Behavior is always an expression of needs. Good behavior is simply needs being met and not-so-good behavior is a cry for help. But most young kids don’t have the emotional maturity to say “parents, I’m feeling really ‘x’ right now, I could use some love and to learn some strategies to use when this happens ”. Of course– that would be ridiculous—so instead they behave in another way that gets their needs met and unfortunately, adults often see those behaviors at a surface level and do not take the time to understand the underlying root cause of those behaviors.
All people, even kids, want to always feel a sense of love and safety. But unfortunately traditional discipline does not facilitate those feelings and in fact, it normally goes in direct conflict with those feelings. Fundamental to conscious discipline is a focus on the child as having the locus of control (as opposed to the caregiver). Clearly, age, temperament, and unique personality have to be factored into any approach you choose to take but the three biggest factors one must confront in order to rearrange poor behavior patterns, of any age child, are in the areas of connection, boundaries, and consequences.
1. Understanding Consequences
When one is considering consequences it is important to think about whether or not their are already natural consequences in place. Natural consequences (aka. “logical consequences”) are obvious outcomes or effects that occur without any human intervention or action (ex. kid hits sibling and sibling doesn’t want to play with him anymore). Unnatural consequences are imposed by people and are usually based on their culture, world-view, and beliefs. They are inherently coercive and power-centric (ex. kid hits sibling and gets sent to timeout bench). Natural consequences help maintain the parent-child relationship because there is no power differential, only empathy and support. Unnatural consequences are really a euphemism for discipline; they can be somewhat random and do not directly relate to the reason the child was being punished. Unnatural consequences reinforce the parent as being in power and the child as less-than. The goal of any consequence is to immediately stop the behavior and to teach different behavior. So instead of interjecting power, which is truly rather artificial and will degrade the quality of the parent-child relationship, try relying on the natural consequence more frequently and using any “bad behavior” as a teaching opportunity.
Think about the typical discipline issues in your home. Are the consequences your child faces typical natural or unnatural?
2. The Strength of Your Boundary
One critical factor in giving your child boundaries is deciding what exactly you are willing to let your kid get away with. You have to decide if you are drawing a line in the sand or a line in stone.
If one is drawing a line in sand or a negotiable boundary, the first need is to evaluate whether it is worth having the line at all. It is OK to tell a child that you do not have an immediate answer and need time to think about it. Engage them in a discussion about the pro’s and con’s. Let them practice seeing both the positive and the negative to the situation and let them help come up with alternatives. Even little kids will appreciate being included in the discussion. We all want our kids to be good at making decisions, so illuminate your thought process and help them develop theirs.
Recommended reading for anyone in any type of intimate relationship–marriage, parenting, or otherwise.
If you are drawing a line in stone, aka a firm boundary, you need to mean what you say and say what you mean. Examples of lines in stone for most families deal with safety in some way. Having a firm boundary does not mean refusing a discussion through what relationship expert Dr. John Gottman refers to as “stonewalling”. Stonewalling, or refusing to engage in discussion or explanation, chips away at relationships and breaks trust with the exact person with whom you want you to trust with even the toughest discussions: your child. Reject the kinds of parenting that says “because I said so” even when it is tempting to do so. Communicate with empathy, solidity, and openness despite challenging behavior from your child and see it as an opportunity to attune to their inner-world.
When extinguishing a bad behavior from a childs’ repertoire, say nagging or hitting for example, that behavior tends to get worse before it gets better. This can be confusing and throws a lot of parents because when they try to set a boundary and all of a sudden the behavior is worse they think they somehow messed up in extinguishing the behavior and go back on their boundary. This is detrimental to the boundary one is trying to set.
Remember that authoritative parents let their boundary be known and talked about and can hold the firmest of boundaries with love, that is why they are refered to as “tough love” parents. This does not mean you will waiver. It will depend on the situation and whether you are drawing a land in the sand or a line in stone.
3. Connection is the Foundation
Although this is the last point, this is really the most important. Connection is absolutely vital to teaching your child anything and enjoying the process of doing so. The first and most important relationships in a child’s life are those with his or her parents. In fact, in group counseling one of the primary goals of that experience is “corrective recapitulation of primary family”. The meaning of this is to show proper functioning of interpersonal relationships. Because the foundation of all relationships, parent-child and otherwise, is trust and connection it is important to give ample energy to making sure your attachment is strong. Traditional discipline has relied on parents being in power and making rules and demanding unconditional respect. The new approach, the conscious approach, declassifies the parents from ruler and promotes them to teacher and supporter who can be relied on for guidance even when the child is displaying their worst behavior.
Taking time to enjoy your kids—and letting them enjoy you—will put the relationship capital in the bank. And when you need to–or mess up like we all do–and take withdraw from your relationship “bank account”, it will be OK. You won’t be steeped in the kind of guilt you used to experience because you will be able to reflect on all the good, fun, relationship-building you have done and know that it will carry you through a rough patch.
As you are rethinking how consequences, boundaries, and connection are used in your home, be aware of how you were raised and how that informed you. Parenting is hereditary, learned, and one of our most basic cultural constructs. Yet, with awareness, education, and practice one can change the primal desire for power over their children.
What are the most common issues that require consequences in your house?
Does your approach to consequences typically show more connection or boundaries?
(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance