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“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Carol Buchner
My princess at one-year-old.

How to Discipline without Spanking

Acknowledge where the behavior is coming from, why the child is acting out.

Nothing happens in a vacuum; there is always a root cause of a blow up even if it’s not immediately apparent. If you can teach your child to figure out where the emotion is coming from, that’s a first step to avoiding fits of rage later. It takes a long time and a lot of patience, but working through it verbally will help your kiddo figure out how to say what is bothering them instead of kicking and screaming about it. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey, so don’t get overwhelmed if they are four and still having the occasional fit. That’s normal!

Give your child the option of Time “In” or Time “Out”.

I’ve found that my presence in my daughter’s cool out time can sometimes make it worse, but sometimes it’s that little reminder that mommy still loves her and it’s ok that she’s having big feelings. At this point, I like to give her the option to have some alone time or for me to stay with her while she processes so that it doesn’t feel like I’m just abandoning her when she’s upset.

Tell your child as plainly as you can what the inappropriate behavior is, why it’s unacceptable, set the boundary, have the child repeat if possible.

You don’t remember having to learn small lessons like “don’t kick your sister” or “don’t run in the parking lot,” but you did. Kids are brand new people and there is so much to learn about how to act in social situations, how to keep yourself safe, and how to care for yourself and others, it’s gotta be so overwhelming. Remember that an error is an opportunity to talk about something that is important. What works for me is a short and sweet breakdown of what the bad behavior is, why it’s not ok, that I expect her to follow this rule or we will have to do a time out, and then I have her repeat it back in her own language to make sure she understands what I’m saying (all kids tend to zone out when they are getting in “trouble”). You might have to repeat this process for the same thing every couple of weeks, that’s totally normal, just remember that it’s a learning process for them and it’s important that you keep your cool.

Remember that the goal is not to control your child, but to teach appropriate behaviors.

In my opinion, a lot of the anger directed at children come from the desire to control children’s behavior instead of helping them learn what’s appropriate, how to self-regulate, and safety concerns. We all have these moments, raising kids is hard work, but it’s important to remember that when we seek control instead of helping our kids learn, we are more likely to react out of anger instead of exhibiting patience.

Remove your ego and admit when you’re wrong, you are supposed to model that good behavior first.

A large part of growing up involves recognizing when you have made a mistake and self-correcting, and you are the first model of that behavior for your child. If you are unable to say your sorry when you do something wrong, what makes you think you’ll be able to teach your children how to? Speak earnestly with your child when you do something wrong, and explain to them how you will work to fix that behavior in the future. You’ll find that if you do this consistently, it will be something they will be able to do with some practice, too. The apology from them might not always come immediately, but it will come when they are ready, and that time will shorten as they grow.

Find compromises when possible.

Treating your children with respect means seeking common ground as often as possible. No, we can’t always compromise on what needs to be done, but if we don’t negotiate when it’s reasonable to do so, we silently tell our kids that their opinions don’t matter and it makes them feel helpless in their own world. Now, I’m not all about rewarding bad behavior, but if something seems like a reasonable request and isn’t being demanded of me but asked politely, I’m all about making that compromise. Sure, we can have chicken tonight instead of pasta. Yes, we can stay at the park for ten more minutes since your friend just showed up and we’re not on a time crunch. There’s no need to be a tyrant if you don’t have to and compromising puts a serious dent in the number of arguments you are likely to have while giving your child the opportunity to learn to compromise from a trusted source, their parent.

Keep the rules consistent.

This one feels pretty obvious, but if a child has one set of rules at home, another with grandparents, and yet a third at the babysitters, they are bound to make mistakes and get angry about it. It’s unfair for so many opposing expectations to be on the table for a person who is just learning about rules and structure. Be sure you have a consistent set of rules and that you are communicating with everyone that watches your child about the importance of being consistent.

Teach freeze, “123”, and practice the whisper.

This is a game changer if you start it young. You can teach “freeze” by practicing it while you are walking around. As you take a walk in the neighborhood, practice by holding your child’s hand and saying “freeze” when you stop. Make it a game so they have fun remembering it. When you freeze, hold completely still in a funny pose and, when they are still, too, talk to them about how when you say freeze, you mean that they have to stop whatever they are doing and be absolutely still. As they grow, it can be a conversation about how “freeze” means the child is doing something dangerous and they need to stop immediately. Learning this will help you keep your cool in times when you might otherwise get so scared that your first response is to blow up, like a kid running close to the street or full speed towards a busy parking lot.

You can teach 123 by starting early with small issues, like if they won’t give something back that they are not supposed to have. “If you don’t give me my phone back by the time I count to three, you will go into time out/not get a story before bed/etc.” Practice it whenever you are having a situation where you’re feeling like they are not responding to your request, you’ll find that you rarely have to get to the 3 when they learn it.

I love the whisper technique for getting your child to pay attention to you, it even works with adults, as silly as it sounds. To do this you simply excitedly whisper “hey, I have to tell you something!” And then get into whatever you need to say. Example: “Hey, I need to share something with you! When you touch the puppy like that, it hurts him. You don’t like it when someone hurts you, right? Let’s use gentle hands with puppies.” It’s like a magic trick, the minute you whisper something to someone, they respond with a whisper and lean in to listen.

DO NOT humiliate your child.

For a while, there were a rash of videos of blatant child abuse masquerading as “brave parenting.” Recording a video of you shaving your little girl’s hair because they sassed you, setting up a temporary “jail” in your home for your preteen boy because he made a mistake and telling all of social media about it complete with pictures of his crying face, making your child stand out in traffic with an a-frame strapped to their chest for doing something without your permission…this is medieval activity, and it’s unacceptable. I take it further by trying my best not to punish or chastise my daughter in front of other people. It’s unnecessary, disrespectful, and humiliating. As often as possible, I try to take her to the side and tell her why something that she’s doing is unacceptable instead of giving an audience to her mistakes. I also expect that she will treat me with similar respect in front of others, so why wouldn’t I give that respect to her as well?

Take a time out if you need one before you blow up, remember that you are building a relationship based on trust and respect, and that can be hard when you are angry.

You can’t effectively parent if you’re in the process of losing your cool. You will not be your best self, you won’t use your best communication skills, and you might say or do something you regret if you insist on staying in the moment with your child while you are that angry. Give yourself a time out to get yourself together if you need to; take a moment to step out of the room (assuming the child is safe) and take some deep breaths while you count to ten. When you’re blood pressure is down and you feel like you can parent from a place of kindness and love while also setting appropriate boundaries, you can go back in.

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