Note: This post is part of a series I’m writing on Child Discipline.
Part Eight – Discipline Once A Rule Has Been Broken
Now your child has broken a rule, you’ve enforced the rule, and the child’s behavior is such that you must get them “in trouble.” How might we accomplish this?
In my view, it’s very important to first attend to the child’s emotional needs. You yourself might be quite upset that the child didn’t listen to you, or perhaps the child hurt someone or did something extremely dangerous, and that might be upsetting to you. No matter how important it is that you make the child see your point of view, none of that can happen if the child is screaming, crying, or throwing a tantrum. The one and only way the child will ever see things your way is if he or she is calm enough to hear you out. So, resist your urge to spank, to yell, to scold, or to rant.
Focus instead on helping the child to calm down. In some cases, that might mean merely sitting with the child until he or she has finished crying. In some cases that might mean holding on to the child tightly enough that he or she can’t squirm away and get into even more trouble. In some cases, that might mean talking calmly and soothingly to the child – yes, soothingly even despite the child’s misbehavior. I have found it quite productive to ask the child how he or she is feeling and why. “Are you angry? Are you frustrated?” Then express empathy: “I know it’s no fun when you don’t get to play with the things you want to play with.” Let your child know that you understand why he or she is upset. Don’t tell your children that they’re wrong to feel what they feel. Don’t contradict them. Don’t argue with them. Take the time to tell them you understand. After all, don’t you want them to understand you? How will they learn to do that if they never see patient listening, understanding, and empathy modeled for them in the first place?
Eventually, your child will calm down. Now it’s time to discuss the rules again. Ask your child if s/he understands why s/he got in trouble: “Do you know why you got in trouble?” Very young children will say no; as they age, they might guess wrong; once they get older, they will know what they did wrong, and they will tell you. Then, you can confirm, “That’s right, I asked you not to play with the scissors, and you did it anyway. Then you screamed and yelled at me.”
Next, ask your child why s/he thinks the rule exists: “Do you know why I didn’t want you to play with scissors?” The child may say no, in which case you need to explain very simply, “Scissors are dangerous and people can get hurt if you play with them. That’s why we never play with scissors.” The child might also say yes, in which case you should verify why s/he thinks the rule exists, and if s/he doesn’t have the right reason, correct him or her.
After that, you’ll need to establish a make-amends routine. In our house, making amends means apologizing, agreeing not to break the rule in the future, and potentially doing some minor corrective action like cleaning up the mess that was made or sitting down and finishing dinner without further incident. This doesn’t have to be your make-amends routine, but you ought to have some process by which your child can make things right again and everyone can go back to being a happy family. Put your child down and let him or her make amends, as agreed.
The final step in the process is also very important, and very easy to overlook. Once your child has made his or her amends, it’s not right to continue to lecture the child or be angry. That violates the agreement you just made to make amends. The child should be forgiven once s/he has apologized and made amends. So, drop it. And don’t bring it up again. Because it’s over.
In our household, this process takes no longer than five minutes. Very young children aren’t capable of understanding punishments or reprimands that stretch on and on for a long time. A good rule given by psychologists is “one minute of time-out per year of age.” Of course, what I’ve described isn’t a time-out. It’s a time-in. We never deprive our child of contact with us as a result of misbehavior. How would that serve to accomplish anything, anyway? We want her to make things right again and behave well. We don’t want her to simply feel bad about having done something wrong.