It can be pretty easy to be a good parent when your kids are behaving. The hard part comes when their actions are unacceptable to you.
If setting your kids straight is a challenge, it may be time to make changes, especially if the techniques that you inherited from your own parents aren’t creating the results you want.
“The process takes awareness, commitment and practice,” said Sal Severe, a school psychologist and author of “How to Behave So Your Children Will Too!” (Greentree, 1997, $21.95) (www.howtobehave.com)
Start by redefining discipline. It’s not punishment, experts say, but teaching.
“I much prefer the term ‘guidance’ to ‘discipline.’ It alerts parents to the purpose of their actions — helping their child learn self-regulation,” said Dr. Peter Gorski, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and head of WellChild, a Boston-based child development program.
Sure, your child is going to explore the limits of physical and social behavior at times. But if you want him to do it within the bounds, use your authority, smartly and consistently, to teach him how.
“From the earliest ages, a child can experience the positive feelings that come from learning to respect boundaries,” said Gorski, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatric Medicine’s National Committee on Early Childhood and Adoption.
Once a child develops the skills of self-discipline, the benefits carry on well beyond the home. “The ability to relate comfortably to peers and adults, to show responsibility and to regulate one’s emotions and behavior are much more accurate predictors of success in school than intelligence alone,” Gorski said.
“Think of it as ‘emotion coaching,’” said Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, an educator, counselor and author. Her latest book is “Kids, Parents and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime,” (HarperCollins, 2000, $23.)
“Yes, you set the limits, but you don’t stop there,” Sheedy said. “Help your children identify and understand what emotions they’re experiencing, what their needs are, how to express themselves and how to get those needs met respectfully and appropriately. In that way, you teach kids self-discipline and self-control by enhancing their emotional intelligence.”
As a parent who just wants to get some sleep, you might not be thinking in those terms when your 2-year-old wakes you up at 5 a.m., for example. But rather than getting into a shouting match that will surely keep both of you up, try to figure out what your child really needs at that moment, said Kurcinka.
One mother told Kurcinka that once she realized her son didn’t really want to be up and about, but that he just needed to connect with her and feel comfortable, she was able to provide that sense of security by responding to him gently for a few minutes.
And both of them ended up fast asleep for another two hours, Kurcinka said.
With issues like sleep, it’s not a matter of shutting the child down, but opening him up. Something is going on that blocks sleep, said Kurcinka, and you want to do your best to find out. For one of her clients, sleep disturbance came about after the death of a grandparent; for another it was the result of a major growth spurt that no one realized was taking place until weeks later.