Time-Outs are out, finds Angela Baura, so what are the best methods to discipline your child?
What do you do when your kids misbehave? If your tween doesn’t tidy up after herself when asked multiple times, do you threaten to take her iPad away for a week? Or if your toddler whacks his sibling, do you confiscate his beloved toy? What if he does it again an hour later? Do you tell him he doesn’t get a bedtime story unless he behaves himself?
Do these methods actually work? Hong Kong experts don’t seem to think so. If they worked, there would be no need to repeat them week in, week out, they point out.
Time-outs are out; time-ins are in, they say. Yelling, spanking and confiscating prized possessions are out; compassion, connection and natural consequences are our only hope of raising cooperative, confident kids.
What does this mean? What are we supposed to do when our offspring insist on breaking every rule in the book? The experts share the do’s and don’ts of disciplining children.
Don’t dish out punishments
Punishments are ineffective and can have long-lasting negative effects. For starters, when we use punishments as a way to curb misbehaviour, we encourage obedience out of fear.
“We don’t want our children to grow up believing they should blindly obey authority figures and that privileges and possessions will be taken away from them when they don’t cooperate. When children are raised to be fearful, they are more likely to be influenced by peers, engage in aggressive behaviour or perceive themselves as victims of circumstance,”
says Melissa Shadforth, founder of The Collective Journey, a Hong-Kong based platform that offers mentorship experiences for children and adolescents through connection and with compassion.
Also, punishments damage our connection with children. When we banish children to their bedroom because they’re in the midst of a meltdown, we leave them to handle overwhelming emotions alone. We send a message that their feelings and emotions are not valid or important, or they’re simply too much for us to handle, Melissa explains.
“This perpetuates the cycle of more ‘defiant’ or undesirable behaviour and can support a negative view of their self-worth based on a parent’s conditional love.”
Moreover, artificial or forced punishments don’t help children reflect on the order of events and understand the natural consequences of their behaviour. They fail to teach children how to set limits for themselves, self-regulate or have compassion for self and others.
“It is important that our children understand why they should behave a certain way; that everything has a consequence; and that they have to own all the consequences arising from their own actions,”
says Jonathon Siu, father of four-year-old twin boys.
“We discipline in a calm manner and try not to raise our voices to achieve submission. Our hope is that our kids will do the right thing because they have a strong moral compass.”
Do raise awareness of natural consequences
“Effective discipline is not only stopping unacceptable behaviour or promoting positive behaviour but also teaching skills and nurturing the connections in our children’s brains that will help them make better decisions and handle themselves well in future,”
advises Gail Maidment, executive director of Generations Christian Education, a non-profit organisation encompassing Small World Christian Kindergarten, the Norwegian International School and Island Christian Academy in Hong Kong. She teaches a number of parenting workshops created to help parents raise confident children with grace and boundaries.
Parents can set clear and consistent boundaries and raise awareness of any natural consequences if boundaries are repeatedly tested or breached to encourage cooperation and teach children lifelong skills, Melissa says.
She shares the following scenarios:
You’re at the park and your child hits another child. Reconnect with your child physically through eye contact or touch, set the boundary with compassion and follow through with the natural consequence.
“We don’t hit. Now we’ll walk to the bus stop and head home. We’ll come back another day and try again.” Discuss what happened and appropriate behaviour once you return home and your child has calmed down.
Or, you notice your child hasn’t placed her laundry in the basket before dinner as requested. Reconnect with your child and set the limit with compassion.
“I can see you are tired after a long football training session: you really put in a lot of effort this afternoon. Your Dad is doing a load of laundry after dinner and if your uniform is not in the basket, then it won’t be ready for the game on Saturday. I know how much you’re looking forward to it. Remember, no uniform, no game time.”
Follow through on the natural consequence, rather than extend the deadline or forget about it altogether, and you won’t have to repeat the request five times in the future, Melissa advises.
Do reconnect with your child
Mulan, age five, wants to rule the roost. Her dad, Rick Wong Smits, says he prefers to reason with her than resort to time-outs. He tries to stay calm but once in a while the pressure gets too much and he ‘explodes’.
Over Christmas, he sought advice from a friend who rarely loses his temper with his children.
“He said he takes the kids seriously – even if it’s the most unreasonable request – by repeating what they say. It takes away their need to shout or cry louder, which calms them down quite a bit and keeps him from exploding. Eventually they need to do what you want, but you have a much higher chance of getting there when you take them seriously and they’re not upset anymore,”
says Rick, a father of two and freelance video editor.
Children are more motivated to cooperate when they feel seen, safe, soothed and secure, Melissa explains.
“Once everyone involved has self-regulated and is able to see, think and hear clearly, reflection and coaching can begin through connection and with compassion.”
Certified Parent Coach Deborah Holcombe shares the principles of internationally acclaimed author, educator and child psychologist, Dr Daniel Siegel:
Wait until your child is ready. Be consistent but not rigid. Problem solve together. Stop talking and listen (parent). Validate, validate, validate. Reflect what you hear. Communicate comfort by getting below eye level. HALT and ask yourself if your child is Hungry, Alone, Lonely or Tired.
“Put yourself in your child’s shoes and reflect on why they may be behaving a certain way. This doesn’t literally mean asking your child ‘why’ as this will put everyone in a defensive state. Use the ‘why’ as a way to start your own self-reflection and contemplation of what is causing the behaviour you see,”
Deborah advises. She also reminds parents to be realistic in their expectations and to consider their child’s temperament and emotional style when communicating expectations with them.
Barbara, a mother of two, recounts the struggles she faced last year when trying to deal with her daughter’s bedtime shenanigans. Faced with a defiant and angry seven-year-old who refused to stay in bed, Barbara felt emotionally drained and physically exhausted.
“I went through every stage to get through to her: calmly talking, reasoning, pleasing, pleading, punishing by taking toys away, and finally getting angry. Then one night, I got her out of bed at 8.30pm and together we walked up the Peak. At first, she assumed I was being cruel to her and she pleaded to return home, but I walked slowly and defied my inner demons to be angry with her. Gradually the exercise calmed us both down and allowed us to channel our thoughts. For a while, neither of us talked. Then, she broke the silence with:
“Mum, I’m so sorry!”
Her thoughts were clearer, her hormones balanced, and she realised I wouldn’t leave her to deal with overwhelming feelings alone. Now, she is able to self-regulate and will ask to ‘walk it off’ when she feels stressed or anxious.”
Don’t give up.
It takes time and energy for parents to connect and build relationships with their children and set a good foundation, Gail says.
“Time can be an issue. Sometimes, parents want a quick fix to discipline. They don’t always have the time to understand their child, the age, developmental stage, and what is appropriate. They may delegate to helpers, who don’t discipline or are unsure of expectations. Also, parents may be conflicted on what is discipline versus punishment and how strict or lenient to be,”
A lack of, too many, or inconsistent boundaries can destabilise a family. Fortunately, children are our greatest teachers, says Melissa.
“We are not perfect, and we will make mistakes. If we shift toward chaos or rigidity, we can acknowledge this without judgement and move toward rebalancing the family dynamic: Repair the connection between parent and child, later reflect on the experience, let go of what happened and take the lesson forward with us. Remember, every day is a fresh start, for parents too!”