Thursday, April 23, 2009

Discipline Strategy #453

After visiting with some girlfriends that all have kids just shy of three, I realized this group of ladies really has seen and tried it all in toddler world! We've been a hub for new product reviews, parenting methods, nutrition news, and our latest topic of mommy dilemma: toddler discipline! Although these women and their children are delightful and really quite behaved, the old "child management" corundum has come back full circle.

It seems that three becomes the magic number! Now the 438 discipline strategies that you may have tried out, that may have worked, are put to THE test. That being, the sneaky intelligent, holder of promises, fairness meter, and self proclaimed family authority... The Three Year Old! No longer, do gentle pleas for cooperation, mild threats, or parent power plays work on these mini Stephen Hawkings! It's as if they woke up one day, synapses' ablaze, decided that THEY will dictate their own lives with you standing there baffled and confused, holding a white flag for peace! Weak from battle, I decided it's now or never! I told my husband afterward that.. "..We must climb up to that family summit, stand firmly in place, and confidently display a new and improved parent team that will guide and nurture our pod to a place of peace and happiness!" Of course, he just laughed, rolled his eyes like I was crazy, and hesitantly agreed to be on board with whatever I thought would work. Which in husband language meant he'd be okay with me training him as well. Hey that's one step in the right direction!

Everything I have read, seen, and experienced tells me that the management strategy you choose when they are this age goes with you to that next teenage tantrum phase, except multiplied by loudness, headache, and consequence! I refuse to be a slave to my kids for the rest of my life, but especially when they are teens! So I keep trying out strategies until something works and makes sense to us all. Plus, I need something that will adapt as we all mature! Having the most "spirited" kid in that group of ladies and always feeling like a parenting underdog, I have to say that I have settled into a routine that kind of seems to be working. Better yet it seems to be improving more and more each week. During those "challenging times" where an angry, scary, mommy-monster used to live, a renewed calm and confident Mommy-Jedi, equipped with good lingo, fair rules, and consistent consequences, has blossomed in it's place!*

After sending my almost three year old out for some test runs at play dates and playgrounds, I have to say that I am pretty proud and pleased that this management style is working. Just weeks ago, I was yelling, bribing, threatening, breaking a sweat anytime we were around other kids, anxious in anticipation of something to go wrong, and now, well, now I am okay with whatever happens. Don't get me wrong they're still kids and we're still learning, but it's not as toxic anymore and we have rebuilt the support wall of our family!

For most of you, I am sure "cool and collected" is your middle name. You have sweet children that usually walk inside a pretty well behaved, cooperative line and allow you the room to parent with ease. But, just in case you are one of the few blessed with "spirited" children, lacking a parenting model that works, and are haunted by a mommy-monster when things get tough, I have laid out a few tips I have collected that may help smooth out some of the wrinkles in your day. I am just a mom trying anything to make life with my toddlers more enjoyable, cooperative, and peaceful; and love the opportunity to share what I have learned with you.

First step: Set the Expectation
We were going bonkers with anger, time-outs, punishment over this and that. Anything we saw unfit for our toddler to do, we reacted. I am sure our son thought his name was "Gentle Jake" as we constantly said "BE GENTLE Jake!". We had no set box of expectations for our son other than our subjective decisions on behavior for that day. In retrospect, I can see how confusing and ambiguous that must have been for such a little person trying to find his way through our big world. To boot, we weren't necessarily following the few rules we set for him. We expected him to use appropriate voice levels but yelled when we got upset. We expected him to be gentle but on occasion tried spanking. It was time for some concrete rules that made sense for him and for us. As an educator that was one of our first group activities, set rules and expectations that were fair and kept order in a respectful manner. Why it took me, as a parent, this long to put in place, I have no idea. So we came together and decided on 5 rules that would work for us. These five rules, we would ALL abide by. These rules are the ones that we stand our ground on, worthy of timeouts or consequence. Anything outside these rules we approach with dialogue but don't stake battle over. These rules reign supreme inside and outside our home. Feel free to sit down and come up with some that work for you and your family but below I listed the five we ended up on. We call them our "House Rules" in honor of The Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George who is constantly teaching my husband and I the importance of patient parenting!

Our House Rules:
Be Kind to Self and Others
No Hurting Self or Others
Respect Personal Space
No Yelling or Sassing
Use Words to Express Feelings

Once you establish rules you are comfortable with, post them proudly on the fridge or somewhere local and visible to your main hub; just in case you need to refresh yourself when mommy-monster tries to take over! Discuss these with your little guy and let him know what's going to happen from now on so everyone is in the loop. Most importantly make sure your partner is on board AND willing to participate with the new game plan. Kids can smell management differences and will play sides early.

Second Step: Clear and Consistent Consequences
This one gets more and more challenging the older they get. I think it has something to do with these little people starting to think for themselves. Uggh! We hit our low-low about two months ago when we hopelessly tried to get consequence through to our son. We were as successful as using your toes to eat with chopsticks! We were using timeouts, separation, negotiations, bribery, and finally spanking out of desperation. All that just seemed to escalate the tension, aggression, and continuation of this negative cycle.

So with strategy #425 we started rewarding positive behavior with stickers and a prize jar. We were on the right track. I drew up pictures of 5 objects he liked and once all five (whales) were topped with stickers he got to choose a prize from the jar. Hoping, he would get a prize every other day to keep the positive spirit alive. Then, (Thank you Nanny 911) we decided upon a new and improved time-out location. A neutral, localized area in the hub of our day space. We chose a little corner in our kitchen. With that set, we visited our local antique shop, got a little sturdy chair, and plopped it nicely in that corner. Prior to this transition, we were stopping in the middle of an episode, walking upstairs to his room, leaving our younger son downstairs with the gate locked, which he saw as punishment, all the while creating such a scene of drama and chaos that a tornado would stop still! Ridiculous! No point in buying nice face cream with stress like that around! Finally, we also got a LOUD, I mean LOUD, kitchen timer that can be heard anywhere in the house so I can leave the area and we all still know when the time-out is officially over. These simple transitions helped enormously!

There was just one small problem. Now that we had this new time-out strategy down, it seemed we were going bonkers overusing it. As if all that past tension was being taken out on this chair like the poor guys from Office Space beating the copy machine in the field!!! I once read that if your child is having more than two or three real time-outs a day you need to regroup. So I did and came up with a checks-and-balances system. I created a chart that shows how many time-outs "we" are at during any point in the day. Plus it, shows with simple pictures the progression of the consequences so everyone remembers what needs to happen with each broken house rule. Come up with whatever consequences work for you and your family. Just in case I have made you curious, here are ours.

Consequences for breaking a House Rule:
First Offense: Time out in chair 1 minute for each year of age = 3 minutes
Second X: Time out in chair AND no TV options until next time block
Third X: Time out in chair, still no TV, AND immediate separation from group for 15 minutes in room
Four X: Time out in chair, still no TV, AND one toy of MY choice will be taken as payment for the continuous disruption and given to a local charity (I haven't had to get to this one yet but we talk about it often)

Remembering that my son is only almost three, I chose to break up the day into three time blocks, hoping to give more opportunities for success and growth. So our day is broken up from 1)wake up to nap time, 2) post-nap to dinnertime, and 3) post-dinner to bedtime. This also helped for those days you just wake up grumpy and blow it all before breakfast.

With this in motion, our days have gotten a tremendous amount calmer!

Step 3: Break down the Lingo
This one is simple! Once you establish your rules and consequences start choosing words from those lists. Erase all those ambiguous generalizations from YOUR vocabulary. They will just get in the way. Break down the twenty minute explanations of your disappointments and expectations and replace that energy with re-iterating your rules and consequences. I tried this in desperation to get the rules quickly ingrained and not only did it click for my son but I empowered myself with a confidence to know what to say in those tricky situations. Now instead of pleading with him to be gentle because "the other boy is younger and didn't mean to cut in line and we shouldn't touch other people anyways and it's hot outside so you're probably just cranky and if he doesn't stop we are just going to go" and on and on .... I just say, "Jake remember the house rules. We don't hurt others." And if he does, he knows what to expect regardless of where we are. I have taken all the other synonyms for the words in our rules out of my mind and try to just use those same rule words over and over. Nice, good, gentle,...=KIND. Push, hit, bite,....=HURT. It seems to really be working. Plus, my husband is even picking up on it! This way of talking frees up so much energy that the fun mom can resurface! Before you know it, YOU will be that mom everyone envies at the park for being such a skilled mommy-Jedi!!!

Step 4: Rediscover your Parenting Philosophy
Three years might not seem like a long time in the big picture of this job, but from newborn to toddler to preschooler it has been trip to the moon and back! I started off so strong and grounded in the mother ideal I wanted to be that first year. Luckily, that was easy without much protest on babies' part. The second year I swayed back and forth trying to get a grasp on really what kind of parenting style would work best for our new team. In the third, I grew desperate trying anything that made some sense. I was holding on by a sippy cup, trying to remember all my great intentions and hopes I had for myself as a mother. Thankfully, I found my way back to the path that I wanted to be on all along!

This regrouping for you and your family, may be as simple as a trip to the coast or a good bond session with your mom. For me, with usual form, it was in a book. One mommy-monster day, I packed up the boys and headed out to Borders to pick up some suggested parenting books. Of course both tots were already fighting the double wide. As I pulled up to the "You think you Suck as a Parent" section of the store, the boys and I had a power struggle ensuing a scream-a-thon which then interrupted the lovely children's book reading right in front of us! Totally embarrassed, I just grabbed the first two books I saw and left. To my surprise upon getting home I had bought
Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. My cousin had actually recommended it because the entire school district that she teaches in required it as their suggested classroom management philosophy. I didn't expect too much more than the usual parenting methodologies, but after the first chapter I was hooked. It just made simple sense of my experiences. My the second chapter, I had completely stopped yelling! People, I am not lying when I say this, I haven't lost my cool since! Mommy-monster has taken a permanent nap! This philosophy worked for me, it may or may not for you. Whatever your intentions are with parenting, now is a great time to recollect and refresh! Let's face it, our kids are getting smarter by the second. We need to stay on top of our game so we can facilitate the growth they need to achieve their potential!

Step 5: Take care of YOU
Bottom line, everyone acts and feels better when mom is happy! So take that time to re-energize yourself! I don't mean clean your bathroom, I mean get a pedicure, have lunch with your girlfriend, take a nap. Whatever you would love to do most if you had the time! It's not just for you, it's for your family! They need you to be happy, fun, calm, and ready to be a mommy-Jedi! This positive energy you will be emitting will affect your kids and marriage in profound ways now and probably for years to come. Have fun with it! Call your best girlfriend and set up a check-in system with her that you will call each other every week or two to demand a get together sans kids! Life can get busy and sometimes you need someone else to pull you to the surface! This is probably the most draining time of our lives. We can and will get through it but we still need to foster love for ourselves! We need to be role models for our kids and show them the importance of "taking care of and loving you". This love might be the biggest gift we can offer them!

So with this new discipline strategy, the path ahead of us is much more clear! Don't get me wrong my toddlers still push the envelope, as they should, but now I maneuver our family around those obstacles with much more ease and confidence! I know I am far from perfect. I see each day is an opportunity to learn and grow. But, now I can sleep a little sounder knowing that our days are more peaceful than stressful. The guilt of turning into a mommy-monster is gone. I love the new Mommy-Jedi I am becoming! Now, I am starting all over with my one year old, it's already easier, whatever he brings to the table I know I can handle it. No matter what, this time no white flags!

*This new reality may not hold true on days with full moons, rice krispy treats, or hangovers.


  1. Maria, I really enjoyed reading your post! I have learned a few tricks these past 13 years of working with infants and toddlers that you have incorporated into this post...Positive Behavior Supports: setting expectations, assessing "when" things seem to be more difficult, consequences, but most importantly.. rewarding postiive behavior. I LOVE how you use visuals to help him understand what is going on. Many times we adults spout out these complex sentences and the children REALLY have no idea what we just said or they only catch part of it. but if they SEE it they understand. I have just 2 things to add to your Jedi pack. 1. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF INGNORING. Research has told us that if we do not respond to 85% of will dissappear. Children love our reaction if if it is negative.
    2. Don't make time out "into" a power struggle. By doing so it totally eliminates why the child is in time out in the first place. If the child tries to run out ..simply put them back. Do not speak to them, do NOT address the screaming, kicking, etc. . Adding a visual timer is also VERY helpful. You can get those online.
    Thanks for sharing. Jenny D

  2. Jenny, Thanks for your advice! It is gladly welcomed. Discipline is complex; it's good to remember to slow down and "ignore". Best, Maria