It has been a long, hard road since I decided two years ago that I didn’t want to spank anymore. It’s one thing to intellectually say “I don’t want to do this.” It’s another thing to find yourself in the middle of a tough, frustrating situation and actually know what to do instead. When you’re angry, your ability to think is diminished, and it’s so easy to revert to the old ways…even when you said you wouldn’t and are upset, later, that you did.
It’s a long process. I still occasionally threaten the kids with things I don’t want to do, but then stop and think and redirect myself. It is very, very hard to replace your habits and thought processes, but it is possible. Over time. And cut yourself some slack — you’re human.
What a lot of people say when they first hear about positive discipline is often something like “Okay, that sounds good in theory…but what does it look like in practice? What do you do if the kid does x, y or z?” All the research and theories in the world cannot replace this practical knowledge, which is rarely given.
So today, I’m going to share with you several examples of what we might do for discipline.
Is Not Spanking No Discipline?
First I have to answer this. Too many people think that not spanking means you just let your kids run wild. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can’t speak for everyone, but we have clear boundaries, that mostly surround health, safety, and respect for people/property, and there are consequences for breaking those boundaries. Not spanking, but consequences.
It frankly drives me nuts when people say “Kids that aren’t spanked are total wild brats; spanking is the only way to teach ‘em. Hit ‘em if you love ‘em so they grow up to be good.” I won’t say what I think of that line of reasoning but it isn’t nice.
Anyway, yes, there are boundaries. I don’t let my kids hit me or each other (and I don’t hit them to teach them not to hit). I don’t let them run around and speak rudely to me and throw their toys everywhere and never clean up. And yes, they’re kids and humans and they mess up. They do occasionally hit, throw, make messes, talk back, and so on. Ironically if they do these things and I use positive discipline to address it, people might say I “don’t do anything” but if I spanked them and their behavior was exactly the same they would say I “did something.” Even though the behavior wasn’t different.
My goal over time is to modify their behavior, to teach them empathy and give them an internal moral compass. I don’t do it by hitting them, but in a bunch of different ways.
One last thing about spanking before I get into the examples — people always say “Spanking the right way is just fine; all those other people give it a bad name.” No one’s really studied spanking, because most people wouldn’t really be honest about it (who wants to stand up and say “Yeah, I smack my kid repeatedly and in anger?”), but I’d venture to guess that most of the people who spank do it in anger, for minor offenses, and don’t cuddle and love on the kid after. They get mad, they yell, kid still doesn’t listen, and they spank. I’ve done it before. Since that’s probably how it goes down in a lot of homes, we can’t say that spanking is okay, in a general sense, or that “the right way” is better. It’s not typically done “the right way” anyway.
But, on to the practical examples. If you don’t spank…then what?
Positive Discipline Examples
These are just a handful of examples of what I might do in my home. It cannot possibly cover all situations and will not work for all children. You know your child best. The biggest take away here is going to be “Know your child, and problem solve together.”
If a child throws a toy, that toy is put up. They do not get it back, especially if it was thrown at a person. If someone is hurt, then we talk about how that person was hurt and suggest they say sorry/make them feel better. (I do not believe in “making” a child apologize. What good is “sorry” if it’s said with anger and by a child who simply doesn’t mean it? Did anyone gain anything there? But we do suggest that it might help, and model it ourselves.) We don’t follow up with additional discipline unless the child then starts other undesirable behavior.
The children are physically separated if necessary and we ask what is going on. We discuss the problem that led to the hitting (at least with the older ones, who can talk well) and then help them work it out with words, and remind them to use their words in the future. Repeated hitting usually results in them getting separated for awhile, being sent to play in different rooms, etc. They typically do not like this because they want to continue playing together, but if they cannot play together without hitting then they cannot play together. Usually hitting occurs because of built-up frustration, so separating the kids and ending the situation defuses it.
I don’t answer to rudeness. I ask them to try again, or sometimes pretend I didn’t hear them. If they are talking to someone else, I will pull them aside and tell them what they said was rude and give them the words to try again — then ask them to go say the nicer thing and I suggest they apologize for having been rude. If rudeness were to continue, directed at me, I would not do what they wanted and would tell them I would be ready to talk when they were ready to do so nicely. If directed at others, I would separate them from the situation, leaving if necessary.
This usually happens while out. At home, they would immediately be directed to the backyard — “You can be loud and run outside, but not in the house.” They would have the choice of going outside or going to play alone in their rooms until they could play more quietly, especially if a baby was asleep. If we are out, I might end the trip and take them home, or possibly take them and leave them with my husband while I finished the errands. Since they want to be out and not home with Daddy, this is usually effective. Typically this behavior means they haven’t had a chance to get out and run enough, and the best solution is to go home or to a playground and let them run in a more appropriate location. It isn’t realistic to expect kids 5 and under with too much energy to just be quiet and still.
So many people say “How do you make them clean up?!” Well, first — I model doing it myself. I have morning chores I do every morning. I clean as I go. I show them how I do it and they often just jump in and help, because it’s “normal.” If you don’t model cleaning yourself, they will not do it. Even so, cleaning isn’t fun and kids drag their feet about it. Typically we clean up one activity before we move on to another, and we simply don’t move on until the cleaning is done. As I’m writing, the kids are cleaning up their art activity in the kitchen, and Grandpa is coming to visit soon. If the cleaning isn’t done when he gets here, they won’t get to play with him until they are finished. We clean up before lunch everyday and they don’t join us at the table until they’re finished. Sometimes one finishes before another and we all sit down to eat except that child. One of mine will refuse to clean up and continue playing and ignoring all instructions, but when it comes down to everyone eating and that child is not, the kid quickly and calmly cleans up. Joining us at the table is much better than sitting alone in the play room.
It also helps to train them to clean. The kid who doesn’t like to clean will refuse if we say “Go clean up.” But if we say, “Please pick up the books,” it goes much better. I spend time sitting with them all and instructing on what to pick up and where to put it. We also try to keep it positive (I won’t say I don’t still yell sometimes when they are dawdling, because I do!) and say “Can you clean up ____?” They usually smile and do it. If I sound stern, they usually refuse/ignore. I’ve found I can’t motivate them to do something that they really don’t want to do by force. But if they are happy and want to please me, they will do it.
Don’t make cleaning a battle. Teach them how to do it repeatedly until you are sure they really understand — you might be surprised that they don’t. (I really didn’t “get” how to keep things clean even as an adult and had to learn!) Sometimes I set a timer and say “Okay, we have 15 minutes to get all this clean, who can do it the fastest?” Or possibly, “Once we are done cleaning, we can go eat lunch/take a walk/play a game.” And you don’t do that activity until the cleaning is done.
Older kids (5 and up) can be reminded ahead of time “If you choose to make that mess, you will have to clean it up,” and they can decide if it’s worth it to them or not. If they choose to make the mess, hold them to cleaning it up. If they do not, or they whine and moan and take forever, then they do not get to do that particular activity again. I have taken away messy toys/games because they would not clean them up. It’s simple — if you don’t take care of your things and respect my property (i.e. cleaning up the kitchen, our family area, when you are done), then you don’t get to have those things.
Toddler Hurting People
Although I covered the guidelines for hitting/throwing above, those are mostly for slightly older kids. The younger set, from around a year to 2 and a half is a bit different. They have no self-control or ability to think ahead. They have strong emotions and they act on them without thinking. This does not mean they just get away with it. If a toddler hits me, they get put down or lose my attention. Same if they kick, pull hair, etc. I tell them to “use nice hands.” I back away and say “I will not help you if you kick me.” I redirect them to new activities. I could say “No, don’t hit the cat” 4264 times and the kid will keep doing it — or I can say “Come listen to music with me” and that’s the end of hitting the cat. Redirection is big from 12 – 18/20 months. After that they start to learn to talk, realize they are separate, and get more determined.
Older Toddlers Disobeying
Most of the time, the real disobedience and tantrums are not because of “behavior” issues, but because they are not feeling right. They can be rather logical and “good” when they are feeling good, accepting redirection and “We’re not playing with that” with general ease. It’s when they don’t feel so good that they have a short fuse and throw tantrums. Punishment is not the answer. We *all* have a short fuse when we don’t feel well. So, we problem solve — hungry? Tired? Teeth hurting? Typically if we can figure out what the issue is and fix it, the poor behavior stops. My 21-month-old might wake up from a nap angry, but once I give him a snack he’s perfectly fine. Sometimes he needs teething tea, another nap, etc. One day last week I called “Meltdown City” because he was so angry and fussy all day. We had just gotten back from a weekend trip and he was out of sorts. He improved all week and was back to his normal self in a few days.
It is important to us to try to prevent problems by issuing positive instructions. Instead of “No worms in the house!” I say “Worms live outside, please take them there.” It’s a clear instruction and tells them what to do. Kids sometimes misbehave because they got what you don’t want them to do, but they don’t know what to do instead. (Not unlike parents who are told not to spank but not given alternatives, eh?) I might also say “When you want to get through, say excuse me instead of pushing.” And I make them try again immediately if they pushed someone out of the way. We practice good behavior.
Obey or Else
There are a few rules that we simply don’t mess around with. ”Your car seat stays strapped until the car is off” is one. ”Hands stay on the car or in mine in a parking lot” is another. Anything dealing with serious health/safety issues is a firm, no-matter-what rule. When the kids have taken straps off before the car was turned off (although we were stopped), I made them re-strap, I drove around a bit, then parked again. I kept doing this until they were completely strapped when I stopped, until I shut the car off. We practiced the proper behavior, and we explained why it was so important — for their safety. This was very effective and really only required one instance before they got that I was serious and it was important. If a kid rode a bike without a helmet, the bike would be gone for awhile. If they ran in the street, we would go inside and be done playing immediately. I have found it entirely possible enforce these hard-and-fast rules without spanking, although I am much more firm and the consequences are more serious and immediate, if needed, than with other rules. I don’t mess around with safety.
I’m sure there are many more situations, and feel free to ask in the comments if you have specific questions about how I’d handle things.
Remember this is what works in our home. Some of you are going to read this and think that you would just never handle things that way, that I am way too easy and I don’t punish enough. Others are going to think I’m too hard and I don’t treat the kids as equals enough. I’m not writing this so that you can judge my parenting and tell me I’m “not doing it right.” I’m not writing this because I have all the answers. I’m not writing this because I am a perfect parent. I am not writing this so you will copy exactly what I do and hope it works for your family. I am writing this to provide one example of what works for us. That is the bottom line.
Take away from this ideas, examples and see what works for you. Every parent and child are different, have different personalities and different needs. That’s okay. Use this as a general guide and nothing more.