One of the most difficult tasks of parenting is deciding how you will discipline your child. Should you be permissive or rule with an iron fist? How do you mete out punishment? Is it wrong to spank? The questions can go on and on, with the answers varying greatly. Whatever method you choose to use, if it is going to be effective, it needs to be consistent and fair. Think of it as a means for teaching a child how to function within a unit and, later as an adult, in the world at large. Rules provide structure and expectations for how to behave. Rules exist for a reason and have a purpose.
Discipline teaches your child right from wrong — what to do and what not to do. This is why it bears repeating again. It is also important to separate the behavior from the child. Just like your child is not his depression, your child is not his behavior. Like the rest of us, he learns through the very act of behaving and, unfortunately, misbehaving! Children have to experience life, the good and the bad, if they are to grow and achieve their maximum potential.
How many rules are appropriate for your child? That depends on your child's age, developmental stage, and specific needs or problems. Some children need a lot of rules and others don't require as many. But all children need some rules.
Don't develop and use discipline to mold your child into something you think he should be. Rules are not made to change a child's basic temperament and personality. Your goal for discipline should be to help create structure, limits, and skills for living for your child.
Rules should be clear and basic. The rules you create do not need to be negotiable at first. You have to start somewhere. Set a few rules first and see if they are applicable to your child. If not, change them or set some new rules. Explain the rules to your child and that you expect those rules to be followed.
In terms of your expectations for your child, set reasonable ones. What you may find reasonable may not be as practical as you think. A depressed child may not be able to meet as high of expectations as you would prefer, so you may have to lower them for a little while. As the depression decreases, you can raise your expectations gradually to keep up with your child's needs and abilities.
Rules are not supposed to be made to control your child's every move. Not every behavior or situation needs a rule to be followed. Sometimes the best way to teach discipline is to create rules that require your child to use her head. She needs to learn to think for herself and anticipate the consequences of her actions. Too many rules will prohibit her from having to do this.
What if my child thinks a rule is unfair?
If you want to debate a rule with your child, go ahead. What usually results is that you end up changing the rule or forgoing it altogether. When in doubt, remember this: “No” is a complete sentence. Trying to convince your child that a rule is correct diminishes its importance.
Keep the rules consistent. As long as they are effective, keep them. When your child ages, changes, or circumstances warrant it, then you can change or alter the rules. Children need to know what it is they can and cannot do. This gives them structure, limits, and some sense of predictability.
Types of Punishment
There are many ways to punish a child, and one method will not fit every rule and every child's age. For a young child, ignoring a behavior can often have a quick effect. If a child does something and no one reinforces her behavior, she is apt to stop doing it. For some children, any attention is better than no attention at all, so even negative attention is attractive to this sort of child.
Time-outs are a popular method of punishment. Typically, this works best for children under the age of about six. For toddlers, a minute for every year of his age is appropriate. Time-out needs to be in a place where there is no attention or anything for him to do. It's not too punishing if you send your child to her room where she has access to all of her toys or a television. While your child is being punished, resist the urge to interact with him. This is not the time to argue with him about what he has done. What you are trying to do is get him to think about what he has done, not how to talk you out of the punishment!
The giving or withholding of tokens is another great way to work with younger children. For a behavior you wish to change, rewarding him with a token (such as a sticker on a calendar or a marble that gets placed in a jar) reminds him that he did well.
Not every behavior deserves rewarding! Pick several things you'd like to see your child change and do. Reward these when he is successful. Don't let your child fall into the trap of thinking that he should be given a prize or privilege any time he does well or follows a rule.
Once he earns a set amount of tokens, he can trade them in for a toy or a privilege. What you have to remember is that the tokens and prizes need to fit the behavior. For example, remembering to brush his teeth each day is a smaller reward behavior, while finishing his homework each night and turning it in might warrant a bigger reward.
Loss of privileges and grounding work better with older children and teenagers. The key is in telling your child ahead of time what the rules are and what the consequences will be if the rule is broken. What you are teaching him is that he has a choice. He can either misbehave or do what he has been told. He will then know exactly what the consequences will be if he decides to misbehave, but he is being allowed to make a choice. This is an excellent way to teach him that he has control over his actions by choice. He will have to think for himself, make a choice, and find out whether the consequences were worth it.
Enforcing Rules and Consequences
The first rule of thumb when enforcing discipline is to refrain from acting when you are angry if you can help it. Responding under extreme emotion usually results in overreaction. Even the simplest rule infraction will seem like a major crime, and the focus will be on your behavior, not on your child's misdeed. Staying calm will also help you avoid saying things you shouldn't and that you will have to explain later.
You and your spouse need to present a united front. You may not agree on a rule or even the way it will be reinforced, but your child does not need to know that. As far as she is concerned, she needs to believe that the two of you have discussed discipline and that you back one another up. This will keep her from playing sides and escaping responsibility.
If at all possible, try not to punish a child in public. There is no reason to humiliate her or embarrass her. Punishment is not designed to make a child feel bad about herself. It is used to correct and reinforce behavior. Again, the child is not the behavior.
Last, it's always a great idea to say thank you when your child behaves favorably. Too often it's her bad behavior that gets attention. Rewarding good behavior lets her know how great she is and that you are proud of her.
Don't miss the opportunity to apologize for your behavior when necessary. You are not expected to be perfect, but when you make a mistake, take responsibility. Showing that you are willing to be accountable for your behavior is an important lesson that your child can learn by observing you behaving in an honorable way.