There are many different ways to discipline a child. Often, we start out with the strategies we remember from our own childhood. Then, we may turn to advice from fellow parents. And finally, we stumble through trial and error as we learn what works directly from our children.
Discipline styles vary along a spectrum, from the heavy-handed authoritarian (“it’s my way or the highway”) approach, to the hands-off permissive (“oh, sweetie, I wish you wouldn’t do that”) approach. Usually, when one parent tips too far towards one end of the spectrum, the other parent retreats to the opposite end. In my work, I describe it as the “parenting seesaw” of discipline styles. Problems occur when either parent moves too close to the edge of the seesaw. The result of either extreme is an increase in negative behaviors from the child, making both authoritarian and permissive parents feel ineffective.
Positive guidance strategies move us closer to the center of the seesaw, towards a more balanced, cooperative parenting style. A cooperative approach includes clear, consistent limits, appropriate to the age and developmental level of the child, and the ability to share power whenever possible. It takes time and patience to figure out how to share power with children without feeling like you are losing control of any given situation. Funny enough, that’s how children feel too. If they never experience a “win,” they will fight every limit parents set. If they see you will compromise when you can, they are more willing to work with you to find a common solution.
Dr. Ross Greene in his book, “The Explosive Child,” encourages parents to sort a child’s challenging behaviors into three baskets, according to how critical it is to change the behavior. Basket “A” is for non-negotiable, safety concerns when you don’t mind enduring the meltdown. Basket “C” is for negligible arguments that aren’t worth the battle. And Basket “B” is for teaching children critical compromise and negotiation skills. Basket “B” is where we practice the balanced approach of a cooperative parenting style. The goal is not to force a child to give in and get what you want. The goal is to find a compromise you can both accept. An added benefit is that you will be teaching your children how to solve problems and resolve conflict effectively.
How do you recognize when you’ve strayed too far away from the balanced approach? If you have threatened or bribed your child to do what you want and you don’t feel good about it, you are at the authoritarian end. If you are so frustrated that you have thrown up your hands and your house resembles the novel, “Lord of the Flies,” you are at the permissive end. To regain balance, take a deep, cleansing breath and see if you can find a mutually-beneficial solution to the situation at hand. What does your child want? What do you want? Where is the compromise that works for both of you? It’s hard to balance at the center of a seesaw, but the opportunity to teach life-long skills through your caring, positive discipline approach is well worth the effort.
Heidi Emberling, MA
Early Childhood Parent Education Specialist