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Real Parents Discipline

Setting limits can be tough for parents--but it's important to discipline our children anyway.  By Joni S. Mantell, LCSW



Watching preschoolers can be exhausting. They love to explore and play--and these little explorers have little impulse control and absolutely no sense of danger. They assert their developing independence by "escaping," and it's no wonder parents feel like they could use some naptime, too!

Some parents are comfortable with setting limits, and others are reluctant to discipline. Some would rather trail a wandering toddler around the playground, or let their kids make a mess at a restaurant rather than say, "Tables are for eating at, not for climbing on." But teaching our kids good behavior is one of the most important--if not the most enjoyable--tasks of parenthood.

Afraid to Be Firm
Many adoptive parents are reluctant to discipline. They are so grateful to finally be parents that they relish the fun and neglect some of the harder aspects of parenting. Others feel great compassion for their children's past suffering, or anticipate their child's future sadness when he begins to comprehend the losses inherent in adoption. These parents tend to give their children a pass when they are misbehaving.

Awareness of the birth family can make adoptive parents anxious about discipline, as well. One mom told me she felt that the birthmother was looking over her shoulder, and this inhibited her taking a firmer stance with her son. She wanted to "do right by" the birthparents who entrusted her with their child.

When any child this age is firmly disciplined, he'll probably fume and may even say that he no longer likes his mommy (or daddy). When this happens, a parent may worry about being compared by their child to his birthparents. No wonder some of us are reluctant to discipline. 

Getting Tough
Yet, it is essential to claim your child as your own. Remember that a parent's role is to meet her child's needs, not just to be liked. And real parents provide discipline.

Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect: The Toddler Years (Workman), writes, "Discipline means to teach, and that should be your only objective when disciplining a toddler...teaching them right from wrong. It doesn't mean to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, to punish." Disciplining children, guiding them with love and respect, helps them develop self-esteem and responsibility, and teaches them to handle freedom.

Toddlers learn limits by testing them, so use the discipline methods that work for kids this age (see "Firm but Fair"). If your child feels your love and approval, he will, most of the time, want to please you and will behave as he knows you would like him to. 

Psychotherapist Joni S. Mantell, LCSW, is director of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center, in New Jersey and New York.

Firm but Fair

1. Enforce timeouts. One minute per each year of age is a good rule of thumb. For preschoolers, timeouts are really time-ins. The child sits in the presence of the parent, and parents can be reassured that their child will not feel abandoned.

2. Apologize for an outburst. Every parent will slip into an upset tone at some point. It's OK to apologize or clarify to your child: "Mommy was mad at what you did, but Mommy loves you very much."

3. Track good behavior. Post a chart on the refrigerator and note your child's good and bad behaviors every day. This will give him a concrete look at how he is behaving.

4. Consistency is key. Decide with your spouse what the rules are, and uphold them. Follow through with any punishment you threaten or any promise you make.

5. Tell children what to do, not what not to do. Children may not hear the "Don't," and will focus on the rest of your words. "Hold my hand" is better than "Don't run on the road." "Use your spoon" works better than "Don't eat with your fingers."

6. Find ways to say yes more than no. Your child is a mimic--too many no's will simply reinforce "no" to your child, and that will become his favorite word. Instead of, "No TV," try, "We can watch TV after you've put away all the toys."

7.Praise good behavior. Discipline is not all about punishment, it is also about recognizing good behavior. Comment positively and give hugs when you see good behavior, and you will get more of it.

 

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