In Part 2 of this series, I posed the question, “How do we get our children to behave, and enforce limits and teach lessons when they do misbehave, without using force or punishment?” Here’s the answer.
- We continually and patiently teach what is right, lovingly reminding our child over and over, just as our Father does with us, until the lesson takes root in the heart (doesn’t it seem that we hear the same messages over and over during General Conference or in our lessons at church?).
- With lots of empathy and connection, we set necessary limits (to ensure safety and to protect people’s rights and property), and we remain firm on the things that matter (rather than giving in and changing our mind when our kids don’t like the limits we set. They are free to feel however they feel about the limits, but if it’s a limit worth setting, it’s important to remain firm. Allow and empathize with feelings; limit behavior).
- We offer choices, each of which are acceptable to us, and allow our child to choose.
- We enlist our child as a partner in problem solving, finding win-win solutions when our priorities and agendas don’t align.
- We help our child repair and make amends when necessary. See this post to find out how.
- We use our greatest parenting tool (our “magic wand,” as Dr. Markham calls it) – connection – to influence our child for good. (I love the saying, “connect before you correct.”) When our children feel connected to us they are more likely to comply with our requests.
- And perhaps most importantly, we model correct behavior for our children, even (or rather, especially) in the way we discipline them. If we don’t want our child to yell or hit to solve problems, then neither can we. If we want them to listen to us, we must listen to them. If we want them to treat others how they would want to be treated, then we must empathize with them and treat them how we would want to be treated.
Some of these things are things that need to be done on a consistent basis to prevent misbehavior as much as possible, and some of these things are things we can do in the moment when our children do misbehave. It can be really helpful to have a specific go-to plan in the heat of the moment when our children misbehave so that we don’t simply resort to punishment. So let’s look at a few of these guidance and teaching tools in a little more detail.
Setting and Enforcing Limits with Empathy (AKA Kind and Firm)
After the limit has already been set once: “The rule at the park is that the sand stays in the pit. It’s not for throwing. Throwing sand hurts people. Right now it seems it’s too hard for you to leave the sand in the pit, so we’ll have to try again another time. It’s time to go home now… I know this is hard, Sweetie. You wish you could keep playing. We’ll come back and try again another time. Now, would you rather race me to the car or jump on my back for a piggy-back ride?”
Isn’t this just a consequence? In a way, yes! The consequence of leaving the sand in the pit is that everyone is safe and able to enjoy playing. The consequence of throwing sand is that it gets in people’s eyes and hurts them, which means that the parent (whose job it is to ensure safety) must step in and enforce the limit (that sand stays in the pit and is not for throwing) so that everyone stays safe. Enforcing the limit means that the parent doesn’t allow the child to continue a behavior if it is dangerous or destructive or harmful. If the child is able to stop the negative behavior with just a reminder of the rule, or limit, then that’s enough. If not, as in this example, then enforcing the limit might mean removing the child from the situation. Removing the child is not a punishment because it’s not being done out of retribution or to cause pain or suffering, but rather to keep everyone safe when the child is unable to maintain safety himself. This is enforcing a limit with empathy. (Don’t forget the empathy! In fact, this may be most effective if the parent were to begin by joining with the child and seeing the situation from his perspective, such as, “Wow! That sand came down like rain! And Sweetie, I can’t let you throw sand because…” (Note the “and”… I’ve heard it said that when we use “but” rather than “and,” everything before the “but” sounds like a lie or like it’s really not important to you. “And” is much more effective when setting limits with empathy).
Won’t this just encourage more sand throwing? Not if we calmly and kindly set clear and firm limits and give reasons why the behavior has to stop. And if possible, it’s very effective and always a wonderful idea to offer an acceptable alternative – we can’t throw sand, but we can throw the dead leaves up and watch them rain down).
I think it’s important and only fair that we communicate to our children what the rules are, as well as the reasons for the rules and the attached consequences that follow if they break the rules (e.g. “We will only be able to stay and play at the park as long as everyone follows the safety rules.” and then explain the rules). This will help them to know what is expected and to use that knowledge when they choose their actions. This obviously doesn’t mean that they will always choose wisely – they are humans, and immature ones at that. Their impulse control is very underdeveloped. But clear communication is important in peaceful parenting, because it’s the respectful thing to do – rather than simply, “because I said so.”
When Adam and Eve, our first parents, were in the Garden of Eden, God told them explicitly that they may eat freely of the fruit of any tree in the Garden except one. He also told them that if they did eat of the fruit of that tree, then they “should surely die” (see Moses 3:17). We know how the story goes. They did choose to eat the fruit (for which I’m eternally grateful! Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “It was Eve who first transgressed the limits of Eden in order to initiate the conditions of mortality. Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life. Adam showed his wisdom by doing the same. And thus Eve and “Adam fell that men might be” (2 Ne. 2:25).” Read his full talk here. Also check out this great talk).
And with their choice came consequences.
The consequences were death – both physical (eventually) and spiritual – as well as the ability to have children, and the obligation to work to provide for their needs. These things could not take place in the Garden, for their transgression meant that they were consigned to a fallen state. The Lord enforced His limit (that they may only live forever in the Garden if they would refrain from eating the forbidden fruit) by sending them out into the world, where they would be subject to pain and sickness and death. This might sound harsh, but I believe it was done with love and tenderness, with the promise of divine help.
(This example is a little different from most in that, although Adam and Eve did transgress the limit God had set, it was not a sin, but rather the choice they made in an impossible situation. No matter what they had done they would have broken a commandment (either partake of the forbidden fruit or never multiply and replenish the earth), and so they sacrificed their security and chose to keep the more important commandment. Heavenly Father understood this and knew what needed to happen, but He still had to follow through with the limit and allow the consequences, in order for the plan to unfold.)
So Heavenly Father set the limit (eat all the fruit you want except for this fruit, or else you will die), He allowed the natural consequences, both good and bad (hard work and pain and death, posterity and the continuation the plan, etc.), and He enforced the limit with love (requiring their departure from the Garden and their subsequent separation from Him, with the promise of a Savior and the opportunity to repent and return to Him (see Moses 5:9)).
It’s also important to note that when setting the limit He allowed them their choice – which is our next tool.
“You didn’t mean to spill your drink, I know. Accidents happen. And the rule is we always clean up our messes. We’ll do it together. Would you like the blue rag or the gray one?”
Humans are autonomous beings. As we grow out of infancy we innately feel the drive and the need to do things for ourselves and to make our own choices. We also naturally push back against force and control. Maybe we remember on some level how important the gift of agency is.
But of course we know that we can’t let our young children make all of their own choices, because that wouldn’t be safe or responsible. We can, however, give them as many choices as possible. We can relinquish control over the things that don’t really matter (which cup they use, whether their outfit matches perfectly, etc.). And even with the things that do matter it is often possible to find a way to offer choices and give our kids some say (“We need to go home so I can start making dinner. Should we leave now, or in three minutes? Three minutes? Okay, when the timer goes off I’ll race you to the car.”). This is especially important and helpful when parenting strong-willed children. The key is to only offer options that work for you, so that everyone will be happy no matter what the child chooses. Then, when you need make a decision and you need your child’s cooperation, you will able to say, “I let you make lots of choices, don’t I? Now its my turn to choose. Thank you for understanding, Sweetie.”
“I see that we have a problem here: I hear you arguing because Kayla wants to play with dolls but Addie wants to build with blocks. I wonder how you could solve this problem so that Kayla is happy and Addie is happy… What ideas do you both have? …Building a house out of blocks for the dolls is a great idea! What else?”
Teaching children the skill of problem solving and finding win-win solutions is something that will serve them well their whole lives. (Check out this article for more ways to prevent fighting between siblings.) Problem solving works well in the parent-child relationship too — just because we’re bigger and older and it’s our job to teach our kids, doesn’t mean that we need to order them around or leave them out of finding solutions.
For example, “You want to get back to playing right now, and that doesn’t work for me because I need you to clear your dishes from the table right now so that I can do the dishes. I wonder how we can solve this so that I can get to the dishes and you can get back to playing right away? What can we do so that you’re happy and I’m happy?”
These tools work – if we are calm and kind when we use them. Calming ourselves when our children are uncooperative or misbehaving is always the first step. Pick one of these tools and try it! (For more alternatives to punishment, see this article. There are several different ways to guide and teach, because different tools work best at different times for different people, and it can change with age or circumstance. So don’t feel like you have to use all of them, all the time. Just find what works best for you and your child, and try different tools as necessity arises.) This certainly requires more thinking on our part, but I can assure you that the more we practice (including the essential step of calming ourselves), the easier it gets, and with enough practice it becomes second nature.