Before you became a parent, did you think you knew the right way to discipline kids? Did you roll your eyes at the parent in Target with screaming kids, or wish you could have a stern talk with the tantruming toddler on the airplane? Compare that to how you feel now that you actually have kids. In my experience, views change dramatically once you become a parent. Now, seeing a crying kid in the store kinda makes me want to cry; I feel their parent's pain. There's a commonly held belief that if children are just disciplined properly, they will behave perfectly. We say that the attitude "children should be seen and not heard" is a thing of the past, but if you've experienced glares from non-parents while your child throws a fit in public, you realize it's still a pervasive expectation. We parents—especially second timers—know that getting kids to "behave" is a lot more complicated than we once thought.
Putting a child in the corner when they misbehave does not always solve the problem; in fact it can make it worse. Many of the methods we are pressured to use to get our kids to behave are now being studied, and shown to potentially be emotionally damaging. This article (based on the book, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child's Developing Mind, by UCLA psychiatry professor Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.) shows that a child in isolation exhibits very similar brain activity to that of a child experiencing physical pain.
"The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us. But when children lose emotional control, parents often put them in their room or by themselves in the “naughty chair,” meaning that in this moment of emotional distress they have to suffer alone."
I instinctively used mainstream methods like time-outs with my first child, because I was overwhelmed and didn't know how else to handle his intense outbursts of emotion. It was discouraging that he continued to "act out" even when I thought I was doing everything "right." In the first place, I could rarely get him to stay put in one spot by himself. The more I tried, the worse it got. The fits of anger I was trying to control just became more and more intense.
Even though I didn't know much about natural parenting styles then, the wisdom was clearly presenting itself. Time outs just weren't working for my kid and I couldn't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. I was getting so frustrated that I was turning into someone I didn't like, and I knew that wasn't the kind of behavior I wanted to model for my son. How could I expect him to be nice when I was responding with anger? Anger because he didn't want to stay in his room by himself when he was upset and needing my emapthy?! I finally saw that what he needed was my love and support—especially when he wasn't being a model citizen. Not to be by himself, ostensibly reflecting on his misbehavior. He was only THREE years old; simply too young to possess the self-control that I was expecting of him.
Instead, I started staying in his room with him, talking with him about what had happened. Very quickly, I didn't have to separate him from situations. Where time outs did nothing but create an emotional barrier, my attention would help him calm down immediately. After all, who wants to be alone when they're upset? And yes, that's the point. A time out is unpleasant, and maybe eventually the child will learn to avoid that unpleasantness by "behaving", and holding their emotions inside. But is that really what we want? Taking the time to help him articulate his feelings and deal with them in healthy ways might be more work in the short term, but eventually it will pay off by helping to avoid deeper issues down the road.
Since then, I survived the toddler/preschooler years of my twin girls by practicing gentle discipline—without a single time out. Currently, I'm wading through ALL the emotions with my 3.5 year old who reminds me every day that each child is different and that I'll never be a perfect parent. Every time I think I have it all figured out the game changes. But it keeps me on my toes. Life is far from boring, and I know that I'm doing what's best for the emotional health of my kids.
Further reading on Gentle Discipline and the psychology behind it:
- Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen
- Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
- Discipline Without Distress by Judy Arnall
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
- Instead of Medicating and Punishing by Laurie Couture
- Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
- Attached at the Heart by Barbara Nicholson & Lysa Parker.
- Attachment Parenting "Practice Positive Discipline"
- Ask Dr. Sears "8 Tools for Toddler Discipline"
- The Natural Child Project "Surviving the Toddler Years"