Many of us were raised with spanking that it can seem second-nature, making it hard to change our ways even as we so desperately want to. While changing our knee-jerk reactions take time, the good news is that there are many more ways to effectively discipline our children gently — affording you the opportunity to find what works best.
The research on the detrimental effects of spanking on child development is clear: Don’t do it. But what to do instead? Because as much as spanking is a no-no, so is raising children without clear boundaries on their behavior.
The hard part of wrapping our minds around gentle discipline is that most of it is proactive and takes being intentional. Spanking is reactive and, particularly when fueled by an ingrained reflex, doesn’t require forethought.
So as you ponder gentle discipline, understand that it requires a holistic approach. The ideas are meant to work together. You have the freedom to pick and choose what will work best for your family, but its a combination of mostly proactive techniques and then also intentional, in-the-moment responses to misbehavior that make gentle discipline effective.
Don’t underestimate the power of being proactive. Setting your child up to succeed, rather than waiting to react when he fails, goes a long way in circumventing misbehavior in the first place.
Keep these 20 tips in mind to create an atmosphere that’s less likely to invite the urge to spank:
1) Stay calm
Kids act out for all kinds of reasons, but it’s not because they dislike you or are trying to purposely manipulate you. Nine times out of 10, it’s because they’re tired, hunger, not feeling well, frustrated, or have another unfulfilled need. So don’t take it personally. View it all objectively.
Related: The 3 Causes Behind Most Tantrums
2) Work on your stress level
Children feed off negative vibes. If you’re feeling stressed, they subconsciously pick up on that and start acting out how you feel, which of course only perpetuates how you act, and the cycle goes round and round.
3) Keep your home kid-friendly
Just as a home needs to be baby-proofed, it needs to be set up to be kid-friendly. Decorate your fridge with your children’s artwork, give full access to a cupboard filled with craft materials and other activities for when your child is bored, and invite your child to join in on housework with you. There are ways to make folding clothes fun! Basically make your home a safe place designed with your child in mind, rather than trying to fit your child’s tendencies into a possibly kid-unfriendly lifestyle you had before becoming a parent.
4) Avoid overstimulation
As much as children love bright colors, music, noise, sugary treats, and high-energy activities, take care to avoid overstimulation. An overstimulated child is much more likely to act out. Sometimes its inevitable, and in these cases, its important to help your child learn to calm down slowly perhaps by reading a book in a quiet room or by taking a bubble bath.
Don’t be surprised, though, if your child has a meltdown as soon as the overstimulating excitement is over, and don’t take it personally. It’s a cue that the atmosphere was too much for her brain and to perhaps avoid the same situation in the future.
5) Use good manners
Say “please” when you tell your child to do something, and “thank you” afterwards, just as you would do with an adult. Use good manners throughout the day, which teaches respect through example. Greet your child in the morning and give a hug and kiss. And give your child appropriate compliments. For example, if your daughter does an exceptional job at unloading the dishwasher in a timely fashion, let her know.
6) Teach kindness
Make kindness your family’s theme. This means parents need to take the lead in modeling kindness in word and deed, and complimenting our children when they follow this lead.
7) Speak in quiet voice
We don’t need to shout to make our children hear us. They actually listen more when spoken to in a soft voice. Try whispering when you really want them to listen! If the noise level in your house is too high to avoid talking loudly, turn off music and the TV, dim the lights, and invite everyone to sit down for a moment. Your children’s noise level will likely correspond.
This can be hard if you’re in the habit of yelling, but understand that shouting is a conditioned response to your feeling of anger. It’s a tip-off to you that you need to find another, more appropriate and healthier way to express your anger.
Just as we want our children to listen us, we need to be sure to actively listen to them. Listening doesn’t mean your child will get to do whatever he wants, but it does mean he knows that the most important person in his life cares and empathizes with his frustration.
9) Be consistent
Children thrive on routine and predictability. Set boundaries on behavior consistently, each and every time. Clearly knowing the parameters is how children learn what is expected of them. It’s when they get confused that some of the most distressing behaviors occur.
10) Teach emotion-coaching
Emotions are so big for toddlers and preschoolers that they don’t know how to handle them. Start early by helping them name their emotions and how to appropriately express them.
11) Don’t argue
Avoid the temptation of getting into a power struggle over who’s right or wrong, or that your child must do exactly as you say or else. Instead, look at how you can problem-solve the situation. Try to redirect your toddler’s attention to something else, or offer your preschooler a choice between a couple options.
Sometimes, though, your child’s reaction will devolve into a tantrum. If it becomes too much for you, there’s nothing wrong with stepping away for a moment or two to calm yourself down, too. If needed, always say sorry for your reaction. This goes a long ways in healing broken trust and resetting the relationship.
12) Give time-in rather than time-out
Time-out, such as having a child sit in a corner or another room as punishment, is not gentle discipline. Rather, give time-in. When your child is very upset, have him sit with you on the couch or designate a safe place for him to go to calm down. This may be your child’s bed or another place where there are comforting items like toys, special blankets, and books. The idea is to teach them good coping skills when stressed rather than trying to punish the stress out of them.
13) Talk about it
Teach your child to not only name their feelings but to talk about what is frustrating them. Talking through stress is a great way to resolve it. It’s important for parents not to get defensive and to just let the child feel how they want. If your daughter angrily says she wishes the baby had never been born, this may strike you in the heart but hear her out calmly. Your daughter needs to know its safe for her to express even her strongest emotions, rather than trying to keep them inside or cover them up. Handling anger in a healthy way requires that it’s expressed; otherwise anger can become emotional cancer.
14) Teach healthy coping skills
Talking through hard emotions is always important, but so is adopting healthy coping skills. Many toddlers turn to biting or hitting to cope with their anger. Instead teach them to dance or paint. It often takes repetition to help young children learn to turn toward healthy coping behaviors rather than their own instinctive, reactive behaviors. But keep at it: It pays off big time as your child grows older and more independent, and needs to turn to those coping skills more and more.
15) Show what “gentle” feels like
Consider getting a pet if you don’t have one, and then teach your child how to touch gently. Even without a pet, you can teach your child gentle touches.
16) Reserve “no” for when it really matters
Try to create a “yes” environment where you have proactively designed your home, car, or another environment you frequent a lot as kid-friendly so that when your child asks for something, you can give the go-ahead. This makes any “no” stand out all the more. That said, don’t give in just to appease your child. Let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.
17) Teach your child to ask
It is important to teach your child to ask, rather than just do whatever he feels like doing. Even if you almost always say “yes” to the question, getting everyone in the habit of asking for permission nurtures an environment of respect. On your part, be sure to model the same expectation and ask for permission in appropriate situations.
A note here: If you ask your child to do something, this means allowing your child to say “no” and it’s important to honor that response. This teaches your child how to assert themselves and set personal boundaries, and what respect looks like. So, if you want your child to do something and refusing is not an option, don’t phrase it as a question. But still, tell your child in a respectful way.
Some children learn best by acting out the expectation. You could do this with toys, having one teddy bear acting as the mother and the other as the child, or one acting as your child and the other as a peer. And then act out the situation and the expected behavior. This can help make an abstract idea more real-life.
19) Let natural consequences do the teaching
Many times, misbehavior automatically leads to some consequence that naturally isn’t pleasant for your child. If your daughter throws her sippy cup off the high chair for the 32nd time, let it sit on the floor or place it on the counter. If your son refuses to wear a jacket to school on a fall day, he will learn faster by being allowed to be chilly than if you drive the jacket to school. You may have to endure some whining or anger from a child who was expecting you to save him from his consequence, but if you’re consistent and calm, it’ll sink in that he has to take responsibility for his actions.
20) When natural consequences are not an option, try logical consequences…carefully
Not all misbehavior’s natural consequences are allowable, whether because of safety concerns or because it conflicts with your values, and that’s OK. For example, if my child forgot to take her band instrument to school, I wouldn’t have her experience the natural consequence because that would mean getting a failing grade that day in class and that’s against my values system. But if it became a habit of her forgetting her band instrument, I would need to enforce some sort of consequence.
A consequence that is issued by the parent, not directly related to the natural fall-out of a child’s misbehavior, is referred to as a logical consequence. An example of a logical consequence that works well in my house is doing extra with household chores, which we tend to do together as a family, such as having a child hang a basket of washed laundry on the clothesline by themselves while the rest of the family is doing another chore together.
You have to be careful with this, though, as logical consequences can easily cross the line and become punishments. As a rule, punishments generally do not teach much of anything except to fear breaking the rules. We want our children to learn boundaries for their behavior, not out of fear but out of understanding the difference between right and wrong. Logical consequences are better avoided until you are more comfortable with gentle discipline, so that you don’t inadvertently fall back into temptation to use other forms of punishment, too, like spanking. So again, be very careful with this gentle discipline technique!
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