Parental Guidance Suggested – Part 4

Well hi there! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post— life has been busy lately. But I’m back now, and ready to continue my series on positive parenting. This week I’m writing about the special needs of infants and toddlers.

According to child development experts, infants are children under age two. That may be surprising to some people! I know that it surprised me when I first learned it. By age two, most children know how to walk, run, talk (with a limited vocabulary), and yes, get into “trouble” and throw tantrums. Yet children under two years of age are still considered babies! The significance of this is that parenting needs to be different for babies than it is for older children. Most importantly, infants cannot be expected to behave according to adult standards. Not only do they not understand the world the way we do, but they lack the ability to control themselves.

In other words, children under age two are essentially incapable of truly misbehaving. They don’t intentionally do things that we consider “naughty.” Instead, they act based on what they think and feel. They are actually incapable of understanding that we have a different point of view than them. In their minds, we and every other person and thing that they see exists only for their sake. The world quite literally revolves around them!

When I was a nanny, I did not always see things this way. Many times I felt positive that the little 11 month old boy that I was caring for did things intentionally to bother me. When he threw his bottle, it was because he wanted to upset me. When he didn’t want to go down for a nap, it was because he didn’t want me to be able to rest. And as silly as these thoughts may sound now, they seemed logical then! Why? Because even as babies, human beings are intelligent. I saw his natural intelligence and let it convince me that he was just a miniature person. But the truth is, while babies are people, they are not fully developed people. While they are intelligent, they are not capable of the same complex kinds of thoughts that we are. And babies don’t misbehave intentionally, because they don’t understand what misbehaving even is.

The point is, there is no place for discipline of any kind when it comes to caring for babies. Infants need responsive care and a safe environment to explore. Discipline can (and definitely should) come later, when the child is capable of understanding it.

So what is responsive care, and why is it so important? According to a famous developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, children go through two stages of psychosocial development in the first two years of life. The first stage is called “trust versus mistrust,” and it is experienced during approximately the first year of life. In this stage, babies must learn to trust in their caregivers and the world around them. They must develop a sense of security in this first year of life if they are to grow up with the best possible outcomes.

The second stage, experienced in the second year of life, is called “independence versus doubt and shame.” In this stage, young toddlers must develop a sense of independence in certain areas, such as learning how to care for themselves to some degree. Learning to use the potty, put on clothing, feed oneself, and explore independently from their parents are some of these important skills. If toddlers are allowed and encouraged to try to do some things for themselves, they will develop a sense of independence. If they are overprotected, discouraged, or shamed, them they will likely develop a sense of guilt and a lack of confidence.

Using these concepts, we can understand that the most important thing for parents to give young babies is consistent and responsive care. This means that babies should be picked up promptly when they cry, and their needs taken care of. Sometimes, babies cry even when they aren’t hungry, in need of a diaper change, or uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that they need attention any less. In a way, it can be said that babies sometimes cry to test their caregivers. This is not intentional testing, of course, but it is the way in which babies develop that sense of security that I explained earlier. They learn that if they cry, and then receive attention, then they can trust their caregivers.

There is a method known as “cry it out” that some caregivers use, and I myself have used in the past before I began studying child development. When a baby is crying, the caregiver ensures that he is not hungry, has a clean diaper, and is not otherwise uncomfortable. After the baby’s physical needs are met, and the caregiver cannot find a way to make him stop crying, the caregiver will put him in a secure place such as a crib, and then leave him to cry. This is especially used when trying to get young infants and toddlers to nap. Unfortunately, this method ignores the psychological needs of the infant, including the need to develop a sense of security! As harmless as it may sound, I would not recommend using “cry it out” when caring for an infant. Although all of a baby’s physical needs may be met, she still has emotional and psychological needs that are important. Even if a baby continues to cry as you hold her and try to comfort her, the fact that you are trying is what’s important. Through the process of soothing the infant, you can show her that you will always be there to comfort her.

As babies grow older and become toddlers (still infants, technically speaking!) they need care that changes to match their needs. Toddlers need to develop a sense of independence, which happens best in a safe environment for them to explore. Since toddlers learn rapidly, they need a variety of interesting things to play with and space to freely explore. Since they are also innocent to the dangers of the world, they also need very close supervision and a caregiver who will ensure that the playthings and spaces the baby has access to are safe. Toddlers should never be scolded or put in time out, and especially not for getting into things that are “off limits.” It is the caregiver’s job to ensure that the baby doesn’t have access to such things. If a toddler does manage to get into things that are “off limits,” as a result of his natural and healthy curiosity, the caregiver should simply redirect him to something more appropriate.

As an infant approaches his or her second birthday, and then continues on through childhood, there is a period of transition in which caregivers must learn to gradually introduce positive discipline. Obviously, a child doesn’t instantly become mature enough to understand rules and discipline overnight on her second birthday. Instead, she slowly but surely becomes ready to accept guidance and learn self-control. Caregivers must patiently adapt to a child’s needs and growing abilities, introducing discipline when the child is ready.

In my next post I will write more about this transition period, including how to introduce proactive guidance techniques and begin to establish rules.

What do you think is important in infant care? What kinds of things have you learned from experience? Post a comment below to share your thoughts!

Parental Guidance Suggested – Part 3

In my last post, I wrote about alternatives to punishment and the benefits of positive discipline. Today I want to address some of my thoughts on related topics, including time-outs, tantrums, and considerations regarding the age, temperament, and ability of a child.

Time-out has such a friendly ring to it. It’s the “gentle way” to punish children, and many people use it as a way to enforce good behavior. But does time-out actually work? And is it really as positive as it sounds?

As I explained in my last post, punishment is different than discipline and I believe that the latter is much preferred. When we punish children, we pay them back for misbehavior and teach them to behave based on external motivation. When we positively guide and discipline children, we teach them to make better decisions based on internal motivation— they learn to do good because they want to, or at the very least because they know that it’s the right thing to do. Positive discipline supports a child’s need for a sense of security by teaching them right from wrong, and seeks to promote good behavior. Punishment aims to improve children’s behavior as well, but it can often lead to rebellion and resentment. I believe that positive discipline is the way to go when it comes to guiding children.

As innocent as it may seem, time-out is almost always used as a form of punishment. Children talk back to their parents, hit others, refuse to listen, or throw their toys, and adults retaliate by telling them to sit in time-out. “You sit here for five minutes and think about what you did.” Does that usually end with the child apologizing willingly and then changing the bad behavior? Not in my experience. Whenever I’ve resorted to time-out it has only made the child behave worse or throw a tantrum. Or it’s a battle to actually get the kid to stay in the “time-out chair” for any period of time. So what’s going on? Isn’t time-out supposed to be better than spanking or other physical punishment?

Well, yes and no. If you ask me, time-out is absolutely preferable to physical punishment, which can be harmful in more than one way. But time-out is still punishment, and I believe that punishment is not the best way to discipline children. It is negative and it has negative results. Instead, I would suggest using positive discipline strategies such as those I mentioned in my last post.

However, there are situations in which time-outs can be used positively, instead of as a punishment. Having a “cool-down” area in the home or classroom gives children a space in which to calm down when they become overly upset or out of control. This is particularly useful to combat tantrums. Children are emotionally immature and they have trouble controlling themselves when they feel strong emotions. Even as adults, we have trouble controlling ourselves when we become emotional! The result in children (and some adults :P) is usually a tantrum. We can deal with tantrums with the help of a time-out corner. However, it may be preferable to call it “cool-down” or “time-away” instead of time-out, since we do not want children to associate it with punishment.

When a toddler or a young child has a tantrum, an adult can gently but firmly move the child to the cool-down area. There, the adult can allow the child to cry, express frustration, sit quietly and think, or do whatever else that he or she needs to do to calm down. Some children may want the comfort of a caregiver’s physical touch, while others may want privacy. The important thing is that the child is able to calm down and regain control of his or her behavior. A cool-down area can also be available for any child to go to any time he or she feels the need. Sometimes, cool-down time may be more helpful for the caregiver than the child! In any case, this is obviously very different from the punishment known as time-out.

While we are on the topic of tantrums, I want to bring up the very important consideration of a child’s age. As I’ve said before, children want and need guidance in their lives, and discipline is important when caring for a child. That being said, there is an age limit for when discipline is appropriate! It is not appropriate (or useful) to try to teach an infant to behave. Before children reach age 2 or 3, they are not developed enough cognitively or emotionally to control their behavior, follow rules, or understand punishment. While I believe that punishment is never the best way to discipline, it is especially important to never punish a baby. They don’t understand, and it can be very harmful to their developing sense of trust in the world and in people.

For infants and young toddlers, the best method is to redirect inappropriate behavior. It’s not okay to stand by and let a toddler bang another kid on the head, so we should intervene to stop the behavior as gently as possible and redirect them towards another activity. As children grow older, it becomes appropriate to explain the rules at a level that they can understand, and gradually start to discipline them as they become ready to learn self-control.

Temperament is another important aspect to consider. Every child is different, and children do not always respond the same way to the same circumstances. A parent knows his or her child best, and can best determine which techniques are the most effective for positively disciplining that particular child. Some children may be motivated to change a behavior simply by an adult saying “It would be helpful if you did/didn’t do _____.” Other children may have to experience the natural consequences of their behavior— sometimes many times— before becoming motivated to change. Within one family or classroom, caregivers will need to learn to respond in the best way for each individual child.

Finally, it is necessary to consider a child’s abilities when disciplining him or her. Children who have disabilities or ability differences require special techniques in their discipline. Since each kind of disability is different, it is important for caregivers in these situations to learn about each child’s particular disability and needs. In general, though, it is important to recognize when a child’s behavior is due to his or her disability, versus when he or she is truly misbehaving and needs to be disciplined. We should never expect a child to behave in a way that is beyond his or her ability, but we also must strive to have as high of expectations as are reasonably possible for each child. As difficult a job as it is, we must adapt to the child’s needs, not the other way around.

Those are my thoughts on time-outs, tantrums, and special considerations. What do you think about these issues? Leave me a comment and share your thoughts!

In my next post, I will write about the special needs of infants and young toddlers in positive parenting. I hope you come back to read it! And if you like my blog, please subscribe to get updates by email. 🙂

Parental Guidance Suggested – Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about different parenting styles. I also mentioned the downfalls of physical punishment, and explained why according to child development experts today, it is not an acceptable method of discipline.

Discipline is still important, however. Permissive parents typically avoid disciplining their children because they believe that children should figure things out for themselves. This is not the best approach to parenting, however. The simple truth is that children need guidance to learn right from wrong. If we expect children to grow up to be functioning members of our society, then we need to socialize them appropriately. Children raised without discipline are not happier than other children, because children crave security. They look to adults to be in control, and it can be quite frightening and confusing to them when they are expected to figure everything out by themselves. Giving children discipline simply means providing guidance, necessary rules, and enforcement of those rules. This is different from punishment, which involves “paying children back” for misbehavior.

It is true that in our society, breaking the rules usually does lead to punishment of some kind. It might make sense, then, to teach children that misbehaving leads to punishment. After all, it is important for us to raise children to prepare them for life in our society. But on the other hand, as individual adults interacting with individual children, we have an opportunity to do better. Our society is big, and in order to maintain some semblance of control we resort to extrinsic motivation. We punish and reward citizens to encourage appropriate behavior. When we are working with children, though, we have an opportunity to guide them towards intrinsic control— self-control based on an inner desire to do right. We can nurture this desire in children by using positive guidance techniques instead of negative punishment.

The school of thought known as positive child guidance asserts that punishment is not the best way to guide children. Again, children do need discipline, but punishment may not be the best way to provide it. Discipline means giving correction and guidance with the goal of helping the child to make better decisions in the future, whereas punishment is usually more about “giving the child what he or she deserves” for a bad decision. Punishment may or may not actually improve the child’s behavior in the future, but it does often lead to resentment and rebellion. So how can we enforce our rules without punishment? Positive disciplinary methods are an option.

The book How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and in School by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is one of the books that we used in my Child Guidance class. It is full of very useful tools to help parents and teachers to be more effective. One of the chapters is about alternatives to punishment. In this chapter, the author explains that the intent of punishment is usually to hurt, deprive, or get back at a child in order to teach them a lesson. On the other hand, the intent of positive guidance is to help the child learn self-discipline. A child who learns self-discipline is more prepared for a productive, positive life as an adult than a child who learns to behave to avoid punishment.

The book offers six alternatives to punishment. The first is to point out a way to be helpful. For example, if a child is upset and starts to yell at his/her parent, the parent can say “I understand that you are frustrated right now. It would be helpful if you could express yourself without yelling.” The second alternative is to express your strong disapproval without attacking the child’s character. In this same example, the parent could say “I feel very upset when people yell at me.” A third alternative is to state your expectations; “I expect you to express yourself without yelling at me.” A fourth alternative is to show the child how to make amends for the inappropriate behavior. A parent could say “I would like you to come up with a list of some other ways for you to express your feelings without yelling at me.”

If the child still does not cooperate, the parent can offer a choice. For example, “You can scream into or punch your pillow, or you can take a few deep breaths and calm down.” Finally, the sixth alternative is to let the child experience the natural consequences of his or her actions. It is important that the consequences are not punishments, but instead logical repercussions of what he or she has done. The parent can say “When you yell at me, I feel too upset to talk to you anymore and I cannot help you with your problem.” Then, the parent should follow through by walking away and letting the child experience the natural consequence— that nobody wants to be around somebody who takes out their anger on others by yelling at them.

The point in all of these alternatives to punishment is that a negative behavior is not ignored. If a child does something that breaks a family rule, he or she should be confronted about it. Depending on the specific misdeed, certain techniques may be more appropriate than others. For example, if one child hits another then it would not be enough to simply say “I expect you to use your words to express yourself instead of hitting.” That would be a great start, but it is also important to show the child that she needs to make amends or else suffer the consequences. We can suggest that she apologize, but only if she feels sincerely sorry. We can also suggest other ways for her to make amends, such as inviting the other child to play or offering a hug. The point is that the child is encouraged, but not forced to make up for what she did. If a child is not sorry for doing something bad, or refuses to make amends, then allowing her to experience the natural consequences may be the best option. A child who hits another and then refuses to apologize will probably be left out at playtime. We can then talk to the child about why she is being left out and once again encourage her to make amends.

Now I know that all of this may sound naive. I personally have a hard time believing that this could really work at times. But then I realize that these methods really do work for many people. The stories are out there! And I think about the difference that I felt as a child when I received a punishment versus when somebody simply told me they were disappointed in me. When I was punished, I felt angry, sad, resentful, or victimized. When I was told that I had disappointed somebody, I felt disappointed in myself and then I felt motivated to improve.

Imagine that you are a child and you have just said a bad word in a moment of anger. Think about which of the following you would rather hear: “If I ever hear you say that word again, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!” or “That word really upsets me. I’d like to see a list of other words that you can use to express your anger.” The first option might make you feel rebellious, but the second option seems more likely to make you feel appropriately convicted of what you did, and then encouraged to do better. You might even feel empowered to control your tongue by the list of alternative words that you come up with. And in the end, you learn not to use curse words out of courtesy for others instead of to avoid punishment. For me, it seems pretty clear that positive guidance is a much more attractive, and in the end a more effective, way to discipline.

In my next post, I will address time-outs, tantrums, and age/temperament/ability considerations related to discipline. There is so much to write about on this topic, and I’m very excited to share my thoughts with you!

Parental Guidance Suggested – Part 1

I recently finished a child development class called Child Guidance, and I want to share some of the great things that I learned through it, and through all of the child development classes that I’ve taken over the last year or so. Even though I’m not a parent yet, I will be someday and I plan to use many of the things that I’ve learned to be the best parent that I can be. Personally, I think that every parent (and future parent) and every person who works with children or plans to should take a few classes in child development. Understanding the principles of how children develop and the best ways to guide them could seriously improve the lives of so many families, teachers, child-care workers, and children!

One of the first and most prevalent things that I have learned through these classes is the concept of parenting styles. Child development experts generally identify three to four types of parenting styles. They are called authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful. Neglectful parenting style is sometimes lumped in with permissive, but many experts believe that they are two very different things, and I would have to agree. In neglectful parenting, the parents don’t care about the child’s well-being and do not put in effort to support, discipline, or in any way raise the child. This, of course, is a form of child abuse and should never be seen as a valid choice for parents; children whose parents are neglectful need help, and the parents need help too, to correct the problem.

In permissive parenting, the parents care about the child and put in effort to keep the child healthy and happy; however, they do not believe in discipline and they allow their child to do whatever he or she wants. Permissive parents believe that the child will find his or her own path in life, and they try to interfere as little as possible. At the other end of the spectrum is authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian parents want their children to respect their authority to the point of instant and blind obedience. They expect children to do as they are told and not voice their thoughts or opinions. They often use corporal (physical) punishment, such as spanking, to punish their children for misbehavior. It is important for me to clarify that most permissive and authoritarian parents love their children very much, and they choose their parenting style (usually without making a conscious decision) because they believe that it is what is best for their child. These parents are not bad parents; they are simply misguided and have likely never been told (or have not believed) that there is a better way.

The research is pretty clear, though, that there is a better way. The authoritative parenting style is sort of like a middle ground between permissive and authoritarian styles. In authoritative parenting, the parents establish reasonable guidelines for behavior and expect the child to follow them. They are more democratic than authoritarian parents, as they allow the child to voice opinions and they often work with the child to think through and establish rules. They are willing to reason with the child, but they also consistently and firmly enforce the rules. Whereas the authoritarian parent might say “Do as I say, because I said so,” and the permissive parent might say “Do whatever you think is right,” the authoritative parent is more likely to say “You must do this because __________.” Authoritative parents have reasons for their rules, and they explain these reasons (sometimes over and over again) to help the child understand why they are important.

While the topic of physical punishment is a touchy one, it is important to address it. There is a wealth of evidence to support the argument that physical punishment is not effective as a means of guiding children. Simply put, we do not want to teach our children that hitting or hurting people is the right way to solve problems. We want to raise our children to be productive members of our society, and in our society, using physical force against others to “teach them a lesson” is not appropriate. Besides, most child development experts agree that corporal punishment is less effective and can have many more negative repercussions than other types of discipline. There are many alternatives out there, and I will share a few of them that I have learned about in my next post.

Combining an authoritative parenting style with appropriate discipline techniques is a great way to aspire to raising children. Although no parent (or teacher/child care worker/relative/etc.) will ever be perfect, we can and should try our best to treat children as the valued individuals that they are. If we do, the result will likely be a generation of strong, self-controlled, productive, and happy kids.