Category Archives: Discipline

Time Out

Time Out is an important tool in the discipline toolbox, but it’s an easy one to mis-use or over-use, and it doesn’t work for all families, but let’s examine the best practices for time out.

(* Age note: For a two year old, we don’t really do a prolonged Time Out with this full method. We would instead: remove the child from the situation, hold them calmly for a minute or so, or sit with them till they’re calm, then let them return to play. )

What is Time Out?

First, let’s understand what it is: It’s Time Out from Positive Attention. Children like attention, so will act in the ways that get the most notice from their parents – whether it’s negative or positive attention. So, for mild misbehavior that’s just annoying, we use the “Ignoring” tool. For bigger issues, we use Time Out, which is spending time in a boring place, for a prescribed time, getting no attention. Time Out is a chance for your child to calm down (and for you to calm down), then return to better behavior. Time Out is not jail… it’s not intended to make your child suffer for their crimes.

Time Out will only be effective within the context of a supportive, loving relationship. If your child normally gets lots of positive attention from you, then Time Out is a big change from that. If your child is often ignored, Time Out isn’t much different, or the process of misbehaving and being sent to Time Out may be the way the child actually gets themselves some attention from the parent.

Developing Your Time Out Plan

Make your plan in advance for how you’ll use time out. (Springing the idea on an unsuspecting child in the middle of a meltdown is not going to work!)

Explain your plan to your child in advance, when everyone is calm. Practice it a few times at a family meeting so everyone knows exactly how it will work, and what the goals are of using it. Make sure your child clearly knows what behavior will lead to a time out.

When: What Behaviors Lead to Time Out

Time Out is best when used sparingly, for aggression – situations when your child is hurting someone or something, or for non-compliance – times when you have tried other discipline tools and your child continues to disobey. (Note: all young children ignore or disobey about 1 out of 3 commands. If a simple reminder gets them to comply, you won’t need Time Out – it is for more intentional or chronic non-compliance.)

Sometimes, you may want to send your child to a Time Out because you need a break. That’s not a fair use of Time Out. If you need a break, be honest about that, and take one. Do this before you explode

Where:

Select a place for Time Out. It should be:

  • Boring: Somewhere with no toys, books or screens to provide pleasant experiences.
  • Out of the way of the flow of traffic, so you don’t have to move past the child, and not in a place that tends to draw the attention of other children. (For example, the back of the classroom is better than the front, or just around the corner from the dining table where you can keep an eye on them but your other children can’t see them, is better than somewhere that will draw the attention of other kids (who then may try to provoke the child who is in Time Out.)
  • Safe: Bathrooms or kitchens can be dangerous places for kids to be without close supervision.
  • Some parents avoid the child’s bedroom as they don’t want the child to think of their room as a punitive place. Other parents, who focus more on the calm-down aspect of Time Out than the punitive aspect, may find that the bedroom works well.
  • You might choose to include a few calm down tools in this place, such as a Calm Down Bottle, a favorite stuffed animal, a stress ball, a weighted vest or blanket, or bubbles to blow.

Call this the Time Out Place or the Calming Place. It’s not “the naughty chair.”

If your child misbehaves in public, consider using another discipline tool. If Time Out makes the most sense, you can go to your car, or to a quiet corner with them while they take a Time Out from your attention.

How Long

For a three year old*, we set a baseline of three minutes, for a four year old four minutes. For older children, we start at 5 but increase up to 9 if needed. (See below.) Longer Time Outs are not effective and may just make the child resentful and resistant to future Time Outs.

When they’ve reached the minimum time requirement and they’ve had a calm voice and body for a couple minutes, then you can declare that Time Out is over. (They don’t decide… you do.)

Note: the first couple times you use Time Out, it may take them longer to calm down. (Even as long as 20 minutes.) In the long term, we want Time Out to be as brief as possible for them to calm down and return. We want to help them realize that if they can calm down right away, then they’ll get out of Time Out as soon as the time requirement is met.

What and How

  1. Describe the problem behavior clearly. State what behavior you would like to see.
  2. Warn that if the problem behavior continues, there will be a time out. (If you’re not willing to do a Time Out right now, then don’t threaten to do one… Empty threats make it less likely the tool will work in the future.)
  3. Give a clear command, including the reason. Keep it short and simple. “You did ___. Go to Time Out now.”
  4. What they should do in Time Out: The goal is that they learn to calm themselves down. They won’t initially know how to do that! Self-calming skills are something we need to be teaching at other times when they’re calm so they may be able to use them in Time Out eventually. At first, expect that they will stomp, kick, yell and whine a lot in Time Out. Over time, they will learn that this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, and they’ll give up on it.
  5. What you do when they’re in Time Out: Give them as little attention as possible. Try to move on with your day, not nagging them, responding to their pleas, and so on. If they yell, don’t yell back. If they ask “how many more minutes” you don’t have to respond. (You could choose to announce when a minute has passed.) You might need to use your own self-calming skills and positive self-talk at this time to stay calm.
  6. If there are other children with you, encourage them to “use their Ignoring Muscles” and tune out the person who is in Time Out. You can continue to play nicely with the other child(ren), giving positive attention to their positive behavior.
  7. Once the time requirement has been met, if the child has been calm for two minutes, release them. If not, simply use a When/Then statement. “Please work on calming yourself down. When you have been calm for two minutes, then you can come out of Time Out.”
  8. When time out is done, re-engage with your child, and praise their first positive behavior.

What if they resist?

  1. What if they resist going to Time Out? If they are 3 – 6 years old, you say “You can go to Time Out on your own or I can take you there.” If they don’t go, calmly take them there.  For a 6 – 10 year old, you say “I’m going to add an extra minute in Time Out. That’s 6 minutes.” Wait ten seconds. If they still don’t go, add another minute, up to 9. After that, add a consequence: “That’s 10 minutes now, and if you don’t go to Time Out right now, you will lose screen time privileges for tonight.” If they go to Time Out, after 10 minutes they’re done. If they won’t go to Time Out, we drop the power struggle over Time Out and they receive the consequence instead.
  2. What if they try to escape Time Out? You re-set the Time Out clock, and you say “If you come out again, then you will have this consequence.”

Using Time Out

It is best to develop a specific routine for Time Out, so you can do it the same way every time. Here are two sample scripts, based on the Incredible Years program:

Time Out for Aggression

“You hit. You need to go to Time Out.” Child goes to Time Out. Once time is up, and they have been calm for two minutes: “Your Time Out is Finished. You can play now.” As soon as you see any positive behavior, praise it – you’re returning positive attention to them.

Time Out for Non Compliance

This would be used for an on-going behavior challenge – such as when they’ve been resisting bedtime or doing chores or turning off the screen.

First, give a transition statement that tells them when you’ll be asking for a behavior and what you’ll ask for. “In five minutes, [your screen time will be over and you will need to calmly hand me the tablet].” Then, when the time comes, state a brief command. “Your time is up. Hand me the tablet now.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds for them to process the command. If they comply, praise and move on. If not, give an if/then warning about Time Out: “If you do not hand it to me now, then I’ll take it and you’ll have a time out.” Wait 5 – 10 seconds… if they don’t comply: “You didn’t give it to me. I am taking it. Go to Time Out.” If they refuse to go, or won’t stay in Time Out, warn of a consequence: “If you don’t go/stay in Time Out, then you will lose half your screen time for tomorrow.” After the Time Out is over and/or the consequence is imposed, then, if needed, return to the original command. (If this all started when you asked them to clean up and they refused to clean up, you can’t let that go… they still need to clean up. Otherwise, many kids would choose the 5 minute Time Out to avoid cleaning up!

Initial Resistance

Expect that the first few times you use Time Out there will be a lot of drama – they may resist, they may cry, they may throw things. After things are calm again, have another family meeting talking about what Time Out is, why you’re using it, and how it can be an easy solution if done well. Let them know that you will continue using it, and they can decide whether to make it a miserable experience for themselves, or whether to use it as a brief 5 minute calm down interlude that you can all move on quickly from.

Moving On From Time Out

Once time out is over, move on, don’t rehash. We all make mistakes, and need to come back in and try again. Don’t nag at them, let this be a clean slate moment. Give them positive attention and praise any positive behavior you see.

Important note: If they were using Time Out to get away from doing a chore, make sure they complete that chore after Time Out. Be matter of fact about this, giving positive feedback as they return to the work.

What Else Can You Do?

If you find yourself using Time Out every day, consider using other discipline methods for some of these situations. Choose a very limited set of behaviors that you will use Time Out for.

If you have been using Time Out for the same behavior repeatedly for multiple weeks, you need to form another strategy since it is not effectively changing behavior. (One thing to consider is whether or not your rules and expectation are developmentally appropriate for the child. Are you asking more of them than they’re capable of?) Seek help from a parent educator, teacher, or counselor if you need outside perspective to come up with new ideas.

Continue to teach other skills

Time Out does not teach your child what to do better. It can’t be used as your only discipline tool. Be sure to also be using positive attention, praise, guidance in what TO DO, teaching ways to understand and manage their big emotions, role modeling, and more to help your child learn how to behave better. When they’re mis-behaving, ask yourself whether consequences might be a better response than Time Out. Your long-term goal is self-discipline – raising a child who knows what it means to be a good person and behaves that way most of the time. Using a wide variety of these tools will help to teach them how to do this.

Learn More about Time Out

For lots more information and tips for effective time outs, check out the CDC’s guide to Using Timeout, read The Incredible Years or participate in an Incredible Years program. And if you like to know the research behind recommendations, check out: Weighing in on the Time Out Controversy and “The Role of Time-Out in a Comprehensive Approach for Addressing Challenging Behaviors of Preschool Children” (here or here)

 

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Consequences

Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence is what will happen if the child keeps doing what they are doing, and an adult does not intervene. Some examples:

  • If the child pulls the cat’s tail, the cat is likely to scratch the child’s hand.
  • If the child plays with a toy too roughly, the toy may break.
  • If they leave their cookie unattended on the picnic table while they play, the crows may steal it.
  • If the child doesn’t eat at a meal, they will be hungry later.
  • If they don’t bring their comic book inside, it may get ruined by rain.

We, as adults, might be able to foresee all of these natural consequences. But a child may not realize that these things could happen. So, it’s only fair that the parent advises the child of the possible problem: “If you [do this], then [that] will/might happen.” Sometimes, the parent might give a command to the child to stop the behavior and prevent the consequence. Or, sometimes the parent might inform the child of the possible result, then let the child make their own decision about what to do, and perhaps live with the consequences of their actions. Many parents think it’s important to do this at times – if we always protect and rescue our kids from all possible mistakes, they may not learn important lessons about the impact of their choices.

Natural consequences are best used when the results of the mistake will be a little painful so a lesson is learned, but not too painful. For example, if the child might break a $5 toy, you might not intervene, but if they’re about to break your laptop, you should stop them! If they might get a bump or a bruise, you might let that play through, but if they’re risking a broken bone, you will stop them.

Natural consequences are not administered by the parent. They’re the responsibility of the child – they took the action that caused the consequence.

Logical consequences

Logical consequences are imposed by the parent for misbehavior.

When entering a new situation, it’s the parent’s job to make sure the child knows what to expect, and what’s expected of them. We teach them how to be good. If they start a mild misbehavior, we might start correcting that by telling them what TO DO instead. But, if the misbehavior is getting worse, a consequence may be appropriate.

Generally*, you will give an “if / then” warning to let them know what’s coming so they have a chance to change behavior and avoid the consequence. Some examples, sorted into categories:

  • Removing the child from a situation where there’s an issue:
    • “If you run near the parking lot, then we’ll have to leave the playground.”
    • “If you knock the books off the library shelf, we’ll go home instead of going to story time.”
    • “If you are loud in the restaurant, then we won’t be able to stay to have dessert.”
  • Removing the problem item from them:
    • “If you don’t put away your toys, I will put them away and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
    • “If you two can’t share that toy nicely, then I will put it away for the rest of the play date.”
    • “If you knock your plate on the ground, then lunch is over and I won’t get you more food till afternoon snack time.”
  • Removing a privilege
    • “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, then no screen time tomorrow.”
    • “Since you hurt your friend, I can’t let you play tag anymore.”
    • “If you don’t put all your laundry in the basket, then no candy today.”
  • Requiring the child to do something to repair a situation.
    • “If you spill the water, you will have to clean it up.”
    • “If you break that, you’ll have to use your allowance to buy a new one.”

Make sure:

  • the consequence is developmentally appropriate
    • For a toddler, it has to be immediate and short term – if they start throwing blocks, you immediately pick them up and take them away from the blocks. Then you help them find a new activity to do. A few minutes later, they might wander back to the blocks and play with them appropriately.
    • For a preschooler, the consequence should still follow closely after the behavior but can last a little longer. If they are playing in a way that could break a toy, you take it away right away, and say “I’ll keep this safe till tomorrow, then we can try again.”
    • For an older child, the consequence can be more delayed and last longer. For a teenager, it could even be something like: “if you don’t do well on fall semester grades, then I won’t let you try out for the spring musical.”
  • the consequence is in proportion to how bad the behavior was
    • If a child spilled juice, you wouldn’t say “no drinks at the next five meals.” But you could say “no more juice today. If you are thirsty, you can have water.”
    • If a child failed to put away toys one time, you wouldn’t throw away all the toys. But the toys could “take a break” for a day or two.
  • you choose a consequence you can and will follow through on enforcing
    • Kids need to know they can trust their parents to keep their promises. That includes being consistent when applying consequences. Don’t go easy on the consequences and back down… if you do this once, they’ll try to beg you down on the next several times.
    • No empty threats. When you tell your child “if you don’t come right now, I’m leaving you here at the store and not coming back.” They know that’s not true. (And if they thought it was true, that would be very scary for them.)
  • you carry it out calmly, not with anger and shaming – consequences are not about punishing your child or making them “really regret” their choices – they’re about learning that their choices have impact and helping them learn the importance of better choices in the future.
  • as I said above*, generally you want to warn before imposing a consequence, so they have a chance to make a better choice. However, if they are hurting someone or something, there’s not a warning – it’s an immediate consequence. “You bit your friend. We are leaving the park now.” At a family meeting, when all is calmed down, you can discuss your rules with your child and establish in advance what behavior you consider unacceptable that will always warrant an immediate consequence.

For lots more on discipline, read The Discipline Toolbox, and follow the links in that post to find lots more tips.

 

When/Then and If/Then

Two useful discipline tools for parents are the “when / then” and the “if / then” statements.

When / Then

This statement basically says “when you do [this positive behavior], then you will get [this positive social reward].”

The statement first tells your child what you want them to do, then it implies that you are totally expecting your child to do this positive thing, now that you’ve explained to them what’s expected. And in return for doing it, they can expect to continue to have your loving, positive attention.

Some examples:

  • “When you’ve brushed your teeth and gone potty, then we get to read a bedtime story.”
  • “When you finish cleaning up your Legos, then we can play a game.”
  • “When you’re ready for school on time, then you can work on a drawing.”
  • “When you’re sitting down in your chair, then I will give you your dessert.”
  • “When you’re sitting in your car seat, then I will tell you a joke.”

If / Then

“If you do [this negative behavior], then you will get [this consequence.]”

This statement assumes they are likely to do something wrong, and tells them that if they do, they will experience a negative consequence.

You don’t want to start here: First, assume the best of your child! Giving a “when / then” first gives them the best chance at making a positive choice and being rewarded for that.

If the when / then didn’t work, that’s when we turn to if / then.

  • “If you can’t finish getting ready for bed in the next five minutes, then you’ll have to go straight to bed without a bedtime story.”
  • “If you don’t put your Legos away in the next five minutes, then I will have to put them away, and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
  • “If you’re not ready for school on time, then you won’t be able to draw today.”
  • “If you don’t sit down now, then you won’t be able to have dessert tonight.”
  • “If you don’t sit in your car seat by yourself, then I will have to put you there and buckle you in. Then I can’t tell you the joke I have saved up for today.”

Think about your tone when presenting these statements. These don’t need to come off as angry threats that sound like “If you don’t cut that out, you’re going to be in big trouble with me!!” They can just be matter of fact statements about the natural or logical consequences of their actions. You may even let your tone know that you’re a little disappointed that you won’t be able to read the bedtime story or tell them the joke – that encourages them to try harder to win back that positive social reward from you.

Learn about lots of other tools for your Discipline Toolbox here.

Your Discipline Toolbox

There are lots of different discipline techniques you can use to guide your children toward good behavior. Learning about them is like stocking your toolbox for home maintenance. If your house has a good solid foundation, and you perform regular, routine maintenance, then you may not need to pull out your toolbox very often. But we all have those little repair jobs to do from time to time that require a basic, all-purpose tool, and some days we have really big issues that we need to pull out specialized power tools to address, and sometimes we even need to call in a professional to help. This post will orient you to all the tools in your toolbox, and help you figure out how to use the right tool for the right job, in the right way.

[Note: This post is intended as an overview… there are LOTS of links in this post that will take you to other articles I’ve written with more details on these techniques.]

What is Discipline?

Discipline means guidance. It means good modeling, setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming that they know how, and setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we will tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

Building a Strong Foundation

All discipline is grounded in a positive relationship. Here’s some ways to build that foundation:

  • Play together—often!
  • Have snuggle time and special time and let them know that you love them.
  • Talk and listen to them—build a “Love Map” of what’s important to them.
  • Validate their emotions—their feelings are always OK. (Some behaviors are not.)
  • Be consistent and trustworthy.
  • Ask for respect from them and treat them with respect.
  • Teach how to be good: talk about values; model, coach, and praise good behavior.

Do Routine Maintenance

  • Take care of yourself. Get the support you need in order to have enough energy to be a calm, thoughtful parent.
  • Whenever possible, ensure your child is well fed and well rested.
  • Avoid overstimulation (it leads to meltdowns).
  • Spend time in kid-friendly environments where it’s easy for them to succeed.
  • Set expectations: warn of transitions, and explain what the plans are.
  • Create predictable routines & clear rules so they know what’s expected of them. Set appropriate limits on behavior. (Be sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Don’t ask more of them than they are capable of.)

To Improve Behavior

When there’s not really bad behavior, but there are places where if your child was behaving better, your family life would be smoother and happier, here’s how  to move things in a positive direction:

  • Use the Attention Principle: pay attention to positive behavior you want to see more of.
  • Use When / Then. “When you do [positive behavior], then you get [something positive.]”
  • Create a Reward System. (Read more about praise and reward here.)
  • Create a Routine to address any chronic challenge in daily family life.
  • Clarify rules—your child may do something that they didn’t realize was wrong. You can explain what the problem is and how to avoid it in the future.

For example, if you are often running late to school in the morning because your child is reading or playing instead of getting dressed, you could set up a routine by writing down what the steps are that they need to do, saying when you do these steps on time, then you can read your book, and giving them a reward at the end of the week if they’re on time every day.

To Correct Minor Misbehavior

(Note: If your child is hurting someone or something, skip to the next level.)

These tools are meant to correct problematic behavior. As parents, a big part of our job is to help our children learn to be good people, as this helps them succeed in school, work, and in all of life. To do that, we need to set clear limits on what’s OK and what’s not OK. (Learn here about the authoritative parenting style, which balances high expectations for our children with high responsiveness to them as individuals.)

For example, if you’re trying to get dinner ready and your toddler is banging their sippy cup to get your attention, you might just ignore that. Or you substitute by trading the cup for a drum. If their milk spills, then you can let them experience the natural consequences by having them wipe up the milk, then giving them a cup of water to replace it. Or you could say “if you keep banging your milk, then I will take it away, and you’ll get water with dinner later.”

To Correct Major Misbehavior

These are your power tools. You’re not going to pull them out of the toolbox every day, but they’re there when you need them.

You might use them any time your child is hurting someone or something or is at risk of being hurt. You might also use them for non-compliance – if you used the tools in the category above (telling your child what TO DO, given clear commands, etc.) and they continue to disobey, then these tools kick in.

  • Use Time Out from Positive Attention. This gives them (and you) an opportunity to calm down.
    • Note: If your child is in the midst of a meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them… they’re in their “downstairs brain”. (Learn more here.)
  • Impose a Logical Consequence—make sure the “punishment fits the crime.”
  • Seek peer advice, parent education, or professional support as needed.

You may notice that I haven’t talked about one discipline tool: Physical Discipline. Many parents have discovered that, in the short term, spanking can be an effective way to get a child to stop doing something bad. But, in the long term, it can damage the relationship, cause fear and anxiety in the child, and teach the child that anger and violence are the ways to get things done. It also doesn’t teach them much about why the behavior is bad – they may avoid doing it when you’re around so they won’t get hit, but there’s no reason for them to avoid it when you’re not there, so they don’t gain self discipline skills. Read more on physical punishment and spanking here.

Sometimes handling our child’s misbehavior can make us really angry. Look here for tips on “What if you’re angry at your child?“.

Move On

When misbehavior stops, or after a time out or a consequence is complete, then re-engage with your child, providing positive attention and praise for good behavior.

It’s especially important to do this if you got angry at your child. Read more about Resolution.

Self Discipline

Our goal for discipline, in the long-run, is to make ourselves obsolete. Our children need to learn to
discipline themselves. We want to raise adults who are capable of controlling their impulsive behavior, capable of working hard for a delayed reward (or even no reward other than their satisfaction with a job well done), and who have such a strong internal sense of right and wrong that it guides their every action, and who do what’s right simply because they can’t imagine behaving differently. Read more on self-discipline and how to begin to teach it.

Handout

If you’d like a free, printable handout that summarizes all this information, just click here for the Discipline Toolbox in color or Discipline Toolbox,  Black and White.

Should we teach toddlers to say “I’m sorry”

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My short answer:

  • Yes, teach the behavior – teach when it is appropriate to apologize. Also teach that they can take actions that help to right their wrong.
  • However, you can’t expect a young child to really feel sorry. As they get older, they will learn this empathy and learn to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Don’t force a child to apologize. This is perceived by the child as punishment and shaming, and does nothing to teach them empathy for the other person or teach them what steps to take to make things better.

The long answer…

Should you force a child to apologize?

We’ve all seen times where a parent marches their child over to someone, then stands over the child saying “You need to apologize. You have to say you’re sorry, right now.”

Some children feel embarrassed or awkward, and stare at the ground, and shuffle their feet, and get more and more anxious until forced to blurt out the word. Others get into a power struggle with their parent, inflating a small transgression into a big battle, where the parent adds additional punishments – “no dessert till you say you’re sorry” till the child says a sarcastic ‘sorry’ through clenched teeth. Some kids will figure out that they should just get it over as quickly as possible, and mumble out the word “sorry” without looking at the person the apology is theoretically directed at, and then try to escape the situation as quickly as possible, moving away from the parent and from the person they apologized to.

When apologies are used in this way, the child views apologies as a punishment for bad behavior.

Got that? The apology is something you’re making them do because they were bad. They’re not learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because it hurts him and makes him sad.” They’re learning “you shouldn’t hit your friend because if your parent / teacher sees you hit them, you’ll get this punishment.”

A forced apology is unpleasant and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and this awkwardness distances the apologizer from the person they are making the apology to. It does not encourage empathy toward that person’s experience, and instead can promote resentment toward them. The person being apologized to often feels awkward as well, and moves away from the apologizer as quickly as they can.

For older kids who understand what sorry means, forcing them to say it when they don’t mean it is teaching them to lie.

The forced sorry can also feel like it “fixed” the situation. We hurt someone, but we said sorry so it’s resolved now, right? It implies that there’s no need to check in to see if it’s resolved, or to take any further actions to right our wrong.

Should we teach a child to apologize? What does it mean to apologize?

Of course we should teach apologies! We absolutely want to take steps in the toddler years and preschool years to teach empathy, to teach taking responsibility for our actions, and to teach the social skills that will aid them in later life. A true apology is an essential aspect of this.

A true apology is not just good manners. It’s not just accepting blame for something. It’s taking responsibility for your actions, feeling empathy for the person you have wronged, and working to make amends.

Here’s the thing – we can’t expect children to fully understand this when they’re toddlers or preschoolers! They are not yet capable of true empathy. We can role model empathy and working to right wrongs, and we can teach the behavior of apologizing – the understanding will eventually follow.

Role model and teach empathy

If you want your child to learn empathy, respect and responsibility, the best way to teach that is to be a good role model of all these things in all your interactions, but especially in interactions with your child. (Note: being empathetic does NOT mean I say yes to everything to avoid making them sad, and being respectful does NOT mean I don’t set reasonable and healthy limits. We can say no with empathy and with respect.)

Development of empathy

As young as one year, a child may occasionally notice distress in others and try to soothe them. But other times, they are oblivious to the emotions of others.

Around 18 – 24 months, a child starts to really understand that they are a separate individual from other people and that other people can have different thoughts and feelings than they do. But being able to put themselves in someone’s shoes and see how their actions made someone feel is just more than they can understand.

At 2 – 3 years, they begin to understand simple emotions in others, such as glad, mad, sad, and scared. Around 4 or 5, they start understanding complex emotions in others. After age 6, they begin to understand what other people are thinking. (See resources below on empathy.)

So, we know it’s a while before they get the feeling side of an apology. But, we can teach the behavior long before that.

Teach the behavior at teachable moments

Starting around 1 year old, you can teach your child basic behaviors. Your child will sometimes accidentally hurt you or someone else – moments like when they bump their head into your chin when you’re bending over them. This gives you the chance to teach them. It’s easy to teach even a young toddler that “When you bump me, and I say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry – are you OK?'” If they carelessly bump someone else, like moving past someone to get to the slide, say “I notice you just bumped them. Can you go back, say you’re sorry and ask if they’re OK?” If they take a toy away from someone without thinking, say “I think X was playing with that toy. Say ‘I’m sorry I took your toy. Is it OK if I play with it?'”

Note, these are all low stress moments. Your child has unintentionally (or slightly intentionally) harmed someone, and we’re asking them to notice this, and make amends. This teaches more awareness of others, which leads toward empathy.

Some preschool teachers choose to skip the ‘I’m sorry’, and go straight to the “Are you OK?” or “What can I do to help?” because those focus on empathy for the other person and moving toward a solution together.

Teaching the behavior after stressful moments

Other times, your child does intentional harm. We need to set limits on this and there need to be consequences. But the consequences for your child are about the behavior itself, and the apology is about caring for the other person. The consequences need to be separate from the apology.

I recommend: disciplining your child as appropriate to the moment, and working on the apology later. The misbehaving toddler needs immediate consequences for bad behavior. The wronged toddler needs immediate reassurance. Apologies come later.

For example, if you see A bite B:

  • Get down to their level and put yourself between them to prevent further harm.
  • Say to A “You just bit her. That was not OK. Biting is never OK.” [Setting limits.]
  • Turn to B, establish eye contact. Say “I’m sorry he bit you. Are you OK?” [Providing reassurance, and role modeling an apology.] Once you’ve verified she’s OK,
  • Turn back to A: “You and I need to take a break from playing for a few minutes till you’ve calmed down.” [Consequences.]
  • Help A to calm down. Don’t talk too much here! (When a child is upset enough to bite, they are too upset to listen to you, and too upset to learn anything, especially something as sophisticated as empathy for the person they’ve just harmed.)
  • Once A is calmed down, then talk to him about biting [reminder of limits] and let him know that his actions hurt the other child [focusing the attention on making amends rather than on his wrong-doing].
  • I will say “Let’s go check on her together and see how she’s doing.” I get down on the same level as both kids, and I encourage him “ask her if she’s OK.” After they’ve connected, then I say “you hurt her earlier. Can you please say you’re sorry?”
  • Then I help them begin to play together again before moving away. [healing the relationship]

In this scenario, the biting toddler received the immediate limit setting and consequence they needed. The child who was bit received prompt attention and reassurance. Later on, we handled the apology and moving on.

How do you resolve the situation with the other parent

Let’s be honest. Sometimes we force our child to apologize because we, as the parents, are embarrassed about our child’s behavior, and we don’t want the other family to think that we’re bad parents. How do we handle that?

In the moment after the incident, we work with the children. They need immediate responses to understand.

If we handle it well, the other parent (who has a longer attention span and memory than the children) sees that we did address the situation in a way that was supportive to everyone, set limits, and taught empathy skills. Later on, we can also talk it over with the parent, and apologize, and talk together about how we’re all just doing our best to help our kids learn.

Are reparations needed?

Sometimes an empathetic sorry is all that’s needed. But sometimes we need to take actions to make things right. (Like re-building a tower, fixing a broken toy, cleaning up a mess.) Help your child figure out what to do in these circumstances.

The power of real apologies to heal relationships

In a study, 6 and 7 year olds were paired with a researcher and asked to build towers of plastic cups. Then the adult would “accidentally” knock over the child’s tower. The adult would either apologize OR say nothing, and then leave the room. Right after the incident, the children felt bad whether or not they received an apology. Later on, though, when children were asked to give stickers to their adult partner, the ones who had received apologies were more generous – presumably indicating they had forgiven their partner.

However, if the adult apologized AND helped re-build the tower, the children felt better right after the incident and gave more stickers later. According to the researcher “actively trying to put things right can help the victim to feel better in a couple of ways. The first is the effect of undoing some of the harm by putting things right. The second effect is by showing the victim that the person who hurt them is sincere and genuinely wants to make things better between them.”  (Source)

My experience

When my older kids were little (back in the 90’s!), I did not teach them to say “sorry” until they were four or five years old. I’d seen too many forced apologies, and too many times where the kid saying the word sorry was clearly not feeling the emotion of sorry. They were just doing what they had to do to complete their punishment.

When my older kids were little, if they did wrong to someone, I apologized for them, and I worked with them to correct their behavior. I only started teaching sorry when they demonstrated enough empathy that I thought they were old enough to understand it. (Probably around 4 years old.)

With child #3, when he was just learning to talk, I started teaching the behavior of “If you do something to someone and they say ‘Ow’, you need to say ‘I’m sorry. Are you OK?'” And every single time an opportunity came up, I reminded him of this behavior. He didn’t yet understand that he was responsible for hurting someone and he didn’t yet have empathy for the fact that they were in pain, because he just wasn’t old enough for his brain to be able to understand it. But, he could, and did, learn the behavior.

Over time, I saw him start to get it. He would say sorry out of habit, and then when he asked “are you OK?” he would notice that they weren’t OK, and feel empathy for them. He started to understand that their sadness was due to what he had done and he started to take responsibility for it. I feel like he ended up understanding the meaning of sorry (both taking responsibility and feeling empathy for the other) much younger than my other kids, because the behavior caused him to pay attention to those situations.

He’s now five, and often offers spontaneous apologies for any minor wrong he does to people. Sometimes when he’s really angry, the apology doesn’t come right away. That’s when I have to return to the method I describe above of: setting limits on him, reassuring the other child, and then when he’s calmed down helping him understand what he has done and working with him to make the apology. He’s still learning, because he is only 5 years old. Some days it comes easier than others, but I feel like we’re on the right path.

Read more about apologies

Learn more about empathy – how children develop it and how you can help

Learn more about emotional development

Discipline is grounded in Relationship

scribble

Last night, in a class discussion about discipline, we were sharing examples of discipline challenges. One mom said sometimes when she puts out paper and markers, she tells her child he needs to keep the markers on the paper, and not draw off the edges of the paper onto the table. Yet, he often draws off the edges, looking up at her to see her reaction.

There are several possible responses to this situation: You could change the environment to make it easier for him to succeed: place a big piece of newspaper under the art paper so if he draws off the edges it doesn’t matter. You could create a game that makes it easier to succeed by telling him what to do: “I drew a big turtle here. Can you color in the turtle’s shell? This is a re-direction: telling him a different activity to focus on with the same objects. And you can “catch him being good” by noticing what a good job he does of staying on the paper most of the time. You could use substitution – giving him different materials to do the same action with. “I see you really love doing big giant scribbles. We can’t do that on the table. Let’s get some chalk and go draw on the sidewalk.” (Or water to paint the fence with, or a giant piece of paper on the floor.) You could model by sitting next to him and drawing yourself. You could think about whether he’s developmentally ready for the task: maybe he’s just not old enough to keep the marker on the paper reliably. If you think it’s purposeful misbehavior (not just that he’s young and goes off the paper by accident) you could set limits and consequences: “It’s not OK to draw on the table. If you do it again, I will need to take away the markers and paper.”

So, which one of these possible actions do you do? What will work best in the short-term and the long-term to move your child toward behaving like you want him to? (This being the goal of discipline.)

The answer: it depends.

Temperament: I often say that the type of parenting your child needs depends on their temperament. For example, for most children, it works well to put on your voice of authority in discipline situations and speak sternly to them so they know you’re serious. But, there are a few children who are easily distressed by a stern voice or strong words (possibly those whose love language is words of affirmation). They will feel ashamed or anxious if you use this tone. They may instead need you to be gentle and say quietly “I love you and I’m concerned about you. How can we help you do better?”

Motivation: I also think that what form of discipline works depends on your motivation and your child’s motivation. For example, if you really want your child to love doing art, you might think about ways to do art that don’t make messes that trouble you, so you might take your child and the chalk and go outside. But, if your motivation was to get your child to sit still for just a minute while you cook, then you may try something other than an art project. If your child loves doing art, then the consequence of “I will take away the markers” would be a big motivator to try to do things differently. But if they’re not that motivated to do art, then they’ll probably just continue drawing on the table so you will take the markers away and maybe give them something they think is more interesting to do.

For more thoughts on motivation, read this post on Motivation, Punishment and Reward.

Relationship: But today, as I thought about temperament and I thought about motivation, I realized that really the key to deciding which discipline tool will work for you and your child in the moment is Relationship.

  • Relationship helps you understand their temperament and know how you need to adapt your message so they hear and respond to it.
  • Relationship helps you understand their motivations. If you know someone well, then you will know whether it would be more effective to say “if you can do this [good behavior], then you can have this [thing you want]” or “if you continue to do that [bad behavior], I’m going to have to enforce this consequence you don’t want.”
  • If you have a loving and trusting relationship, they will believe you when you say things like “I love you. But that behavior was not OK, so I needed it to stop. I know you can do better in the future.” If you have to enforce consequences, they’ll know that they weren’t done out of anger or lack of love for them, but were instead done to help motivate them toward better behavior.
  • If you have a positive relationship and positive expectations for your child, they will want to live up to those expectations and be worthy of your respect.

Effective discipline needs to be based in a consistent, reliable, respectful relationship.

There are some “discipline tools” which don’t honor this. For example, any discipline that involves shaming your child doesn’t come from a positive relationship place. “You are so bad. You know not to do that but you keep on doing it because you’re a bad kid.” Shame might re-direct their behavior in the short run, but it doesn’t lead to them feeling good about themselves or about you. Another example is physical punishment, such as spanking. Physical punishment done in anger is very frightening to a child and very damaging to a relationship. But even well-reasoned, “logical” punishment is not the best discipline tool. It does work to change behavior in the short-term. But, it doesn’t motivate the child to do better in the future, especially when the punishing parent is out of sight. So, in our example from above: if every time a child drew on the table, you slapped their hands, they would probably stop drawing on the table. But, they would have less trust in you, and consider art and drawing to be stressful and unpleasant activities.

Instead, it is best if discipline comes from a place of: “I love you and I want to help you grow up to be a good person. I know that you’re still figuring out what that means, and testing your limits, so you’re going to do bad things sometimes. That’s normal… but it’s not OK. When you do bad things, I will stop you, and I will tell you how to do better in the future. Because I know that you can be a good person.”

Because relationship is so key to discipline, remember this: No matter which discipline tool you use to respond to a situation, the very first thing you need to do is connect to your child: get down to their level, look in their eyes, or touch them gently. Make sure you have their attention. Then you can re-direct, or substitute, or set limits, or whatever. And they will hear you, and remember that your request comes from the relationship: you love them and you want them to be safe and successful. To remember this step, use the mantra: Connect to Correct.

 

photo credit: Sam’s first mastrpiece (recto) via photopin (license)

Discipline Tools Posters

When discussing Discipline, I use a tool I developed called the Discipline Flow Chart. It covers 6 steps:

  1. Prevent Behavior Problems
  2. When a problem begins, decide whether intervention is needed. (Pick your battles.)
  3. Instead of telling your child “Don’t Do X” or “Stop Y”, tell them what TO DO. A young child is often not able to think of alternatives, so tell them a positive action to take, and that’s often all you need do.
  4. If the problem is escalating, or is already at the point where more direct intervention is needed, let your child know a) what the problem is, and b) what the consequences will be if the problem continues.
  5. If the problem is at the point where immediate intervention is needed (especially if there’s imminent risk of harm to someone or something), then immediately enforce consequences: either remove the child from the situation, or remove the problematic item from the child.
  6. Move on. Let your child know that you still love them, but that their behavior was not OK, and you won’t let them do it now or in the future. Give a hug, and let it go.

Students asked for a poster to summarize this, so here’s the Discipline Flow Chart Mini Poster. I also have posters I hang in class, and students asked for a mini version of the discipline tools posters