a dangerous world; car accidents, choking, food poisoning, tripping and falling are all risks that we take on a daily basis, because we have to. The same idea can be applied to children. Kids need to be allowed to run, play, climb, and explore. Sometimes, they will fall. Sometimes, they will even bleed. This is a normal part of being a human. The rule be safe means that children cannot do things that are too risky, or risky unnecessarily. Hanging off the outside rail on a tall playground would be too risky for a 3 year old, and throwing sand would be unnecessarily risky for anyone (because sand hurts when it gets in peoples’ eyes, and there’s no good reason to throw sand anyway!). This, of course, still leaves plenty of room for parental discretion. The idea is to give children the least restrictive environment that is reasonably safe.
The rule be respectful is also sometimes phrased as be kind. The idea is that we need to respect the rights of others. Children should be taught to respect others’ rights to be safe, avoid unnecessary discomfort, have their possessions, be given privacy when possible, and be treated fairly. A child who pushes another child is breaking this rule (and the first rule) because they are denying the other child’s right to be safe and avoid unnecessary discomfort. Yelling in somebody’s ear, taking somebody else’s toy, and bullying are all behaviors that should not be allowed, based on this rule.
Sharing is of special concern. Many people have strange ideas about children and sharing; they seem to believe that sharing means you must immediately give up anything that you are using if somebody else wants it. Yet in the real world, when somebody is using something (whether it’s something that he or she owns or a communal object) it would be rude and unacceptable for another person to grab it away. We should teach children to be generous and altruistic because they want to, not because they have no choice. When a child is using a toy, crayon, swing, or any other communal object, he has the right to continue using it until he is finished. The rule be respectful is both a protection and a boundary.
The final rule, be responsible, means that a behavior is not allowed if it unreasonably harms the environment, animals, or objects. Leaving messes without cleaning up after oneself, purposefully hurting animals for fun, and intentionally breaking community belongings are all examples of behavior that should not be allowed.
As you can see, these rules are simple and easy to remember, and they can logically support many other necessary and important rules. It is easier for a child (and a caregiver) to remember the three ground rules than it is to remember a thousand little rules like “no throwing sand,” “no pushing,” and “no throwing trash on the ground.” When a child breaks one of the ground rules, a caregiver can simply say “Be safe! Don’t push others, because that can hurt them,” or “Be responsible! Clean up your spilled water.” This way, children understand clearly why the rules are in place, and they are more likely to follow them.
Another useful concept is related to objects, and how children should be allowed to use them. Misusing objects often means breaking one or more ground rule, so children can be helped to remember to be safe, be respectful, and be responsible by thinking about objects in three categories: toys, tools, and weapons. Some objects fit into only one category, and should only be used in one way. A toy baby bottle should be used to play with, but not as a tool to drink from or put in the mouth, or as a weapon to throw at somebody. A metal fork should be used as a tool to eat, but not as a toy or weapon. A weapon certainly should not be used as a toy or a tool— in fact, children should be taught to recognize the danger of weapons such as guns and knives and tell a trusted adult immediately if they see one, but that’s a topic for another day.
Some objects can fit into multiple categories. A stick can be a toy if it is used as a pretend magic wand, or as a tool if it is used to reach something, or even as a weapon if it is used to hit or jab somebody. Children may be allowed to use a stick as a toy or a tool, but never as a weapon. In fact, children should not be allowed to use any object as a weapon except for appropriate self-defense. Helping children identify correct uses for objects can teach them critical thinking and help them remember to be respectful.
When a child breaks a ground rule or misuses an object, it is the caregiver’s responsibility to intervene. Caregivers can stop problem behaviors by intervening “as firmly as necessary but as gently as possible” (from Positive Child Guidance). A child who is biting another child must be physically removed from the situation, but it can still be done with gentleness.
That being said, it is important to recognize that sometimes what we perceive as misbehaving is actually the result of an accident or misunderstanding. Food and drinks are spilled, pages are ripped, and lamps are broken, often purely by accident. Messes are made when children misunderstand instructions. Children should not be scolded or punished for accidents or misunderstandings, though, because they are not intentionally misbehaving. They can, however, be encouraged to make reparations by helping to clean up messes, tape pages back together, etc.
Even when children do misbehave, there are often reasons that we need to consider and address. Children commonly misbehave out of boredom, discomfort, lack of self-control, peer pressure, frustration, the need for attention, and rebellion from being pushed too hard or treated unfairly. Although children will eventually need to learn to control themselves even in these difficult situations, we can and should have empathy for children when they are still struggling to learn self-control. It would be silly to expect a two-year old to sit still and be quiet when he’s bored, hungry, and frustrated! We should always consider the circumstances of misbehavior before we correct a child. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can’t correct a behavior and improve the circumstance at the same time. It all depends on the specifics of the situation.
The goal of positive child guidance is to help children to grow, learn self-control, and reach their full potential with minimal need for punishment. Setting clear and logical expectations for behavior and enforcing the rules in a positive way through appropriate discipline are probably the two most useful concepts that I’ve learned. That, and the fact that babies are babies and should be treated as such. Personally, I’m look forward to putting these principles into practice with my own children in the future.
What about you? What experiences have you had with parenting and trying out different approaches? What has worked for you, and what hasn’t? I’d love to hear about it in the comments, below!