Friday, March 25, 2011

Rubber Meets the Road

Today I encouraged someone to start a blog offering discussion of learning how to parent gently, with a "learn as you go" exploratory approach, citing real life examples and discussing what worked and what didn't and why she parents the way she does. 

I thought I'd take my own advice and start sharing more real life examples of how gentle discipline works in our house too.

C turned two and a half at the beginning of March.  Each age and stage comes with its own challenges, and this one is no exception.  She's quite verbal by now, speaking in sentences and paragraphs with a pretty impressive vocabulary for her age.  Sometimes it's easy to forget what a baby she still is. 

When she was a tiny baby, it was pretty easy to be gentle with her.  It was pretty easy to set her up for success because I had quite a bit of control over her environment.  She couldn't move at all at first, and then once she started moving, it was not very fast.  Our challenges were readily solved: She bit me while nursing, and I found other ways to deal with it other than flicking her in the mouth or biting her back.  As she became more mobile and started getting into things I'd rather her not, I put that thing out of reach, blocked her access to it or redirected her to something more interesting.  It was a lot of getting up and keeping up with her, but if I wanted a break, she was all to willing to snuggle with me (usually to nurse).  If something had to happen, I could quickly and easily make my words reality because I was relatively bigger, stronger and more coordinated.

As she's grown, my job as mother has grown more challenging (but also more rewarding).  Now she can run fast, climb high, and grows taller, stronger and more coordinated every day.  I can make things happen still, but it takes a bigger physical effort to say, force an unwilling child into her car seat.   She's developing problem solving skills and she uses them to find ways around obstacles. She has a strong drive toward independence. 

So, some of the simple baby proofing tactics are no longer effective.  I have to be ever more vigilant and on my feet chasing her like never before.  Snuggling together can still work to give me a break, but for shorter and shorter periods of time before she wants to be off on the next adventure.  We still nurse, but only 3 times on a typical day.  Redirection can sometimes work but not as often as she increases her attention span and persistence. 

She has new needs too.  She needs to be taught to use socially acceptable words, tone and volume when she speaks.  She's dealing with a barrage of big feelings that she has no idea how to express in socially acceptable ways.  My job as parent is not just to keep her safe, fed and dressed, not just to keep her from making more messes than we can easily clean up together, but now also to be her emotional and social coach.

New challenges require new tools.  In place of redirection, I'm increasingly relying on playful parenting, scripting, and do overs.

However, I don't believe that punishment (doing something TO C as a negative reinforcement with the purpose of making her hurt or feel bad about what she has done/said with the intention that she might then avoid doing whatever it was again) ever needs to be one of my tools. 

To discipline is primarily to disciple, to proactively teach what TO do and scaffold that behavior rather than reactively impose consequences and punishments when the wrong choice is made.

For example, recently C has been throwing whatever is nearby and making an angry grunt noise when something doesn't go her way.  Sometimes she accompanies that with the declaration, "I'm mad!" 

I don't want throwing things to be her habit or go-to way of expressing frustration.  But what DO I want, and how do I teach her to do that instead?

Using words to say "I'm mad" is a good start.  Even the angry grunt works for me at this point in her life. 

Ideally, I'd want her just to use words to express her anger and frustration.  But that isn't realistic for her age and level of brain development.  What I can do at this point is teach her to redirect the aggressive energy she feels into a more socially acceptable channel.  This morning we tried the following ideas:
  • Go to a Comfort Corner (or her room) and calm down with a favorite toy and blanket
  • Color an "angry picture"
  • Do an "angry dance"

Later when she was calm, I used some puppets to talk about all the ideas and ask her if she had any more ideas of what to do with the angry feelings instead of throwing something.  She came up with the following things she could do:
  • Jump
  • Run
  • Spin
  • Stomp feet

We practiced each one together, which was a lot of fun.  We had a good time together the rest of the morning.
Due to an inconveniently scheduled doctor appointment, C didn't get her nap in the afternoon, and by early evening both our nerves were fraying a bit.  
Later tonight while I was making dinner she was angry that her time for water play at the sink was over, and she started throwing things again.  I took her to her room and suggested that she could stay there and calm down and talk to her puppets again for ideas about what else to do when she is angry, and she was free to come out whenever she felt ready.  I overheard murmurs of her talking to them, didn't catch what she said.  Not too much later she came out and found a cup of herbal tea I hadn't quite finished and started to drink that, then played quietly with some other toys while I finished dinner. 
Wait a minute, was sending her to her room a punishment?  Is this all just semantics?  Not in my opinion.  Putting her in her room differed from a traditional time out in several ways.  No arbitrary time limit, for one.  The words I used to describe it were matter of fact and not shaming in any way.  Instead of "making her think about what she had done," the stated purpose was just to give her (and me, let's be honest) a break and space to calm herself.  C was free to come out whenever she felt better. 
I know this lesson about what to do instead of throwing things when angry will take many repetitions, but I'm confident she will get it.  And then a new challenge will arise and I'll try out other new tools.

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline!

This post was selected as one of the Crème de la Crème of gentle discipline blogging! Click on the image to view more Crème de la Crème posts!


  1. Thanks for the example from your life. This weekend, Rick and I have yelled a lot at Jack. He seems to do everything we tell him not to and nothing we tell him to do. His favorite response to us is NO! We really struggled this weekend to remain calm and positive with him. I'm hoping I can put on my 'big-girl-mommy-pants' tomorrow and start fresh this week. I'll keep your ideas in the back of my head as I move forward. Thanks!

  2. I LOVE how you view yourself as your daughter's emotional and social coach - that's just so powerful and using art and dance is wonderful for expressing all those pent up feelings. Thanks for sharing all your ideas.

  3. Great suggestions! I love the focus on discipline (teaching her what TO do) over punishment. How else are our children going to learn those important tools?

  4. This is fantastic! And I agree with you about the vast difference between suggesting she have some quiet time and space as opposed to the traditional time-out. It puts her in charge of her behavior.

    And I loved your definitions of punishment vs discipline. Wholeheartedly agree. :)

  5. We are still working on appropriate ways to express anger with my 3yo - it's such a progression as they gain independence and skills. I, too, am glad that we started on this road early - it makes it easier to keep my cool with my preschooler :)
    And I agree that your example is much different than a traditional TO. It hasn't worked in my house, because my child has a big need for contact/closeness, so we've practiced "time-ins," where we snuggle and take time to cool off together.


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