Goodbye, Punishment. Hello, Empathy.
Strict, inflexible parenting has gone the way of landlines and VCRS. These days, experts say the key to raising caring, responsible kids is to see the world through their eyes. Use these strategies to update your approach.
Consider your kid’s POV when you discipline.
LIKE A LOT of 3-year-olds, my daughter Ava hated being buckled into her car seat, and she’d arch her back to keep me from strapping her in. One day, I stopped trying to force her. I made her the “safety captain” and said she was charge of ensuring that everyone was belted in before the car moved—including the grown-ups. Once it felt like a game, and she was the boss, she became eager to cooperate. Talk about a game changer.
When you’re dealing with obstinate toddlers, preschoolers refusing to get dressed, or kindergartners negotiating rules like an attorney, the latest research points to better options than time-outs or sticker charts. Not only do they work, but you’ll feel good about using them.
I spent the last six years immersed in these new scientific findings and observing parents and educators who are putting them into practice while I wrote my book, The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—and What to Do About It. Rather than punishing our children or rewarding them for the behavior we want, we need to help them develop self-control, which experts say is a particular challenge for this generation. Today, a startling one in two kids will develop a mood or behavior disorder or substance addiction by age 18, according to the National Institutes of Health. And experts see a link.
Our overscheduled kids, whose limited spare time is typically spent with a screen, aren’t learning how to manage their impulses in the normal course of
growing up, explains Peter Gray, PH.D., a psychology research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn. “They’re more or less constantly directed, supervised, and protected by adults.” Research has found, for example, that kids who have more unstructured playtime also have better executive functioning— the ability to control one’s thoughts and behavior to reach a goal. Unlike soccer practice, kid-directed play forces friends to work out problems and handle their emotions in order to stay in the game. These are crucial skills for success in school and life, but it’s hard for kids to develop them when there’s always an adult watching, ready to intervene.
That’s why we need to shift our approach to discipline. For decades, psychologists have touted authoritative parenting as the gold standard: Being firm but fair, and choosing appropriate consequences for misbehavior. With our stressful, busy lives, though, we have to be more creative and empathetic to help kids become responsible, capable adults. Your role should be more like a coach and a mentor, not a powerful dispenser of justice—because ultimately, the purpose of discipline is to teach kids to have self-discipline. These five techniques have been proven to work wonders.
First, do no harm.
When your kids are freaking out or refusing to cooperate, it’s easy to get frustrated, but that usually makes the situation worse. When you get worked up, so do they. Focus on staying calm. Studies have shown how our emotional and physiological state influences our children’s. “We have this invisible elastic between us,” explains Nim Tottenham, PH.D., associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. Researchers have found that mothers and fathers impact everything from their children’s heart rate and fearfulness to test scores, simply by being in the same room.
Ray Dogan, of College Park, Maryland, discovered the power of this connection when her 2-year-old daughter, Emma, had a tantrum while they were stuck in traffic with disapproving relatives. No distraction worked: toys, counting red cars, or singing excitedly. By frantically trying one thing after another, Dogan made Emma even more agitated. But when Dogan finally settled herself down and admitted she felt like screaming, as well, Emma’s behavior suddenly changed. “It was like magic,” Dogan says. “I started talking to her like I was talking to an adult, and I realized that if I can control my own emotions, she’ll calm down too.”
This can be as simple as taking three deep breaths before handling your toddler’s antics. With an older child, you can say, “I’m too upset to address this right now. I’m going to take a five-minute break to cool off.” That also gives your child an example of how to calm down.
Make it fun.
Kyle Kenney, of Washington, D.C., used to bark orders at his children, Elisa, 10, and Mateo, 7, to get ready for bed, perhaps because of his background in the military. That just revved them up or inspired rebellion. When he stumbled upon the power of play, everything got easier.
Now, the kids pretend to be robots. Kenney “programs” them by typing instructions on their back, such as “brush teeth” or “get in pajamas.” Then he sets their “mode,” which includes options like giggle, jump, fast, or slow. The children do everything while following the designated mode. They love the game and zip through the evening routine.
“When kids are playing, they’re developing skills such as self-control, language, problem solving, social cooperation, and even abstract thought,” says Kathy Hirsh-pasek, PH.D., professor of psychology at Temple University and coauthor of Becoming Brilliant. The
classic game “Simon says,” for example, strengthens impulse control and listening. Banging drums in a circle teaches kids to cooperate. Make-believe lets you imagine someone else’s perspective. Russian scientists showed that children could stand perfectly still three times as long when they were told to pretend they were on duty as a guard than when an adult instructed them to stand still without any context.
The more children practice controlling their behavior—even when it seems fun—the stronger those pathways in their brains grow. That’s why anytime you use games or silliness to tackle a discipline problem, everyone wins. You’re not just being a softie. When you want to get out the door quickly in the morning, you could playact that you can’t carry your “heavy” purse and ask your preschooler to help. Or pretend with your school-age children that your dining room is a fancy restaurant and they are well-trained waiters or elegant patrons who have the most exquisite manners at breakfast.
Use your ears, hands, and words.
We’re better able to handle strong emotions when we feel understood, and a loving touch can help. In one classic study at the University of Wisconsin-madison in which women thought they might get an electric shock, those who held their spouse’s hand showed less fight-orflight brain activity than those who were alone or holding a stranger’s hand. Greg Siegle, PH.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, built on this research by showing that the brain of a child with anxiety looks typical when his mother is in the room.
Children learn about feelings from their parents beginning in infancy, and toddlers turn to their parents for cues about whether a new situation or object is safe. When they fall down, they look to you to gauge your reaction. Should they be upset? Or is this a normal part of learning to walk? If you give them an encouraging word or smile, they return to what they were doing. If you rush over and look worried, they’ll be frightened.
Researchers believe this is a reason that anxiety, depression, and mood disorders are so often passed down from parent to child—not just genetically. When a parent can’t effectively regulate her own emotions or her sense of fear, her children find it harder to do so.
Tara Swords, of Chicago, took this knowledge to heart when her daughter Sasha, 7, had a meltdown after a hard day at school. Sasha had been disrupting her little sister’s bedtime and threw herself onto her own bed in tears. But when Swords started rubbing Sasha’s back, the girl just melted. She put her head onto her mom’s lap and they discussed the tough day. “The thing that helped me the most to change the way I parent was understanding that kids are not giving you a hard time; they’re having a hard time,” Swords says. “I realized Sasha was feeling misunderstood and holding in a lot of frustration. I let her know that I understood and that she wouldn’t have to work through her feelings on her own.” Eventually, she’ll be able to calm herself without having her mom there, which is a skill that improves life in every conceivable situation.
Offer choices your child actually wants.
You’ve certainly heard the advice to give kids choices. Ham sandwich or peanut butter? Shower or bath? Whether we are 6 or 60, having autonomy can help us thrive. In psychology, what’s known as self-determination theory tells us that we’re motivated by three things: control over our environment, a sense of competence, and connection to a group bigger than ourselves. When children feel like they have all three, they’re much more likely to cooperate in the family routine instead of pushing limits.
When kids are young, they’re typically content to choose between the options you give them. Before you know it, they want to introduce their own ideas. Georgia Lieber, of Madison, Wisconsin, discovered that with her son Theo. “I’d always given him a choice between something I wanted him to do and something I knew he didn’t want to do—so I’d always get my way,” Lieber recalls. “But after he turned 4, he started getting really frustrated because he wanted more independence.” Now Lieber takes every opportunity to empower Theo by giving him choices he’ll like, such as which outfit to wear—even if he picks mismatched clothes that risk ridicule at school.
Keep steering the ship.
Although all these tactics might sound like catering to your children’s whims, they’re actually strategic parenting. Being empathetic doesn’t mean that you’re letting your kids off the hook simply because you understand why they misbehaved. In fact, you don’t have to give up on the idea that facing consequences for unwanted behavior helps kids learn to improve their ways—but Mother Nature is the best teacher, says parenting educator Vicki Hoefle, author of Duct Tape Parenting. “When our children get to experience the natural outcomes of their choices, they’re not distracted by being angry with a parent who’s trying to punish them. They’re much more inclined to learn from the experience because they don’t feel bad.”
We do laundry on the weekends in my house, and I’ll never forget when my 10-year-old refused to gather her dirty clothes and put them in the machine. I said nothing, but sure enough, she came to me in despair on Monday morning because her favorite turquoise hoodie wasn’t clean. I empathized, but I let her deal with the discomfort of wearing a too-small sweatshirt with a dreaded zipper in the front. From then on, she sorted and washed her own clothes without needing to be reminded—and even kept them off her bedroom f loor.
REMEMBER: YOUR CHILDREN ARE NOT GIVING YOU A HARD TIME; THEY’RE HAVING A HARD TIME.