When our tiny humans act out, they aren’t actually trying to be difficult, usually they are showing us a need. It could be them telling us they are tired, frustrated, or even a request for more consistent boundaries in their world.
The key to understanding is in our perception, and how we respond to their needs. Children, especially toddlers, are learning all the time. They are exploring, creating, and testing, and in doing so face many opportunities to step out of what we consider socially acceptable behaviours and responses. They desperately need to know that they are secure during this time, and trust that their adults will shepherd them in the right direction when they need it.
Magda Gerber, an infant expert, tells us that “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect” – this is a bold statement which asks us to consider our parenting attitudes. These attitudes are the key to providing nurturing, direct and compassionate direction and leadership to their children.
This is also a good time to mention that discipline does not mean or refer to physical punishment, such as smacking, but to being a ‘disciple’, someone who follows a teacher and learns from them.
Consistency is key
Predictability in a child’s day, including routines from birth, will help children understand what will happen, and what they can expect from others. It also helps them understand what is expected of them, which is a great spot for discipline to start.
When we take children out of their normal space or routine, we can expect children’s behaviours – or needs – to differ from how they are at home or in a space that is consistent and predictable to them. In understanding this and reviewing our expectations of each other, things will be easier for everyone.
Loving your child doesn’t mean keeping them happy all the time. However our children are allowed to disagree with us. Our job as grown ups is to calmly and clearly set our expectations or limits – such as, ‘the TV will go off at the end of this episode’ and then follow through. While children may (likely will!) be upset at this, we don’t need to change our actions or enter into negotiations. It takes 2 people to be involved in a power struggle!
Don’t take it personally
Parents are really good at projecting our own fears and insecurities onto our children – it’s just what we do! We worry they will not be liked; they will act up or be mean to others or that their teachers won’t like them because of their behaviour. Children will pick up on our tension or feelings, and the words we use, which can make it worse. Young children are egocentric – they tend to focus on their own selves and perspectives. They have difficult times understanding others’ points of view such as how they might feel in particular. Most often children won’t hurt another person – including their parents because they don’t like them, and it’s not because they are ‘naughty’ children – they have simply lost control and need us to help them by setting and enforcing boundaries.
You are in charge – respond calmly and quickly
Getting it right does take some practice! Not all of us have leadership experience, such as giving direction to others. Have you ever seen a Preschool teacher take charge in a room full of Preschool children? This is magic, and it takes time to perfect. Children respond well to and trust the tone of adults and parents who are confident and respectful in their tone. Children need to see, hear and feel that we are not afraid of their emotions or needs (i.e behaviours) and that they can trust us to support them in establishing boundaries and even, setting social rules.
Yelling, scolding or emotional responses from adults in children’s lives can be scary and certainly don’t give children the clarity and security they need. Keep it simple, factual, a quick “I won’t let you do that, if you use your toy to hit me again, I will take it away” is a great example of a clearly defined response.
Children quickly learn natural consequences, and it’s up to us to believe in their capabilities from a young age. Consequences are non-manipulative and a direct response to something the child themselves has power over. For example, “You must put your shoes on if you want to walk to the park”. If the shoes don’t go on, the child doesn’t get to go to the park. Simple, yet effective.
Support their emotions
Children need rules for behaviour, but we should definitely allow and be responsive to their emotional responses and feelings when we set boundaries for them. Being a young child is a tricky time, with big feelings, and loads of frustrations. We should never make a child feel less for crying or being angry, frustrated or disappointed, especially if they are upset because of a limit or boundary we have set – such as not going on that walk to the park. We should always provide a safe space for children to express themselves without judgement.
Don’t make a child feel like you have withdrawn your love due to their behaviours – such as ignoring their responses when they are upset. This can be seen as conditional love – which causes children to feel distrust, guilt, shame and even a lack of self-worth.
Love, love and more love
More than everything, love your child. Show them respect, and understand that they are not little for long! Your tiny human will fast grow into their respectful, authentic selves before your eyes, and will be grateful for the boundaries and security you have shown them.