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

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Discipline is grounded in Relationship

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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

What’s Behind Their Anger?

Some psychologists argue that anger is a secondary emotion – a behavioral expression that is rooted in a core emotion of fear or grief. The idea is that when overwhelmed by one of those vulnerable emotions, it’s easier to express that as anger than get lost in those feelings.

Next time your child is angry, it may be helpful for you to remember this and to ask yourself: what’s behind the anger – is the child afraid of something or sad about something? Addressing the underlying emotion can sometimes be the key to resolving the angry behavior. Let me share a story:

Recently, our four year old was angry. The angriest he’s ever been. Shaking with anger. Yelling so loud I’m sure all the neighbors heard, and hitting and scratching. It was only for a couple minutes, but it sure felt longer than that!

It could have been tempting in the moment to scold him or punish him for his bad behavior. It would have been easy to be angry right back. That would have just escalated the situation. Understanding and acknowledging the context of his anger helped us to resolve it and move forward in a positive way. Here’s the full story:

It was a Friday night at the end of a very busy week for both my husband and I. We’d been swamped with work, and not paying as much attention to our son as usual. It was an hour past his bedtime. Why was he still up? Because I was so busy trying to get a project done for the next day that I hadn’t really been thinking about his schedule. I let him watch videos, which we usually don’t do at night, because it makes bedtime harder. He was tired and hungry. We were tired and stressed. He had just watched a video of Cat in the Hat, singing Calculatus Eliminatus, which shows the Cat recommending that when you lose something, you walk around the house and write numbers on all the places that it is not located. Our son was talking about going around the house and writing on furniture and walls and such. We were, distractedly, telling him that wasn’t a good idea, and no, he wasn’t allowed to do that.

Then suddenly he ran into the kitchen where I was working, and scribbled on the cherry-wood kitchen cabinets with a black permanent magic marker.

I yelled. My husband yelled.

My son yelled back. He was angry! He was a seething mass of four year old fury.

We told him he could not draw on the house and it was not OK. He got angrier. He was hitting and trying to hurt.

I held his wrists, telling him that hurting me is not OK. He got angrier.

Instead of getting angry back, I took a breath and thought, and then said to him “You are really really mad because you were really really scared, is that right?”

Immediately, the fists went down, the tears welled up. I said “It was really really scary to you when Daddy and I yelled at you, wasn’t it?” He sank down to the floor and started crying. I sat on the floor and held him, and we talked about being scared and we apologized for scaring him. We also apologized that we had been so busy and stressed all week, and acknowledged that was hard for him.

But we didn’t change any rules. We still stuck to and reiterated the limits that it’s not OK to draw on the house and it’s not OK to hit people. We talked about the idea of permanent markers and only using them on things like paper, not on permanent things like furniture. We said we understood that the Cat in the Hat game looked fun, and suggested that we could do it by writing numbers on post-it notes and putting those on the doors and the furniture, but that we never write on furniture.

When he was calmed down, I took him to bed, and read I Love You Forever, a sweet book about how even when kids drive parents crazy in the moment, they still love them forever.

He was asleep five minutes later.

It was about 15 minutes after the blow-up. My husband had managed to get the marker off the cabinet. But more importantly, the emotional explosion was also resolved, and the relationship restored.

The name of this blog is More Good Days. It ties into my philosophy of “we’re going to have good days as parents and we’re going to have bad days when we really screw it up…. in the end, we hope for more good days than bad.” This episode was a few minutes of really bad parenting following a week of mediocre parenting. But, in the end, it was a positive resolution, based on understanding and acknowledging his feelings. In the end, it was a good day.

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To learn more about children’s emotions and our own, check out these posts:

Emotion Coaching and Emotional Literacy: helping your child learn to recognize, understand, and mange his or her emotions.

Is It OK to get Angry? Focuses on understanding a child’s anger and accepting their feelings, but placing appropriate limits on behavior.

Parental Anger: a multi-post series on preventing parental meltdowns, coping with them when they happen, fighting with your partner in front of your child, and resolving these issues and moving on.

What if you’re angry at your child?

screamThis is part of a week-long series on Parental Anger.

People often tell me that when they get angry at their kids, they feel like bad parents.

It’s important for parents to realize: It’s normal and OK for you to sometimes get mad at almost anyone – and especially at people who you spend many hours a week with and who often make unreasonable demands of you!

Here are some things to think about when you find yourself angry at your child:

  • Are your expectations appropriate? If you find yourself saying “Kids your age are supposed to do X. Why don’t you?” or “no matter how hard I try, I can’t make my kid do Y…” that shows you have an assumption about what they’re developmentally capable of. Check resources on child development to make sure you’re right and not holding them to an impossible standard.
    • For example, the leading trigger for child abuse is potty training accidents. Parents often think their child should be potty trained much younger than they are really developmentally capable. The average child doesn’t potty train till around 30 months, yet every year there are many reports of toileting related abuse at 20 – 24 months. It’s unfair to expect more out of a child than they’re capable of!
    • Also know that children’s developmental capabilities regress when they’re upset. Although your three year old might normally understand language quite well and might normally be capable of making a choice between 3 options, you may find that when they’re in the middle of an emotional meltdown, they can’t understand words and they can’t make choices.
  • Is this a phase? There are predictable periods in children’s lives where they are going through lots of developmental changes – called “periods of disequilibrium”. They tend to be pretty hard to live with at these times. Seek extra support to help you through this rough patch.
  • Are they testing you? It’s normal for all kids, especially toddlers and teenagers, to test their limits. It’s how they learn the rules. But it can be exhausting and infuriating when they do the same thing over and over even when “they know it’s wrong”. Over-reacting to this testing and getting angry may make the testing worse, as they discover they have power over you and can make you lose your cool. Instead, calmly and consistently reinforce limits. Describe the consequences they will face if the behavior repeats, and then follow through.
  • What’s your attitude toward discipline? If you think it’s about making the child do whatever you tell them to do, you’re setting yourself up for some battles of will. If you think of it as guiding your child to behave as well as possible, and having high expectations, but also knowing that some days they won’t meet them, you may be more successful.
  • Is your child just trying to get your attention? How does your child feel right now? Are they angry themselves? Scared? Lonely? Try to empathize with what the need.
  • Are you really angry at your child or are you angry at someone / something else? We sometimes have “spill over” anger. We’re mad at our partners, or mad about something at work, or mad that we’re late due to a traffic jam. And our child does something minor that makes us explode and take out our anger on them. Try to catch this when it’s happening, and if you can’t, go back to your child later and apologize to them.

If you have let your anger out and yelled at your child, there’s some healing and resolution to do. Check out this post.

Learn more about handling anger at a child: http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/positive-discipline/handling-anger

Photo: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/579286

Motivation, Punishment and Reward

starsOur kids are always learning from us. They learn by observing as we role model a variety of skills, they learn by interacting with us as we play, and they learn when we actively “teach” them. There are many things we teach casually, and aren’t too worried about the exact timeline when our child picks up the idea. Things like covering your mouth when you sneeze, saying please, or putting their dish in the sink. There are other things though that we may have a sense are REALLY IMPORTANT, or that we believe MUST BE DONE BY A CERTAIN AGE and those are the things we tend to stress about our child learning. Potty training and reading both fit in this category for many parents. What happens when there is something we really want our kids to learn?

The first thing I’d ask you to consider: Is this skill developmentally appropriate? Can we typically expect a child of this age to learn this thing? Once you’ve learned it is appropriate, then you can consider teaching it.

Motivation

There will be many times in your child’s life where you want them to do something they don’t want to do, or there’s a skill you want them to learn because it will be valuable in the long run, but they aren’t particularly interested in learning at this moment in time. How can you help them find their own internal motivation? Potty training is one of our first chances to explore this challenge, so we’ll use it as our example.

First, consider your motivations. Why do you want your child to learn this new skill? Here are some common reasons and some examples from the potty training process.

  • Outside demands: Is it pressure from a pre-school or daycare that requires it by a certain age?
  • Peer pressure: Is it because other families are doing it, and you’re feeling peer pressure to keep up? The media and social media can also create this pressure of what our child “should” do.
  • What you do or don’t want to do yourself: Are you just tired of changing diapers? Or tired of paying for diapers? Or washing them?
  • What you want for your child: You want to encourage your child toward independence in all areas?

The clearer your motivation, and the stronger your motivation, the more time and energy you’re likely to be willing to commit to the process. Some parents actually find that they’re not actually motivated to teach a skill. For example, the diaper routine might be working for their family’s schedule and commitments. This is fine for a while, but at some point (maybe three years old for potty training?) it’s time to help your child move forward.

Then ask yourself: What are your child’s motivations? Try to view things from your child’s perspective and understand why they might not be as interested in learning a new skill as you are in teaching it.

In our potty training example: Why might a child prefer to continue to use diapers? Some ideas: they’re used to eliminating in their diaper – it’s comfortable and familiar. They may be in a state of regressing a bit, and not feeling bold enough to be ‘a big kid’. They may not like interrupting play time with trips to the potty. They might be frightened of the potty. They might be rebellious toddlers, defying their parents ‘just because.’ They might have a desire to be completely in control of their bodies. They might also have been constipated at one point, and found that it hurt to have a bowel movement, and be afraid of repeating that experience.

Then ask: What might motivate your child to use the potty? Some options are punishment or rewards…

Punishment?

It’s best not to use punishment. Punishment can definitely work in the short term, in that a child who is punished for doing something (e.g. eliminating in a diaper) may well try hard to avoid that punishment in the future (e.g. by using the potty). But it could also shame them and damage their self-esteem. And it also means that they’re doing something only to avoid punishment – not for any positive reason.

On the other hand, logical consequences are appropriate, as long as they are done without shaming. For example, having them help with clean-up after an potty-training accident allows them to see the consequences. Or taking back the big kid underwear, saying ‘it looks like you’re not ready for this yet… let’s go back to diapers for a while’, helps them to see what the goal is and what the reward is of accomplishing it.

Rewards

Many people use a sticker chart, or other reward system when they want to shape behavior. The general idea is: talk with your child about what you want them to do, tell them that when they do it they’ll get a reward. Then involve them in setting up the system: pick out the reward, or make the chart, etc. For rewards, it’s best to choose something cheap and easy to obtain, like a sticker. (Not candy.) For a toddler, the reward needs to be immediate for them to understand “when I do this action, I get this reward.” Older kids can work toward a bigger reward over time – “if I do all my chores this week, we’ll watch a movie together on Friday night.”

Make sure they are clear about what the behavior is you are working on, and be consistent about the response. For example: “if you sit on the potty, you get a sticker whether or not you pee there” may be a good first level. Later on, when they’ve mastered that step, you ask more of them: they need to actually pee or poop to get the sticker. You may choose to also have a cumulative goal to work toward, like “once you’ve pooped in the potty 10 times, you will have filled the chart, then you get a new toy.” It’s important to think of these rewards as short-term reinforcement, not an on-going system! Over time you will phase out stickers completely. Rewards can be a very effective tool for toddlers. However, you don’t want to over-use rewards! And you want to make sure the focus is on accomplishing the goal for its own sake, not on just doing something so they get a reward.

Expectations

If you regularly say “If you do this [bad thing], then I will punish you by [negative consequence]”, your child might come to feel that you expect him to do bad things and you look forward to punishing him. Instead, try “When you do this good thing then you get this [positive consequence].” Make sure your tone of voice implies that you have confidence that they will do the good thing because that’s what you expect of them.

Praise

When your child accomplishes something for the first time, definitely praise them. If it’s a HUGE accomplishment, make the praise really big. But honestly, if it’s small accomplishment, the praise can be just a quiet observation that they accomplished it. As they start repeating a skill again and again, on the way to mastery, we can fade out our praise. It feels silly and a little embarrassing to get praised for something you’ve mastered (as you know if your child has told you something like “You peed in the potty! Good job mama!”) Praise them for what they have done, and the work it took to do it.

Read more about praise here.

The Downsides to Rewards & Praise

Critics of rewards say they are a short-term solution to gain compliance with parental requests, not a long-term path to instilling the behaviors, qualities, and values you want your child to attain. And, research has found that kids who are raised on a series of rewards can become more self-centered, materialistic, reward junkies looking for their next fix from parents who can become exhausted by coming up with new rewards.

Research has also shown praise can backfire. If we continually praise our child for being “smart”, “beautiful” or “strong”, then they may be afraid to take risks – not wanting to do anything that they might not succeed at… fearing that then we will realize they’re not so smart or strong or beautiful after all – and thus not lovable. Also, when a child is vigorously praised for every little thing she does, she may not know whether praise is genuine.

Experts recommend that when you want your child to learn a new skill, think about what it is you are really trying to teach and stay focused on that. Work with your child to find their motivation for learning this new skill. As they make attempts along the way, give specific praise for their efforts and their commitment, and specific recommendations for how they might improve. The emphasis is more on the process than the product, more on the work they do than on the “talent” they have. When they accomplish a goal that they set, then it is totally appropriate to celebrate that with something (Stickers? M&M’s? A special toy?) as long as the emphasis is on the value of the accomplishment itself, not on having done whatever they needed to do just to earn the reward.

Sources on Internal Motivation, Rewards and Praise

photo credit: Pewari via photopin cc

What do we know about spanking?

We know it works. We know spanking can increase compliance in the moment.

Parents who use physical punishment often discover that. Their child misbehaves, then they spank, then the child stops misbehaving. It’s very effective in the short term, so the parents continue to use it. And they discover that a small swat on the butt is not always effective, but hitting hard enough to inflict pain is really good at eradicating behavior over the long run.

But, it also has a lot of other unintended effects in the long-run.

People who were spanked are more likely to be aggressive, more likely to be delinquent, less verbal, more likely to abuse substances, more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, more likely to be obese and have cardiovascular disease, and more likely to abuse their spouse and children. They have lower I.Q. and less gray matter development in their brains.

Read this excellent infographic / article on the Psychology of Spanking to learn more.

spankFrom studying brain development, we know: When children are happy and feel safe, they learn, grow, explore and their brains develop. When they are stressed or frightened, their brain goes into survival mode. They can learn what not to do to create this situation again (i.e. when I do this behavior, my parent hurts me, so I shouldn’t do that behavior again.) But they’re not learning much else. Like what TO DO. (Or how to read, how to throw a ball, how to eat neatly… whatever it is the parent hopes they will learn soon.) Daniel Siegel has written about this neurological effect in The Whole Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline. Watch a video about it here.

85% of parents say they would rather not spank if they had a discipline alternative they believe would work. You can read my take on positive discipline here, or advice from the CDC here, or follow the recommendations in the Psychology of Spanking article [excerpts below…]

1) Develop a positive, supportive, loving relationship between parent and child:

  • Maintain a positive emotional tone in the home.
  • Pay attention to the child to increase positive behavior…
  • Be consistent in daily activities to reduce resistance and make negative experiences less stressful…
  • Be flexible by listening, negotiation, and involving the child in decision-making. This has been associated with long- term enhancement in moral judgment.

2) Use positive reinforcement strategies to increase desired behaviors…

  • Listen carefully and help them learn to use words to express their feelings.
  • Provide children with opportunities to make choices and to understand the consequences of their choice.
  • Reinforce desirable behaviors with frequent praise and ignore trivial misdeeds…

3) Remove reinforcements or apply punishment to reduce or eliminate undesired behaviors.

  • Be consistent with… removal of privileges (increases compliance from 25% to 80%)
  • Be clear about what the bad behavior is and what the consequences will be.
  • Deliver instruction and correction calmly and with empathy.
  • Provide a strong and immediate consequence when the bad behavior first occurs…
  • Give a reason for the consequence. This helps children learn appropriate behavior