The secret to raising children who generally cooperate with our rules and direction has very little to do with specific strategies or wordplay like “I won’t let you” versus “Don’t hit.” What matters most — and essentially makes or breaks successful guidance — is the way we perceive our children and our overall attitude toward boundaries and discipline. The good news is that once these perceptions are on-track we can make lots of mistakes, and yet we’ll almost never go wrong. Treat them like people: Seventeen years ago I was invited to attend the introductory session of a parenting seminar led by Mary Hartzell, a highly respected author (Parenting From the Inside Out) and preschool director. I remember little about Mary’s lecture except that I agreed with her approach. What I recall vividly is that when it came time for questions, it was as if a dam had broken – a flood of fervent questions poured forth from the audience, and they all began: “How do I get my child to…?”

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Parents wanted to get their preschoolers to brush teeth, pick up toys, toilet train, leave the park or stop hitting, pushing, biting, spitting, etc. It was clear from the tone of their questions, especially the repeated use of the word ‘get’, that many were on the wrong track. They were approaching these issues with an “us and them” attitude rather than a teamwork mentality. They were looking for quick fixes, tricks and manipulation tactics instead of working person-to-person and building the kind of trusting, mutually respectful relationship that makes discipline (and every other aspect of parenting) much simpler and more rewarding. Of course, I doubt that I would have recognized this had I not been fresh out of my training with infant specialist Magda Gerber. A few days after the lecture, I ran into the friend who’d invited me and expressed my appreciation.

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He raved. “Mary is wonderful. She has helped us so much. The amazing thing she taught us was to talk to our 3 year old about our expectations just like I would talk to you… just like we would speak to any other person.” “Sounds great!” I replied. “Magda Gerber teaches us to do that with babies.” My friend’s expression froze and he looked puzzled, as if he thought he’d misheard me. “Really?” he asked, eyes glazing over. And then we both dropped it. It didn’t seem the time to try to explain. Babies are sentient, aware people from the moment they are born, ready to begin an honest, communicative relationship with us.

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Through our respectful relationship, children (of all ages) are far more inclined to listen and cooperate. On the other hand, trying to get the people in our lives to do the things we want them to do seldom works more than once or twice, and it doesn’t it make us like each other or really teach anything (except perhaps mistrust). Presenting ourselves as the gentle leader that guides, models, demonstrates, coaches, helps our children to behave appropriately is the key to discipline. The way I see it, parents have to wear two hats: a party hat and a professional hat. When we’re wearing our party hat we’re enjoying our kids, feeling connected, loving and fun. It’s easy to recognize this as quality time. Wearing the professional hat is not so much fun, but it does not have to be excruciating either.

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I implore the parents I work with to re-imagine ‘quality time’ to include those moments when we are calmly, but assuredly facing our child’s resistance to his or her bedtime routine; firmly preventing our baby from hitting the dog; or patiently removing our children from situations when they’ve lost all control so they can meltdown safely in our presence. Meltdowns and setting limits, quality time? What?! I know it’s counterintuitive, but from our children’s perspective, I feel certain it’s true. The times we must wear our professional hat are perhaps the most precious kind of quality time, because children need our empathetic leadership even more than they need us to be their playmates and most ardent fans. I truly believe that our kids sense how difficult it is for us to wear this hat gracefully, and they will test our limits to see if they can knock it off (the hat, that is).

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Embracing the idea that this “professional” time is also quality time is especially crucial for working parents, or those with multiple children, or parents who (for whatever reason) don’t have as much time to spend with their children as they would like, either routinely or just on that particular day. Of course, we’d all prefer to spend the little time we have together joyously, but quite often that is not the dynamic our children need from us. They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

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They need parents who can be capable leaders (so capable that we actually make it look easy), not just Good Time Charlies, people who they sense deep down have their very best interests, health and good character in mind. One of my biggest aspirations as an educator is to effect change in our perceptions of discipline, boundaries and limits — to help transform these terms from negative to positive. When offered non-punitively in the context of empathy and respect, boundaries and discipline are gifts we should feel proud of, one of the highest forms of love. Once this is recognized, I’m convinced that parents and children will struggle far less and enjoy each other much more.


By Janet Lansbury from Janetlansbury.com