The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being the shore to the ocean —
Holding the curve of one position,
Counting on endless repetition.
- Robert Frost
Discipline is a way of showing love
Discipline—the work of establishing boundaries and becoming a loving authority in your child’s life—is one of the most difficult and intimidating parts of working with children. Many of us come to this work with trauma from our own childhoods that informs us how not to do things, but that of course begs the question of what to do. And we’ll get to that. But I think the first thing we need to consider is why. Of course, there are practical considerations, safety reasons, etc., but beyond that there is something much more essential to our work as authority figures in their lives. You, as primary caregivers, are the first guides children have in this world. You are the ones who show them what it is to be a human on this earth, and especially when they are very young and learn so much through doing, showing them what is and is not good to do is the best way to do this.
Children don’t come into this world with the ability to be self-disciplined, or to self-regulate. These capacities will come in time, and the best way we can help them along is by offering external discipline and regulation. A young musician, for example, needs loving authority to help them practice their instrument daily before they can become the adult that wants to wake up early and practice. Likewise, a toddler needs someone to lovingly hold them when they’re sad they didn’t get the toy they wanted, before they can become an adult who will have healthy coping mechanisms to help when they didn’t get the job they wanted. We are literally modeling for them what their higher reasoning will eventually become for themselves—an awesome and difficult task!
As our children’s guides through this new world, one of the most supportive things we can offer them is a strong, holistically considered rhythm.
Repetition and predictability are incredibly nourishing and reassuring to young a child’s consciousness. You can see this in their desire to read the same book, over and over again, to sing the same song, to eat the same after school snack. Without our years of experience the world would seem a chaotic, disorderly place: rhythm is a way to begin to introduce sense and find the pattern to what is going on. A strong rhythm can also take the place of a lot of yelling. If you always get dressed and then eat breakfast, or always take a bath before bed, or Wednesday is always the day you go grocery shopping after school, your children will quickly acclimate to this regularity and take it in stride. I amazed at how quickly the children in my class have acclimated to our classroom rhythm over the past few weeks, and where once there was much confusion and a huge need for adult re-direction, there is now understanding and order. Cleanup, rest, eat. Play, have some apple, say goodbye. These orders make sense, with each activity giving the child what they need to thrive in the next, and keeping them incredibly regular allows everyone to relax in the knowledge of what will come next. In this way, especially when adjusting to a new environment, previewing the rhythm can also help children who are struggling with anxiety.
Adjust your expectations
Make sure what you’re asking of your child--whether it be to sit quietly, to stay by your side in the store, or to play nicely with a friend--is helpful and appropriate for them at this point in their development and also this point in their day. The prefrontal cortex is the most energetically “expensive” part of the brain to operate, so it stops doing it’s important work of judgement if we’re tired, hungry, sensorially overwhelmed, or emotionally overwhelmed. In children, for whom the prefrontal cortex is tiny to begin with, even seemingly small triggers can get them to a point where they “act out” or melt down.
Engage their movement
A toddler especially is still in a place where processing and following verbal instructions is really hard. In teaching them to “listen” and do what you say, it is often helpful to do it with them while saying it. Much easier to say “it is time to clean up now” while handing them a block and the block basket, or to say “time to try the potty” while walking them to the bathroom.
Don’t ask questions
So often I hear toddlers peppered with an endless stream of questions—the child ignoring them and the adult growing increasingly frustrated that they won’t respond “yes, I would like to put my coat on now.” This is exhausting for everyone involved, and can make providing boundaries for your child much more challenging in the long run. Think about in which situations your child’s opinion is actually relevant or helpful. Is it up to them if you go out for breakfast? Is it their responsibility to decide what coat they wear? Even adults can get “decision fatigue;” for children this sets in much more quickly. You do not need your child’s permission to make decisions for them, you have to simply be their loving authority. The less of their energy you demand for decision-making, the more is available for learning and play.
At the same time, a well timed question: “where does the (toy) sheep sleep?” can aid in transitions and engage their imaginations more than just “put the sheep in the barn.” But you can see how different this type of questions is than asking, for example, if they want to clean up now.
Much of having a healthy relationship with discipline is being confident and sturdy in your role as the authority figure. I like to be able to honestly tell the children “I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” and this means being very careful with what I tell them. Try proposing a small, simple consequence such as: “If you throw the shovel into the bushes again, we’ll have to put it away.” rather than something something broad or non-specific. It will make it easier for them to understand the consequence, and easier for you to follow through on it. Likewise, if you tell them “one more story and then lights out,” then be ready to turn the lights out after one more story. If you’re not ready to follow-through with something, do not propose it.
When a child—for lack of a better word—misbehaves, our anger can make us want to send them away to “think about what they did.” If you’re feeling really angry or like you might want to hit your child, then by all means give yourself some space. But often what the child really needs is a moment to take a breath and reconnect with you. Social worker Kim John Payne has the saying “there is no such thing as a disobedient child, just a disoriented one.” Spending time sitting next to you and holding the ball of yarn as you knit, for example, and spending some time in observation can often provide the re-orientation needed.
The Soul of Discipline by Kim John Payne
This is one of my favorite books on the subject of discipline. It’s long and can feel a bit dense if you’re looking for right now solutions, but it gives a beautiful overview of the role of the caregiver as authority—and how that authority changes in nature—for the first 18 years of life. Throughout, Kim uses examples of families he’s worked with, which is both illustrative and helps us feel less alone in our problems! In one of my favorite chapters, he reviews discipline “fads” of the past three generations, which is incredibly helpful when trying to step back and look at any trauma you might have from the way you were disciplined as a child that might be impacting your comfort as an authority figure now.
No Drama Discipline by Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
Much more easily digestible, I often hand this over to parents lost in the throws of some new, confusing behavior or challenge at home. The authors use the neuroscience of child development, explained in simple terms, to explore why children act the way they do and give you guidance on how to respond. Helpfully, it uses comics to illustrate some points, making it a great choice for visual learners or anyone trying to review it on the fly.
Your Two Year Old by Drs. Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg
For caregivers of toddlers, this book is awesome (it really covers 18 months-3). I review it regularly when I need a little perspective into behaviors or a reminder of what’s to come. The authors are both serious experts in child development and guide you through common behaviors while offering suggestions on how to structure your 2 year old’s life so they’ll thrive. The chapter “Techniques” is particularly helpful when considering discipline.
A note that my copy is from the 1970s, and while most of the outdatedness is funny there are also a lot of ridiculous gender norms that I sincerely hope they’ve edited out of more recent printings.
Much thanks to Maggie Touchette of Our Sons and Daughters School for helping me plan the talk that inspired this blog post, and for teaching me so much about discipline.