Many parents today feel obliged to control their children's behavior through punishment. Some even express worry that if their children do not fear them, the youngsters may not grow up to become law-abiding citizens. Discipline, in their minds, implies instilling fear. It often refers to punitive practices such as taking away possessions or privileges, time-outs, and spanking, not to mention yelling and threatening — in fact, "losing it" to make a point and to maintain control. But all these assumptions are either exaggerated or flat-out wrong.
Of course, living with limits and respecting rules is essential to long-range life success, and kids actually feel better knowing that their parents will help them to manage strong, unwelcome impulses which they are still too young to control on their own. But there is no need to instill fear. Virtually all small children already fear the loss of their parents' love and approval. They know they are just learning what pleases and displeases their elders.
The best way to teach your child how to behave is, to borrow a line from an old popular tune, "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." Research has shown clearly that positive rewards, praise, and admiration are far more powerful than threats and punishment. Children who are repeatedly rebuked and punished may even conclude that getting their parents' approval is hopeless, which can lead to still angrier, more rebellious behavior.
When Adults Disagree
Teachers and caregivers are also confused about how to discipline. Too often, parents are led to believe that it is they, the parents, who are at fault, if their children cross some behavioral line. Rebuking parents can make them even more desperate to control their children's behavior. Nothing is accomplished when parents and caregivers are blaming each other or otherwise at odds.
And it is not only the school and home that might not be in synch about behavioral expectations. Two parents, even in intact marriages, often disagree about what to expect from their children at what age and how to impart those expectations. One parent may consider the other's discipline style very strict and rigid, while the other thinks her partner's way of disciplining is dangerously lenient.
What to Expect
How much self-control and compliance can you expect from your 3 to 5 year old? At this phase of development, children are dealing with hidden jealousies and anger about not being the most important or powerful member of the family. In their minds, there is overwhelming competition for that favorite spot. Two parents (or a parent and an adult partner) seem to have a "closed door" relationship that naturally shuts out a young child. Brothers and sisters of all ages, but particularly younger ones, sometimes seem to take priority. Sharing things, and even more so, sharing attention, does not come naturally to small children. It is only the boundless need for your love and approval that allows them ultimately to accept sharing. And all of this takes time.
Of course, that does not mean you should decide that "anything goes." Set limits, firmly, but not harshly. And despite her grumbling, your young child does appreciate guidance and limit-setting, as long as:
- You are not always saying "No" and rarely saying "Yes"
- Your tone is not universally impatient and punitive
- You do not humiliate your child
Everyone has good and bad days, including parents, who may be preoccupied by other life issues that interfere with measured disciplining and joy in watching each child slowly grow more reasonable and cooperative. Then too, some parents have the opposite worry: their concern is about how to set reasonable behavioral limits without doing harm either to the child's self-image or to the parent-child relationship. But remember, a child afloat without boundaries is no happier than a child who feels humiliated by threats and harsh punishment. Most children know that by setting suitable limits, Mommy and Daddy are providing the love and protection they need.