While punishment might be temporarily effective, wouldn’t emotional coaching benefit the child and the family more? And while style of discipline is a choice (some choosing more discipline and some choosing more permissiveness), all of our children must eventually learn that others have boundaries.
We live in a world interconnected with other people and animals and we must learn to play respectfully and also to stand up for ourselves. By disciplining our children gently and respectfully, we teach respect for others and respect for the self as well as general gentleness toward all who inhabit our planet. Learning gentleness starts with how the first caregivers react, what boundaries they set and whether they teach emotional literacy.
Hitting and Biting start can start as early as 5 months and it usually starts with a parent. Yelling meanly also starts with the primary caregivers. This is the first opportunity to teach empathy and emotions. If a child bites, we can immediately jump to a punishment (putting the baby down in another room/separation? biting back?), or we can choose instead to exaggerate the feeling of being hurt and show that in voice and face to her child. We can state the emotion we are feeling:
“Hurt. Biting hurts. I’m sad.” Then we can show a way of interacting in a way that we enjoy instead, like kissing:
“Mama likes kisses instead. Like this.”
The first time my child bit me it was very hard and on the back of my arm. It actually made me cry. The crying was very effective. Many parents worry that by having a sad or hurt reaction to harm, it will make the child cry and feel guilty, but I believe that the child is learning interconnectedness: “When I hurt you, I see you hurting and then I feel hurt.”
Even before we know whether our babies understand us, we can begin to emotionally coach them-to talk about the fact that emotions cause behaviors. In my parent coaching practice, I encourage parents to teach children a sign for “frustrated” and signs for “sad” and “hurt”. We can ask our child, “Were you frustrated I was on the phone and not listening to you? Did that make you want to hurt mama?”
Losing the opportunity for emotional coaching is why I believe punishments and especially time-outs are detrimental to our children’s development. By punishing and separating kids, we ignore the fact that we, the parent, have a responsibility in the situation not only to have been paying attention, but to have set boundaries, to own our rules and preferences and then to teach and model proper emotional release. Sometimes there may be nothing inherently wrong with a behavior other than the child is relating to another human being who has different preferences and expectations- and a human being who has feelings and preferences, say, to not have my hair pulled even when it comforts the sleepy child. That brings me to:
Teaching proper boundaries is one way that gentle discipline is certainly different from permissiveness. As a parent, we do not have to allow physical harm, nor do we need to accept and ignore being yelled at by our children. And yet, we also do not have to punish them. To discipline means: to teach.
I suggest that this is a time where a firm “No.” is important, as is an explanation, “ouch hitting hurts!” and once again modeling and re-directing toward your preferred way to be treated. “Papa likes to be touched nicely on the face like this..” (using your own hand to caress, and then the child’s hand). The same goes for yelling, “Ouch. That hurts my ears and makes me feel sad.”
If we allow our children to hurt us, not only do we show our children that it is okay to hurt others; we show our children that is is okay for other people to hurt them.
Both emotional coaching and having boundaries in a calm and gentle way is such hard and time-consuming work. Where time-outs have been shown to stop behavior temporarily, they are also shown to lead to a lack of physical and emotional boundaries and understanding later in life. Gentle Discipline, instead, is worth all of the effort for the long-lasting life skills it promotes.
Part of emotionally coaching and protecting our babies, toddlers and older children is showing and talking about our own feelings and boundaries.