Parenting is no easy task but it's definitely one of the most important and most rewarding jobs a person can ever have. Many parents struggle to find the parenting style that's right for them as well as their child, especially when it comes to discipline.
According to Deanna Pledge, Ph.D., "social types" of encouragement and praise such as a nod, smile, high-five, wink, hug, kiss, clap, cheer and verbal affirmations “can lead to a life-long love of learning, increased creativity, explorative activities, research and critical thinking skills.” Other forms of social praise come in the form of spending time doing something with your child that she enjoys, such as going to the park or going for a walk together. In contrast, Pledge says, “tangible” praise or rewards such as money, cars, clothing and the like, “can work against a child’s intrinsic ability to become motivated.”
Here are some tips on how you can reinforce desired behaviors, using positive discipline while fostering a mutually respectful and cooperative relationship with your child.
- Encouragement and praise are important in different ways. Encouraging participation, effort, and improvement can contribute to a child’s love of life-long learning and intrinsic motivation, which can also increase her willingness to explore — this is an aspect of confidence. From this, Dr. Pledge says, a child develops a healthy expectation that she can be successful. Praise is an important part of this development as it helps a child to see herself as confident, receiving approval, and she is in turn, more likely to repeat the given behavior. Pairing encouragement and praise with one another will ultimately lead a child to require less external or extrinsic motivation. So, it's important to recognize and encourage your child’s attempts to ride a bike without training wheels in addition to praising him when he masters riding without your help.
- Praise should be as specific as possible. Specific feedback is more meaningful and effective and can strengthen your child’s self-esteem. Instead of always saying, “Good job”, Dr. Pledge recommends offering more detailed feedback about the behavior, such as, “I like how playing so nicely with your sister,” or “It makes me feel good when you use good manners.”
- Praise or correction should be given immediately with regards to the behavior it's associated with. This is especially true for younger children who have a harder time paying attention for extended periods of time or difficulty with self-monitoring. Dr. Pledge explains that by telling her the behavior is positive or negative as soon as the behavior takes place, you are helping your child understand what you are talking about more clearly. And for younger kids, keep the message clear and simple, illustrating when possible. For example, rather than saying, “Don’t pet the puppy so hard!” you can say, “We pet the puppy gently, like this” and take your child’s hand in yours and show her exactly what you mean.
- Make a distinction between the child and the behavior. This means conveying the message that “I care about you but don’t like your behavior.” Again, this is particularly important for very young children to understand. Dr. Pledge adds that you should explain to your child that you want to help her do better in the task at hand and reassure her that you and he are on the same team, even though it may not feel like it right now. By doing this, you enable your child to be more vulnerable and open to feedback without feeling attacked
- Behavior/incentive charts can be a valuable part of the discipline process if done correctly. Many parents have difficulties being consistent or make the common mistake of listing too many items on the chart. Dr. Pledge has seen many busy parents unintentionally forget to follow through with these kinds of charts, which defeats the whole purpose. But, to be successful, it is essential to check in daily and accumulate your child’s progress at the end of the week. The key is to start small, with one or two key items on the list, moving on or adding one or two new things only once your child has mastered the original list. You may need to go back and reinforce certain behaviors until your child gets it down pat. The promise of spending time together at the playground, letting your child choose what game to play for family game night, or something else that your child finds appealing will increase your child’s ownership of the chart. The more involved the child feels in the chart, the more motivated she'll be to utilize it and take action accordingly. Remember, the goal of having these charts is to reinforce positive behaviors, so it's important that children not receive negative consequences for not achieving a goal.
- Get your child's teachers involved in the process. It may be feasible, Dr. Pledge suggests, to ask your child’s school to get involved and help with the chart while your child is away from home. Establish checkpoints with teachers throughout the day and keep a copy of the chart in the classroom. Faculty members are apt to be receptive, particularly if it involves respect, self-monitoring, and other behaviors that will help your child succeed in school. Another way to connect with your child is to talk to her about her behavior that day in the car on the way home from school or to and from extracurricular activities. By the time kids are in upper elementary and middle school grades, they are capable of self-reporting either verbally or by recording how they are doing each day in personal planners.
- Give your child choices within limits. What should you do when your child wants something that is not permissible, such as ice cream for breakfast? “It depends on how flexible you want to be,” Dr. Pledge states, “but yogurt might be a close substitute.” You might offer your child one or two appropriate choices such as: "I know you want ice cream, but that’s not good for breakfast. You can have oatmeal or eggs instead, which one would you like?" By still giving your child a choice, even if it's not the choice she wanted in the first place, she won't feel as if something's being taken away from her. She'll still feel like she has ownership over her actions. If a child isn't easily dissuaded or redirected, a power struggle may ensue, but you can always fall back on "natural consequences." Specifically, if the child does not choose from the acceptable choices, she might end up being hungry that morning. The use of "natural consequences" often seems harsh, but if things progress beyond the child responding to the choices given, it can be and effective way for children to understand the results of their choices.
- Empower your child to communicate and problem-solve. When your younger child acts out or throws a tantrum, it's important that you sit down and talk with her calmly. Put your arm around her. It's important that she sees and senses that you are not reacting to her outburst with an outburst of your own. Balance out the emotional atmosphere with calm. If she has acquired enough language, encourage your child to use her words to express how and why she's feeling the way she is. Ask your child how you can help her regain composure and resolve the situation at hand. Understanding what caused your child to behave a certain way can help lead to a solution and correction in the behavior.
- Use punitive methods sparingly and with caution. Social isolation such as “time-outs," removal of privileges and other types of punishment may not only be ineffective, but they can also damage a child’s self-esteem and physical well-being. Pledge states that, “by taking soccer practice away from a highly active child, for example, you are removing an important outlet for your child’s energy.” Moreover, yelling, berating, blaming and teasing will not promote a healthy relationship with your child.
Along with loving your child unconditionally, spending frequent time together, being a good listener, and being a good role model, applying the strategies talked about above can go a long way towards creating happy and healthy family relationships.
Deanna Pledge, Ph.D., is in private practice, specializing in creative and positive psychology. She is also an author and adjunct faculty member at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Stephens College.