Discipline tips you won't find in discipline books

I have read a lot about gentle discipline, positive discipline, loving guidance or whatever you prefer to call non-violent methods of setting limits for children. Some of my favorites include the Sears Discipline Book, Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting, Common-Sense Parenting of Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers by Bridget Barnes and Steven York, and Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Kids, Parents and Power Struggles.

Several more discipline books are on my list to read someday. At least half a dozen friends have recommended Becky Bailey’s Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. The website of Attachment Parenting International links to lots of other resources, some of them geared toward special-needs or high-need children.

However, I’ve found that some of the advice that helped me most with discipline issues didn’t come from books about discipline.  

Work with what’s possible

I knew little about babies and young kids before I became a parent. I am the youngest sibling in my family, and none of my close friends as children had younger siblings. I didn’t have younger cousins or nieces and nephews. I did almost no baby-sitting. I had never changed a diaper, let alone dealt with a toddler meltdown, before having my own kids.

I’ve found that having realistic expectations for my kids’ behavior is critical, so I don’t inadvertently set standards that are impossible for them to meet. Everyone knows not to expect a two-year-old to sit quietly through a symphony concert, but in less obvious ways it’s easy to put kids in a situation they won’t be able to handle. I have to particularly watch this problem with my older son, because he looks so big next to his brother that my husband and I can forget that he’s just a little kid.

So for me, books explaining the wide range of age-appropriate behaviors were really important.  Many authors provide a good basic overview of child development, and I’ll be interested to hear about other people’s favorite books on the subject. The Sears Baby Book was a good beginning for me, but I also liked some aspects of Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints books. I learned a lot from Norma Jane Bumgardner’s Mothering Your Nursing Toddler (not just about nursing).

Learn how to talk to your child

When you set limits with your child, how you say it can make all the difference between an epic power struggle and a child who’s happy to cooperate. For instance, offering a choice gets better results than giving orders. I found that a lot of my instincts weren’t helping me when things started to melt down.

I recommend a few books on communication again and again to mothers having discipline issues. When one-year-olds start to hit that difficult phase (and for my money 18 months is way harder than age 2 or 3), I recommend The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp. His advice on speaking “toddler-ese” and “fast-food-ese” is counter-intuitive in some ways, but it really helps you handle tantrums. Once you get used to doing it, it’s easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Karp also writes about communicating with kids at age 2, 3 and 4, and he mixes in some interesting child development information too.

For kids who are a little older, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is an absolute classic that I feel I need to re-read at least once a year (probably I should read it twice a year). If you have more than one child, Siblings Without Rivalry by the same authors is essential reading. These books have prevented who knows how many shouting matches in my house.

Many of my friends swear by Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication. I believe in that philosophy, but I sometimes find it hard to put into practice when I’m dealing with a recurring problematic behavior. The books by Karp, Faber and Mazlish seem more user-friendly to me.

Pick your battles

Many books on discipline talk about the difference between a “biggie” and a “smallie,” and how parents need to let kids have some control over their lives. I’ve learned a lot from those books, which is why my boys often wear mismatched clothes.

One book that’s not about discipline particularly helped me in this area: Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense. She writes about common mistakes parents make that can set kids up for lifelong eating disorders. Her main philosophy is that it’s the parent’s job to make healthy food available frequently, and it’s the kid’s job to decide what to eat, how much to eat, or whether to eat at all. I was fortunate to read this book just a month or two after we started introducing solid foods with my first child, and it really took the pressure off. I know it’s helped me avoid making food a power struggle with my kids (my instinct is to hate wasting food). My only criticism of Satter’s book is that she is unduly hostile to breastfeeding beyond a year, but I just ignored her advice on that.

Address the causes of “bad” behavior

One of my friends keeps post-it notes around her house that say “HALT,” which stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, tired.” If one of her kids is acting out, or she feels her own frustration level rise, she stops to ask whether she or her child is hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

My kids are frequent snackers, but they often don’t think to tell me that they are getting hungry. We have more problems on the days when I forget to offer snacks regularly.

Any book that talks about engaging your children in active play (not passive screen time) reduces the incentive for kids to act out because they are lonely and want your attention.

Bedtime is often prime meltdown time for kids, but I learned a lot from Paul Fleiss’s book Sweet Dreams. He talks about normal sleep patterns and routines that promote healthy sleep. For instance, exercise outdoors during the day, especially in the morning, helps kids (and parents!) sleep better. I often notice that we have fewer discipline issues if my kids have had plenty of outdoor playing time. Since I’m a homebody, I have to think about providing those opportunities sometimes.

Richard Louv discusses other benefits of giving children time in nature in The Last Child in the Woods. So far I’ve just read interviews with the author and reviews of the book, but I agree with his advice. My kids love talking about the different trees and flowers we pass by when they help walk the dog. They notice the changes from week to week. A real nature walk is especially stimulating, but any walk in the neighborhood can be exciting (anthills! worms! the moon!). When we’ve been outside, we usually have fewer problems during the “witching hour”–as long as I haven’t let the kids go too long without snacking.

I’m eager to hear other parents’ favorite discipline tips that may not be found in a book about discipline.

  • Reading parenting books is like...

    bargain hunting in a discount store.  You tend to wade through a lot of stuff to find the occasional treasure.  I’ve read a lot of parenting books in my day, discipline and otherwise, and find that I take a few gems from each one that work for my parenting style and my kids’ personalities.

    When they were babies, I swore that a good night’s sleep took care of 96% of our behavior challenges.  Elizabeth Pantley’s “No-Cry Sleep Solution” was my bible and helped us teach both boys healthy sleep habits from a young age.

    As they’ve gotten older, we’ve occasionally found ourselves needing to update our bag of tricks.  I agree with you on “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen…”  I also got a lot from Cline and Kay’s “Parenting With Love and Logic.”  

    This summer, I’m trying a color-card system similar to what they use at our elementary school for behavior management.  Lately, we’ve had trouble with our boys responding to requests the first time they’re made, so each boy has a color strip (green/yellow/red) that’s held on the fridge with a magnetic clip with their picture taped on it.  They start each day with the clip on green.  If we have to ask them more than twice to do something (wash hands for meals, clean up toys, get ready for bed, etc.) they move their clip over to the next color.  Ending the day on red means there is a consequence the next day (no screen time is the big motivator right now).  It’s working pretty well, and they always have the chance to move back to green if they make good choices.  It’s also taking away a lot of the frustration my husband and I have with having to repeat ourselves multiple times to get the kids moving, so it’s a win/win situation.  Check back with me in August to see if it’s still working!

    • that color system sounds creative

      Hope that works for you!

      One of my friends had a system that worked well with one son when he was between the ages of 6 and 10. They had a container and a large collection of white and blue poker chips. Every week started out with five white chips in the container. When there was a behavior problem a blue chip went into the container. When he did something well a white chip went in. On Sundays he got to reach into the container without looking and pull out one chip. If it was white he got some privilege (ice cream, extra tv time, etc.). If it was blue the answer was no. He got the idea that the more things he did well during the week, and the fewer times he acted out, the better the chance that he’d pull out a white chip on Sunday.

      People seem to either rave or rant about Pantley’s books. I think her system either works great or doesn’t work at all, depending on the child’s personality. I read the No-Cry Sleep Solution but never put its advice into practice, because co-sleeping was working well for us. We had an Arm’s Reach Co-Sleeper, so I could reach my baby right away without getting out of bed. I was able to get used to night wakings without being a zombie the next day–which was good, because both of my kids were big night wakers!

      • Love the chip idea!

        I’m sure there’s a name for that kind of reinforcement in psychological circles.  Whatever it is, I like it!  Totally takes the “bad guy” label off the parent, but still random enough to encourage good behavior without a tit-for-tat reward system.  Nice!

        We rarely slept with our babies since we’re both very deep sleepers.  I resigned myself to night wakings with both since they nursed heavily and needed night feedings up until 10 – 12 months.  The key that I got from Pantley (and what saved us during that first year and helped us develop good long-term sleep habits) was that we worked very hard to establish routines that helped them put themselves to sleep, both at bedtime and after nursing during the night.  Not that I wasn’t a zombie on a regular basis, but at least I knew there was an end in sight once they weaned and no longer needed to nurse at night.

        What I like about Pantley’s approach is that it’s not really a “system,” per se.  She encourages you to do what works for your child but to be consistent about it so that he/she learns healthy sleep habits from a young age.  Whether that fit my kids’ personalities or my own (I tend toward the very concrete-sequential style myself), it worked for us.

        • once the chip system was established

          My friend could usually curtail any problem right away by asking, “Do you need a blue chip?”

          I like that every week started fresh with five white chips, no matter what had happened previously.  

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