Having a new kid is a bit like Jurassic Park. It’s all oohs and ahhs until the mutants break free from their cages — then it’s all running, screaming, and biting. As babies become toddlers, the methods and manners of their misbehaving only get more complex (clever girl), but if a shoeshine boy from Pawnee, Indiana can tame dinosaurs, you can figure out how to discipline a child. And you’ll have to because every young velociraptor eventually jumps the fence.
While there are as many styles of discipline as their are parents, experts seem to agree on most of the broad strokes: You need to consistently express love and confidence in your kid while clearly communicating your expectations and being flexible and collaborative in achieving them. Simple, right?
According to parenting coach Dr. Erica Reischer, there are 3 reasons parents become inconsistent in these situations:
- You’re not paying attention, so you don’t realize you’re responding differently than last time.
- You don’t want to enforce whatever consequences you meant to establish.
- You actually can’t enforce the consequences due to timing or context.
Inconsistency is a signal to your kid that maybe the next time they fling the tater tot across the kitchen, your reaction will be different. If you always react the same way, they’ll learn to act differently. Here’s how you can get there:
- Reinforce good behavior. Obvious but effective, as this incentivizes more of the good stuff.
- Leverage natural consequences of bad behavior. Within reason, of course. “Don’t run over there or you’ll fall off that cliff” is not a reasonable natural consequence. “Put your pants on or you don’t get to go out for ice cream” is perfectly reasonable. Consequences are how kids learn.
- Be respectful. Of your kid, even when they’re acting like a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong, and of yourself when you blow it. Because you will blow it. Again, consistency is key.
A word here on spanking: Getting smacked upside the head doesn’t qualify as a “natural consequence of bad behavior.” The data backs this up. Spanking can make kids more aggressive, teach them it’s okay to hit someone you love, and quickly turn into something much worse when you’re heated.
Your kids will test your patience and temper, and, at times, your sanity. Maintaining consistency in the face of that is daunting, but it’s your job. They’re only acting on instinct as part of their natural learning process. Life finds a way, after all.