You survived the newborn days, and life with baby is rolling along smoothly. They are full of belly laughs, find delight in just about everything, and their biggest complaints are easily whisked away with a clean diaper, a snuggle, and some milk. As you push your easy-going babe in the swing at the park, you notice the toddler hitting her mom and think, “Wow, what’s wrong with that devil child? Glad it’s not mine.”
And then it hits. One day you pick your beautiful baby up to put on her shoes, only to have the shoe thrown in your face with a big fat “No!” coming out of those precious lips. When we recover from the shock, we see the smiling face of a blossoming toddler who has discovered she has some power in this world. And she’s not afraid to use it.
What happened? Somewhere between six and ninth months old, babies learn they are actually a separate being from their parents. They see their caregivers coming and going, realizing that mom still exists even if she is not in the room. Babies spend the next year building confidence in their own identity, mastering new skills such as walking, talking and feeding themselves. They begin to understand that your wants are not always their wants, and their wants are not always yours.
As they move towards age two, they are ready to let you know, loud and proud, just how many opinions they have on how they would like their day to go. As they reach three, many parents fear their little beauty has turned into a tyrannical beast ready to destroy the planet if they are not given the blue cup at lunch. It’s in the dishwasher? Who cares? They are launching a shock and awe campaign and we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What’s a parent to do?
Step One: Laugh, cry, and realize that every single parent has been in your shoes at one time or another. Even those of us who specialize in supporting parents have our own kids who went through this challenging developmental stage. We too were exhausted beyond words by the end of the day, doubting ourselves, wondering if we have given birth to a sociopath. We too survived it, and so will you.
Step Two: Remind yourself that this is absolutely normal behavior. This early defiance is a sign your child is growing and developing the skills to navigate their world. It would be nice if we could raise our kids to always do exactly what we want, but assert themselves whenever needed out in the real world. It doesn’t work that way. Your home is the safest place in the world for them to practice saying no, speaking up about their wants and needs, and testing limits of behavior. They will continue to practice these skills with their most trusted caregivers for many years to come. If you still doubt that an hour meltdown over the wrong color plate is normal, give your own parents a call. I am sure they would be delighted to remind you.
While your child may believe all their wants and needs reign supreme, their defiance is only one piece of the learning that needs to happen. They also need to learn that they live in a family system and in a community where other have wants and needs, and theirs cannot always come first. This is the sticky spot where I see parents struggle. They know they need to help their child learn about patience, respect, kindness, and empathy, but they have no idea how to do that in the face of such defiance.
Step Three: Understand discipline. When most people think of discipline, they think of punishment: something they can do to a child to get the child to cooperate. That's what was done to us as kids, and we turned out fine, right? Let’s go a little deeper.
Think of your favorite teacher growing up, a favorite boss, a mentor or coach, someone who supported you and helped you along the way. Either in your head or on paper, think about what it was that made you care so much about that person, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. What did they do? How did they talk to you? What was supportive? How did they teach you? And lastly, what did they do when you screwed up?
When I ask people these questions, I often hear that this inspiring person believed in them, trusted them, and spoke respectfully to them. They gave clear guidelines and expectations, and gave them tools needed to do the job. When people screwed up, this person didn’t yell, didn’t shame, and didn’t take away random things unrelated to the problem. They didn’t withdraw their love, support, and kindness by sending you off to sit by yourself. In fact, they often did the opposite. They said things like, “Wow, that didn’t go as planned. How are you feeling about it?” and “Oh man, I have been in your shoes before, I know it’s really hard.” They asked, “What do you need to do to fix this problem?” Most importantly they conveyed respect and trust at a time when we felt so bad about ourselves by saying things like, “I know this is hard, and I believe in you. I have seen you make it through challenges before and I know you will get through this one too,” and, “I trust you and know you will fix the problem when you are ready. I am here for support if you need me.”
Discipline comes from the Latin word Disciplina which means to teach or impart knowledge. Discipline is not about doing to someone, it’s about sharing wisdom. Wisdom about giving and taking, respect and dignity, helping, caring, responsibility, not things we can teach in one interaction or one moment with our child. The mentors, teachers and guides who really influenced us shared their wisdom. They didn’t need to shame or punish. They believed that we could get through it and that helped us believe in ourselves. That’s the kind of discipline that is most effective with our children.
Step Four. Fill Your Discipline Tool Bag. When parents are ready to learn about discipline, it’s because they are feeling the growing pains of their child’s independence. While knowing their behavior is normal and understanding what discipline really means is great, years of this work have taught me that parents are craving the how to- What exactly do I do in the face of this defiant little imp smiling and shouting, “NO!”
While there are many strategies that parents can use, here’s three early discipline strategies to get you started:
Prevention. While those early defiant behaviors may come out of nowhere, you can do a lot to minimize them in the future by planning ahead. Meltdowns are more frequent when a child is hungry, tired, in a new environment or adjusting to a change in routine. Come to think of it, most of my own meltdowns happen at those times as well.
Get into detective mode and see if you can figure out what may have triggered the defiance and see if it’s preventable next time. If they are obsessed with the TV remote control, you can get an old one from a thrift shop, bleach the heck out of it, and they can play away. Or find a new location to keep the remote out of site. If it’s the blue colored plate that’s an issue, teach your child how to hand wash it after meals, or let them know well before mealtime it won’t be available. If sharing toys is a problem, help them pick three special toys to put away before a play date that they will not be expected to share.
Routines also fit into the prevention category. They can be used for all sorts of challenges besides morning and bedtime.
Redirection. This is an effective strategy at just about any age, but because little ones are so in the moment, it's a great one to learn how to use well. I recommend these steps if time allows. Obviously safety issues are going to be a much swifter redirect.
1) Reflect what you see: “I see you pulling the cat’s tail.” or “I see you throwing your food on the floor.”
2) Show empathy: “Kitty is so soft and fluffy, it looks like you really enjoy petting her.” or “You are really mad that I took your plate away and you want it back!”
3) State why it's a problem for you, one statement, no guilt or shame: “When we pull our cat’s tail in can hurt her.” or “When we throw food on the floor, no one can eat it and it has to go in the garbage.
4) State what you want them to do instead: “Let’s pet kitty on her back, that will feel better to her.” or “Food goes in your mouth or stays on the table.”
5) When they repeat the behavior, repeat what you said in step four. Keep in mind that telling your kid what to do instead of what not to do can make a huge difference in their cooperation. Saying, "don't pull the cat's tail" only reminds them of that fluffy thing begging to be pulled.
Ignore The Behavior. Some defiance is better left ignored. I can hear you saying, “But then they are just getting away with it!” The truth is, we teach our kids a lot about how to connect with us by what we give our attention to. I am reminded of the days when my oldest discovered she could squeal. A high-pitched, deafening sound, we were sure it called to every animal within a five-mile radius. A few minutes later, she did it again. We were out of the room, and came in immediately to see what the heck she was doing. She was absolutely delighted with herself and learning quick. She knew that when she made that noise, it got attention right away.
The next three days were filled with these brain-scrambling sounds. Each time I would ask her to do it quieter. It took me that long to realize that I was providing feedback every time she did this and that she would keep doing it as long as it got attention. Thus began my fascination with the power of ignoring annoying, but harmless behaviors. If it’s not hurting anyone, in the words of Disney’s Elsa, “Let It Go.”
Prevention, redirection and ignoring the behavior are just a few of the tools that can fill our toolbox. The truth is, discipline is less about doing and more about being. Being present, engaged, connected and forgiving. It takes a lot of mistakes in childhood to grow into a functioning adult. While it may be exhausting, the defiance and testing is all part of their learning process.
Our ability to use respectful discipline strategies like these depends on one very important thing: self-care. When we are exhausted, worn out, and can’t remember who we are outside of being a parent, it is incredibly difficult to respond with calm instead of just reacting with anger. Taking time to ourselves and making sure our own needs are getting met, put us in a better place to pass a lifetime of wisdom along to our children.