My confession: I yell at my kids. I yell in the house, sometimes closing the windows so the neighbors won't hear. I yell in the car. I try not to yell in public, but I'm great at that poisonous, through-the-teeth hiss that's almost as good. I also threaten to withhold treats, to send a misbehaving child to bed early, and to turn the car right around and drive straight home—and then I somehow end up never following through.
So I tend to dread it when a parent asks me questions about discipline—especially if she wants to know what I do with my own kids. Then, as so often happens in this life, I have to choose between honesty and the professionally correct party line. Because while my own disciplinary techniques (yelling and making largely empty threats) have the patina of antiquity and have worked to at least partially civilize my three children, they're not recommended by any pediatric organization or serious parenting expert.
When I find myself offering what I know is the correct by-the-book advice, I'm nervously looking over my shoulder for the reality-TV crew with the surprise footage of my own family on vacation. (Why, who is that mother, waving her arms and screaming? Can it be our very own self-righteous Dr. Klass, who just told us that time-outs should last one minute for every year of a child's age and always be promulgated with calm firmness?)
The miserable truth is this: I've never succeeded at putting one of my children in a time-out. I don't understand how to do it. For starters, what makes a child actually stay in one place? Could it be the parent's moral authority? (Maybe that's my problem!) Yet I'm told that in daycare each of them cheerfully time-outed when necessary. Still, even in the depths of my shame, I accept the job of talking to parents about discipline, tempering good advice with realism and, above all, the understanding that you can't do anything for a small child just once and assume it's done for good—not wiping her bottom, helping her pick up her toys, showing her how to hold a fork, telling her not to pinch her brother or teaching her that the letter B makes a "bbb" sound.
The subject of discipline leads inevitably to rules, golden or otherwise, and even commandments. These are the ones I've learned over the course of bringing up my kids-even if I don't always live by them. (And, in fact, that really should be Rule #1: All you can do is your level best.)
Commandments 1 - 4
1. Thou shalt render unto an infant that which is an infant's, and to a toddler that which is a toddler's.
Discipline strategies should be age-related. You can't "spoil" a 3-month-old by picking him up when he cries. Infants need to know that their caregivers are responsive to their needs and wants and that hunger, discomfort and, yes, even loneliness will be addressed.
For most children, discipline first becomes a real issue between 12 and 18 months. They're up and walking at that point, the word "no" is likely to be understood (and used), and most parents start to recognize that mischievous little self-conscious twinkle in the child's eyes that says, I know I'm not supposed to do this, but I'm going to do it anyway.
My younger son was particularly adept at this—he always knew exactly which button he was pushing when he messed up his older brother's chess game. At this age, discipline is mostly about patience, firmness and endless repetition. Say "no" firmly and take away the problematic object, move the child away from the danger zone or put the biter down and leave him alone.
2. Know thy child—and thyself.
Some kids, from an astonishingly young age, seem to be vastly entertained by rules and penalties and parental emotion. I've discovered that often you'll do best if you treat discipline as a game you're all playing together. My younger son, the one with the mischievous twinkle in his eye, often seems to be holding back his amusement when I'm at my most stern. He's 8, and I can't help feeling he thinks it's quite a giggle when Mom comes on strong.
Other kids are easily crushed if a parent seems at all angry. As you get to know your child's personality and temperament, you also learn more about your own. There are patient parents and short-fused parents, easygoing parents and rigid parents and even though every advice book counsels consistency, many of us go through all these different incarnations—sometimes in a single car ride.
3. Pick thy battles.
If you turn every transgression into a grand opera, you'll risk losing the parental high ground. Changing a child's behavior can be a long, hard slog—for you, for her, for the rest of the family—so save your energy for the lessons she really has to learn.
Let's say you're working hard on table manners, reminding your preschooler at breakfast, lunch and dinner to chew with her mouth closed and use her napkin and not her sleeve. Don't distract from those rules by then arguing with her about, say, her insistence on dipping her carrots in ketchup. Or suppose your 5-year-old's been put in a time-out twice for clobbering his brother (assuming that you, unlike me, understand how to put a child in a time-out). You shouldn't get on his case about wiping his nose for now, especially if no one else in kindergarten seems to have mastered nose wiping yet. (After all, if you can pick your battles, why can't he pick his nose?)
4. When thou hast picked thy battles, be prepared to fight them over and over and over.
There's just no way around this. We teach our kids by repetition, or, to use the technical term, nagging. When you've decided what it is you want your child to do—or, more likely, not to do—you'll have to say it again and again. For many children, it takes approximately 2 million repetitions before they start to recognize, spontaneously, that something's not okay before they say it or do it, before they pass the point of no return.
I'm not just talking about the "Say thank you" prompts or the "Did you wash your hands after you used the bathroom?" queries, which become so automatic for some of us that we're constantly at risk of using them on our spouses. I also mean the harder-to-learn rules of acceptable social behavior, like "Use your words"—a catchphrase that many of us utter at those moments when a young child resorts to screaming, crying, hitting, biting or outright mass destruction. But repetition works: I've had to live with the humiliation of having my kids, well trained from their years in daycare, remind me to use my "inside voice" instead of yelling. You can hear 3-year-olds on the playground admonishing each other to take turns or even, in your more progressive preschool environments, prissily informing one another that "That behavior is not acceptable" or, more casually, "That's not okay."
Commandments 5 - 7
5. Thou shalt strive ever to change behavior, not to teach moral lessons.
In other words, discipline isn't about convincing Suzy that she really likes Billy, it's about convincing her not to kick him, no matter what stupid thing he said to her or how much blue paint he spilled on her painting of Barbie's moon landing. Discipline is about helping children regulate their behavior rather than their thoughts. For instance, I've tried hard to teach my kids to be good hosts and guests, but I've never reproved them for expressing less-than-enthusiastic sentiments about the other child when the visit is over. I think they're entitled to their preferences, as long as the rules of polite hosting and guesting are observed.
If we teach our kids properly, they'll grow up to be good, hand-washed citizens, capable of lavishly thanking someone for unwanted advice and able to restrain themselves from kicking an irritating colleague
6. Do unto your child as you would have others do unto your child—or whatever you do, don't hurt anyone.
Many elements of child rearing are tough—discipline, consistency, keeping your temper—even with someone much smaller than yourself, even with someone you love dearly. If you ever find yourself over the edge (scaring your child, grabbing her too tightly, feeling like you might just snap), have your mother or a friend take over for a while and get some backup and support. Don't risk losing control and doing something you don't actually want to do that could haunt both you and your child.
7. The end does not justify the means (and discipline is the means).
To put it another way, even if your daily life is full of disciplinary moments, don't let those moments take over. If the sum total of life with your child seems to be about saying no and scolding and handing out penalties, then something's gone wrong. Even if you're doing all that disciplining in the most approved gentle and consistent way, it shouldn't be the main tenor of your days. Look for activities you and your child enjoy doing together (reading aloud; eating finger foods outside, where table manners don't count; legitimate mess making; plain old silliness). This will take the pressure off and help you both have some fun in situations where there are absolutely no formal lessons to be learned.
That said, parenthood can be profoundly educational, and while we're learning some difficult home truths about the nature of our own character and disposition, we might at least have the pleasure of reading Curious George or learning to finger-paint along the way.
Perri Klass, M.D., a mom of three, is coauthor of Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In. Her novel The Mystery of Breathing was just published by Houghton Mifflin.