May 20th, 2011 11:20 pm ET
Philadelphia Bullying Examiner
When Arun Gandhi spoke in New Hope, Pa. last week at events sponsored by the Peace Center in Langhorne, he had a lot to say about how we can parent kids who are responsible, compassionate, and kind. He urges parents to avoid punitive discipline, saying it doesn’t teach children how to be good people and make good choices, and can actually have deleterious effects. “Punishment,” cautions Gandhi, “just hardens people.”
Instead, we must lead by example, speaking to the hearts and consciences of our kids, and guiding them to do what’s right because it’s right, not just to avoid punishment. Gandhi urges parents to understand that discipline based on fear only teaches fear and mistrust. It also causes children to believe that physical aggression is acceptable and justifiable.
Studies actually bear this out. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, research has shown that “Even minor forms of corporal punishment increase the risk for child aggressive behavior.” AAP says that corporal punishment “becomes less effective with repeated use,” and “makes discipline more difficult as the child outgrows it.”
With the prevalence of bullying and cruel behavior among kids, it’s critical that parents find ways to avoid punitive actions that could lead to aggression in their children.
So how can parents raise kids who behave, without resorting to punitive punishment? What follows are steps that not only work, but also help develop a strong moral compass in kids:
- Model what you want to teach. Children learn through imitation, so if we preach respect and kindness, we need to live it—even when we’re ready to blow. Reacting to our kids in hurtful ways will ultimately bring out similar behavior in them. Manage your anger so your kids can learn how to manage theirs.
- Stop and breathe before you react. The few seconds it takes to do this will enable you to discern–and choose–what to do, rather than react impulsively. If you’re home, you consider giving yourself a time-out. Go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to regroup. Your child will see that time-out doesn’t have to be a punishment, but a way to retrieve one’s grounding.
- Set expectations ahead of time. Let your kids know what you expect of them—as well as consequences for misbehavior. You could say, “I’m OK with giving you one reminder after I’ve asked you to do something, but beyond that, you’ll need to make up the time I had to wait in chores. I’m telling you now so you know what to expect.”
- Give choices. This allows kids some control over their responsibilities and increases cooperativeness. For instance, if your child’s job is to set the table, say, “You can set the table now or in five minutes. Either way, the table needs to be set.”
- Honor feelings. If you won’t allow your child to do something she really wants to do, and she reacts by crying or pouting, let her. Forcing her to accept the disappointment andpush down her feelings isn’t healthy. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. While it’s not OK to let a child get abusive or defiant, there’s no harm in letting a kid cry out her upset or say she’s mad when that’s how she feels. Instead of punishing her for her reaction, say, “I know you’re disappointed. We can talk later when you’re calmer.”
- Talk to your kids and be willing to hear them out. Help them understand why you’ve set the limits you’ve set. Teens who have healthy, solid relationships with their parents inevitably refer to their parents’ willingness to listen as one of the prime reasons they’re close. The lines of communication stay open, something so essential as our kids get older and are faced with tough choices.
- Get to the bottom of “red flag” behavior. If your child does something that hurts himself, others, or property, or is a serious act of defiance, dig deeper. For example, if your fifteen-year-old smacks his little brother in a fit of rage, give a consequence, but try also to understand the problem. Once tempers have cooled, talk to him so you can learn what was behind his actions. Red flag behavior always has a cause.
- Speak to your child’s highest self. Always speak to the part of your child that knows what’s right. Kids tend to live into our expectations. If we believe they are inherently good and decent, and if our words and actions reflect this, our children will rise to that positive expectation. We need to believe in our children, accepting that they will make mistakes and test limits, but remembering that they, like us, are good people who sometimes make the wrong choice. Trust this, and trust yourself to do what’s right. Sometimes our heart is our wisest teacher. Gandhi, believes this, and so should we.