Stop that! – If not, then… well, something bad might happen.
A punishment is a negative consequence. It’s something that happens because of something you did wrong, more or less intentionally.
Most mistakes are not intentionally made, and have to be dealt with differently. It’s more about kindly pointing out how to do it right. There can be negative consequences from these mistakes too, but it shouldn’t be seen as punishment to replace, repay, or mend what you happened to break. It’s just what you should do, and you should also be praised and appreciated for it.
I do prefer positive reinforcements – but sometimes a negative consequence, or just the threat of one, does help clearing up your message. There are some basic rules to this though:
Information and warning
A child needs fair warning that it’s going in the wrong direction. Otherwise they cannot know before it’s too late. Before even considering a punishment, make sure you have informed the child of what you want. Have you been clear with your message? Your child needs to know what you want it to do. Any “don’t”s and “Stops” will blur the message. You may need to say it, but go on with what to do instead.
You can be calm and kindly caring while warning. You want to teach the child to do things safely and correctly. There is no need to be whiny or grumpy or stress everybody out , at least not yet.
A warning can be pure information: “Be careful, it’s hot!“, “You need to stay close to me here, it’s easy to get lost.”
A warning can be about terms and conditions: “You break that, you’ll need to buy a new one.”, “You need to help me out here, so we’ll have time to bake that cake you wanted.”
A warning can be a flat-out threat: “You say that again and… (pick your favourite)
…no more TV!
…you go straight to bed / your room!
…you’ll have to wait in the car!
…I won’t read your bedtime story!
Never threaten with something you are not prepared to actually do. Empty threats completely undermine your words and authority. Leave the threats out as long as possible.
But, if you need one, use the withdrawal of a privilege or reward.
Of course, when your kids have something to look forward too, you also have a source of power. You may decide you will not deliver the candy, or go to the park, until the kids are behaving better, or helping you out somehow. With a scoreboard they will perhaps loose a point. That’s the kind of threat that can be executed at once, and undone as soon as your child decides to cooperate again. It’s easily manageable.
Understanding rules and boundaries
It’s part of educating our children, making our boundaries understood. Informing, preparing and initially helping them out only takes us so far though. Practicing is a time for making mistakes, and trying out different ways to handle a problem. This is also called testing, and is important for the growing independence of the mind. Skills need perfecting, and rules need to be understood thoroughly: so you say I shouldn’t press that button? But if I don’t press it, just touch it? And why can’t I? What happens if I press it anyway? Your child needs to know and wants to know – to understand it all.
There is a key to this and it’s: Don’t make up unnecessary rules! The ones you need, you need to make clear, explain and be prepared to fight for.
Not all rules need to be broken to be understood, of course. But this is why we draw the line at an early stage where a crossing is still manageable. We won’t allow our child to borrow something without asking – so stealing is out of the equation. Respect for other peoples belongings – but naturally also their bodies, thoughts, wishes and lives – are taught as primary rules. The basic respect issues can be discussed, and reactions experienced, at such an early stage it doesn’t cause much disturbance.
The rest of your wishes – keep them as recommendations. You still influence your child by your own actions and reactions, by approval and excitement or a more cautious frowning. You influence by demonstrating, explaining and facilitating things.
Try the useful trick of ignoring unwanted behavior. If there’s no one looking, no one to argue with, tease or pick on, it’s just not so much fun to be naughty.
Still, sometimes we need to make sure our boundaries are understood, and respected. This can be called a punishment, but I rather see it as learning about consequences. Punishments sound hurtful, and I’m not okay with that. We’re supposed to teach our children to be considerate, friendly and caring – hurting them seems like a really bad way of doing so. The word consequence seems to narrow it down.
The child needs to learn about responsibilities for ones actions. Preferably the nature of the consequence is supposed to set things straight again, to clean up, mend or replace what’s broken. If that’s not possible, it’s meant to be a lesson of some kind. You want your child to calm down, think, and learn better ways. What happened here? What went wrong? How could I make it better next time?
You not being happy about a behavior is a warning sign, just as much as it is a negative consequence for a child. A reprimand, a correction, maybe even a serious talk feels like criticism does – bad. You don’t have to be harsh, usually. The scary feeling of not being loved, or lovable, will be there anyway. And we don’t want that. We’ll need to show our care and consideration anyway, and all the more happiness when there is a positive behavior to reinforce. We all make mistakes sometimes, and we don’t love our child less for that.
When we want to change a specific behavior, we have to be specific and clear in our demands.
- Get straight to the point, preferably the action you want: Come here. Wash your hands first honey. Stay in the garden. In matters of interaction with other children you can be the discrete step-by-step guide: Ask if you can borrow it first. Now give it back and say “thank you”.
- Be personal. The “I want…” approach stresses rather exactly what you want the child to do. I want you to… listen to me / clean that up / be careful.
- The “I feel…” approach is also personal. It’s an indirect way of saying what you want, but a good complement to create future understanding of what other people can feel like. Maybe you got scared your child would be lost or hurt? Maybe you felt sad about the siblings fighting, when you loved them both so much? Also this is where your needs come into consideration. You have a right to your feelings too. Even when you are tired or stressed out. But do tie your expression of self to some action that would make it all better: like playing calmly for themselves for a little while you rest for a bit.
- Be honest, but with self-control. Don’t put too much responsibility on the little shoulders of your child – it can’t handle its own feelings, much less yours. So cut the edges. Less is more: If you feel angry, you say “disappointed”. You feel mad, you say “angry” or “upset”.
- Questions can be reminders, so that your child may learn to correct itself. Do you have a napkin there sweetie? Do you remember where to put the shoes?
- More general questions can be used with 4-5 year olds, like: “What do you think could happen if… (e.g. a car came by right now)?” or “What do you think could be done if…(e.g. a friend got hurt on the playground)?” or “Where do you think we could meet up if we loose sight of one another?” It’s a way to help the little mind think for itself, but also creates a bit of understanding of what needs to be considered in different places or during different activities.
Generalizations are usually bad, because they harm the self esteem, without redirecting the child somewhere. “You always…” or “You are…like this or like that“. Surely you know, when back in your senses, that your child does and is more than that. There is more to the story. So you shouldn’t make things sound worse than they are. You can criticize specific behaviors or actions (one at a time, please), things that are rather easy to change – not personality.
Sometimes you need to have a serious talk. That’s just the consequence of serious “crimes”. A Talk about other peoples rights and feelings, about rules and how friendship works. Perhaps some advice is needed on the matter of how friendship may be achieved.
Asking questions is a good way to make your child think about the matters, not only nodding or repeating. Use a serious voice when there is a serious problem (e.g. someone is or may be hurt). Otherwise a caring or educational tone of voice helps the feeling of secure environment where thinking and learning can take place.
If the child seems hard to reach, leave it alone for a while to calm down. This is one of the reasons to use a Time out. Sometimes during alone-play-time, or some peace and quite time, pieces fall into place in their little brains. They just need a break.
But once your child shows understanding, or willingness to go your way – you ease the tension. Be happy about achieved results: signs of consideration, empathy, realization.
He’s just laughing at me!
A common way for children to deal with stress (e.g. when they feel that something is wrong or someone is yelling at them), is to try and make a game out of it. They try to laugh about it, to make you laugh too. Then all the trouble will be gone, they hope.
Unfortunately for them, we react the opposite way: we feel that they are teasing us, not listening to a word we say, and we get frustrated. Try to stay calm, calm your child down, and stay with the issue. Don’t get carried away and don’t get into all the other issues you suddenly seem to have. They are just symptoms of your child not knowing what to do to make it better, and getting a bit lost while stressed about it.
When in a public place, or even in front of your siblings, there is the matter of pride to be considered. To be told off feels shameful. To back down is a sign that you admit you were wrong. Here comes the pride. The more you push, the more your child will push back, and the harder it will fall in the end. Because the child always looses, one way or the other. If we back down, the child will be let down and loose a useful lesson.
But we can release the pressure a bit, sticking with our cause and showing them an easier way to come our way – and feel good about it.
Help your child by being ever so gentle, maybe even whisper your advice or correction, so that it can make adjustments without loosing face. Or create eye contact and shake your head just a bit. It’s remarkably effective.
Be quick to release your child from blame, and the pressure of your disliking, as soon as the bad behavior stops. It’s nice to actually say “thank you” or “that’s better” or something, to show your appreciation. A smile and nod is also a discrete sign of your approval when you see a positive change.
To do penance
It’s good to learn to deal with the consequences of ones mistakes, intended or not. So kindly teach your child how to mend what is broken, or clear up what was messed up before. Teach them how to make an apology. To try and make it up somehow.
A great way to learn what the fuss is all about, is to do some sort of penance. Make up for what you did wrong. Glue the pieces together, I will teach you how. If you did mess up the bed I just made, even though I told you to stop, you will need to make it again. (Recent example with a just a little bit overexcited son.)
Pride usually gets in the way again. This is the step where they recognize they actually did something wrong, and a second temper tantrum comes to prove it was all someone else’s fault, or it was all a game or nobody understands them. It’s okay, we ride that one out too. Everybody calm down and then we help each other out.
With time, the point is for the children to accept that they sometimes make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. We also want them to come trying to make up for them sooner, and feeling better for it. If or when your child is willing to make amends, make it clear that you are grateful. They have overcome a lot to do so.
However, some boundaries need to be practical.
Perhaps they need to be felt to be understood, because small children doesn’t understand language all that well yet. And a three-year old needs to try out what happens if… because they try to get the meaning of the “No”s. So they need to be stopped, physically, a lot of times. Without getting hurt in their little bodies or sensitive souls.
– We need to take away something that is misused. We need to take away the sticks used as swords before any eyes pop out, the scissors they try and use on their sweater, or the pencils that tend to drift off the paper. Or perhaps the drawing that another sibling worked so hard with, needs your protection. Sometimes we also need to return things wrongly taken from playmates.
– We need to pick them up and carry them off, if they melt down and refuse to come along.
– We can release them down on the ground if they behave badly in our arms, making us harder to reach. Sometimes causing a severe heartbreak for the little ones – be quick to forgive and give a second chance.
– We may need to catch them if they run off, or grab a hand flying out to hit something. Maybe we need to hold them rather tightly at times, if they try to fight us off. That never feels good. Perhaps showing them to their room is a better option than wrestling?
– Time-outs are sometimes weirdly handled like jail time. I like a softer approach: “Now this is just too much. You can stay in your room until you calm down, I will stay with you right here, outside the door.” The child can be placed there without being locked in. It can just as well stay on the couch or wherever. Keep in touch by talking, and try to stay calm. There should be easy-to-do terms for leaving, like an apology, or just to stop the screaming. The point is them (maybe even both of you) calming down.
Don’t use a timer, but use your brains and empathy here. A very upset child might calm down better in your arms. They are too upset to get any message anyway. Other children go wild if you hold them down and are better off with some personal space.
We’ll have to figure out what works best with our own children. It’s hard. We make mistakes sometimes. But we learn as we go along, just like they do.
Some mistakes we should however, not do.
Never ever hit a child.
It is not allowed to hit adults, so why would it be all right to hit a child? They are supposed to learn from us how to behave! So, we don’t beat them, or shake them or threaten them with violence.
We don’t want to hurt them, but teach them something. And that starts with everyone calming down.
This means No Yelling either! I know, we all lose our temper from time to time, but it really never helps. Well, if you need sudden attention it might. But in an argument, no.
Yelling means loosening your grip a little bit. It scares and stresses the child. You loosing control also means loosing a little bit of their respect. A true authority figure shouldn’t need to yell.
Also, do you really want to teach your child that yelling is the way to deal with conflict?
There are people thinking children need to be taught the wrong of their ways by a sort of “eye for an eye” approach. “You bite me, I’ll bite you, then you will know how much it hurt”. Now, the only thing we really teach the children by doing this, is that we are just as bad as they are. And what is worse: we say they can’t bite – and then we do just that! They surely can’t trust us!
No, remember to play the hard part of a role-model.