The best thing we can do to make our discipline more effective, and to make our time with the children in our care more enjoyable, is to eliminate the word “stop” from our vocabularies. This seems counter-intuitive: children are constantly doing things we don’t want them to, so how will we enjoy them MORE if we can’t tell them to stop doing something? But let me assure you, this is the case with positive discipline. In my experience, children are unable to “stop.” The only times they ever “stop” is when they are sleeping. As long as they are awake, they are in constant motion, constantly “doing.” So telling a child “stop” is like telling them “grow up.” They can’t. But what children CAN do, is they can do something other than what they’re doing that’s inappropriate or annoying. And that’s where we get to the crux of positive discipline. Instead of telling children what we DON’T want them to do, tell them what we DO want them to do. If your child is banging his spoon on the table, you can say, “Stop banging your spoon” till you’re blue in the face. Little is likely to change. But if instead, you say, “Please use your spoon to take a bite,” chances are much more likely that the banging will stop. If a child is leaning on a gate that can’t take the weight, instead of saying, “Stop leaning on the gate,” try saying “please stand up straight and tall.” You might then add how they CAN touch the gate: “I’d like you just to touch that gate softly.”
This method of positive discipline is fantastic for several reasons: first, because it’s nicer for children to go through life not feeling like they’re “bad” or doing things wrong. Second, it’s nicer for us as caregivers to be able to concentrate on positive things the children are doing (or could be doing), which increases our enjoyment of them. But the main reason that positive discipline is so great is that it is so much more effective than traditional methods of discipline. I had a mentor when I first started working in early childhood who explains. She said that the reason it’s so much more effective is because we think in pictures. We all think in pictures, and children much more so than adults. So she gave this example:
If I say to you, “Don’t run out in the street," what’s the image that comes into your head? (Stop: what’s the image that came into your head? Of someone running out into the street, right?) But how about if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” What image comes into your head this time? Someone walking straight along the sidewalk, right? Now if the images are that strong to us as adults, imagine how strong it is for children.
That’s why, when we say to a child, “Don’t jump in the puddle,” she is likely to immediately go over and jump in the puddle. Then we get angry: “What did I just say?!” And she looks up at us with a sweet, puzzled face and says, “Don’t jump in the puddle.” “Yes! So why did you jump in the puddle?” And she can’t answer. Well, the answer is that we put that image in her head. The modifier “don’t” doesn’t mean much to young children. But if we had seen the puddle and instead said, “Please walk carefully around the puddle,” we’re much more likely to get the result we want, and enjoy our child’s company that much more.
Positive Discipline for How to Use Things
When it comes to how we treat things in our environment, we never realize how many rules there are about things until we have a toddler in our care. The floor lamp should stay upright. The toilet paper should stay rolled up. The trash should stay in the trash can. Almost everything has rules attached to it. Even toys that we get for the children have many more rules than we realize: just wait till a child throws a block at you instead of stacking it. So, if a 24-month-old child throws a block, there are two things you could say: first, you could say what you DO want them to do with the block: “Those blocks are for stacking." You can follow this up with a physical prompt: "Let's stack them together.” Move in and start stacking blocks. Or second, you could talk about what they CAN throw: “You can throw soft balls. Where IS a ball?” I always keep a basket of soft balls in my play room for children to throw. As children begin to mature, you can allow the child to show his mastery of the rules: “Blocks are for stacking. But what can you throw?” A two-year-old will happily exclaim, “Soft balls!” And with very little prompting, he will then run happily over to the ball basket. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of times, toddlers are not “breaking the rules.” They are simply in the process of learning impulse control. They know what they’re allowed throw when you ask them, but they can’t think of it before they throw something else. Only through practice and maturity will they be able to move to that level. If we remember that we are helping them learn this important skill as we “practice” it with them over and over, we can work on transforming annoyance into compassionate understanding as toddlers learn the rules about how we handle different objects.
Children have natural urges to throw, climb, run, and yell. It’s important to have areas where each of these things is appropriate. I am very sensitive to loud noises, so for me, yelling is allowed by the fence at the back of my property. If a child yells inside, I’ll remind them, “You can yell out by the gate. Inside, please speak in a soft voice.” If they have trouble speaking in a soft voice, you might give them a more attractive option (distraction) by singing a song or reciting a nursery rhyme that goes along with their activity: “To market to market to buy a fat pig. Home again home again, jiggity jig. To market to market to buy a fat hog. Home again home, again jiggety jog. To market to market to buy a plum bun. Home again home again, market is done.”
Positive Dicipline for Interacting with Others
So how does this work in terms of what we often think of as “discipline?” If a child in your care is hitting another child, for example, how do you use positive discipline? Well, it’s largely the same. (more here.)
When Our First Try Doesn't Work
And what if it “doesn’t work?” What if your child is banging his spoon on the table, and you ask him to use it to take a bite, and this has no effect? What then? Well, in that case there are two things to do: first, distraction, and second, consequences. Which comes when? In general, distraction is preferable for young children, but it depends on the situation, and on the age of the child, and how often the behavior occurs. If 14-month-old Gregory is banging his spoon, you would start with, “You can use your spoon to take a bite!” Wait a beat. “Where IS a bite for your spoon?” Wait another beat. “Is there a piece of carrot in your bowl?” Then we simply take the spoon away and hand him his sippy cup to distract him. We know he's a baby and has very little impulse control. It doesn't annoy us in the same way that it would if a two-and-a-half year-old were doing it, for example. So here’s how the situation looked the other day at Rainbow Bridge with 28-month-old Jude. He loves to bang his spoon, and we’ve been through this many times. I know he’s not easily distracted, so I move on to consequences much more quickly:
Jude bangs his spoon on the table. I say, “Please use your spoon to take a bite!” The banging continues. “That spoon is just for eating,” I say. “ If you can’t use it to take a bite, I will hold it until you’re ready.” The banging continues. “Ok, I’ll take it.” I take the spoon. Jude puts up a howl. I say, “This spoon is just for taking bites. Are you ready to take a bite with it?” He quickly says yes, and I give him back the spoon. He takes a bite with it, and I give him some positive feedback. “That’s right! You’re using your spoon to take a bite!” A few minutes later, he has forgotten, and the urge to bang comes over him again. I feel a flash of annoyance. I transform my annoyance into compassion: “You love banging that spoon on the table." But the compassion doesn't change the expectation, so I follow it up with, "But, it’s just for taking bites.” Banging continues. I calmly take it away. Jude howls: “No! I take bites!” I say, compassionately, “This time you’ll have to wait for a little bit. It’s hard for you to remember today, huh?” I take two or maybe three bites of my food, then turn to Jude and say, “Are you ready to use your spoon just for taking bites?” He agrees. Since he’s two-and-a-half, I know he’s old enough for an additional consequence, so I tell him (before giving the spoon back to him), “If you bang your spoon on the table again, I will take your spoon away for the rest of the meal. Do you understand?” He looks me in the eye and says yes. I give him back his spoon. A few minutes later, the banging starts again. I calmly state, “It looks like you’re done with your spoon,” and I take it away. Jude sets up a real howl. I work again to turn my annoyance into compassion: “That's a real disappointment, huh.” Then I try for distraction: “I’m thirsty. I think I’ll take a drink of water.” On another day, he might take a drink of water, but today he won’t be distracted. “I want my spoon. I take bites. I take bites,” he tells me earnestly. “You’ll have to use your spoon to take bites next time,” I tell him compassionately. “This time, the spoon is all done.” After waiting for a minute to let this sink in, I pour on the distraction: “Listen! Do you hear a bus?” And with that, I start singing: “The wheels on the bus go up and down, up and down…”
Now, it occurs to me that if I had been more on top of things, or gotten more sleep the night before, or been in a better mood, I might have been savvy enough to bring out The Wheels On the Bus much earlier, and we might have avoided the scene altogether. Then again, Jude really loves banging his spoon, so it might have only put it off for a few minutes. I turn my compassion on myself for a minute. What could we do that would distract Jude, but be more enjoyable for me than the 1,000th rendition of The Wheels on the Bus? "Do you want to hear a story about when I was a little girl?" I ask Jude. He nods enthusiastically. "Yes!" he says.