Talking with Children about Sexuality

A lot of important topics fall under the umbrella of sexuality: anatomy, self care, body image, social norms, bodily autonomy, abuse prevention, consent, gender identity, sexual orientation, relationships and reproduction. These are not topics we save up for “the Talk” – one big conversation when our kid hits puberty! Instead, they are topics we can talk about a little at a time, in age appropriate ways, from when our children are very young. These open, matter of fact conversations not only give our children the information they need to stay safe and healthy, they also give us opportunities to share our family values, and to let our kids know that we are available as a resource to them. People who got accurate information from their parents, and know their parents are approachable for advice, are less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, and less likely to have a teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.  (Source, Source)

Here are common suggestions for topics to address and messages to share with your child. All families have their own set of values on these topics, and you know your own child best, so adapt these to fit your needs and what feels right to you.

  • Understanding Their Own Body, How It Works, and How to Keep It Healthy
    • Potty training (age 2 – 4) is a perfect time for teaching your child the names for their own body parts and products (penis, vagina, urethra, urine, bowel movement…) Teach the correct anatomical terms – this enables them to communicate with doctors in the future. (And can also help a child to clearly report sexual abuse.) Teach them how to care for their own bodies – how to wipe after using the toilet, and how to wash their own private parts.
    • When they become curious about other people’s bodies that are different from theirs (often age 4 – 6), answer their questions.
    • By age 8 or 9 – before they and their friends experience them, they need to know the basics of puberty, the menstrual cycle, and/or wet dreams / nocturnal emissions.
    • By age 10 – before they and their friends are likely to be sexually active, talk about sexual health, contraception, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI). Also talk about the importance of delaying sexual activity till they are older.
  • How They Feel About Their Bodies – Body Image. Throughout your child’s life, be conscious of how you talk about your own body image in front of them, be aware of the impact of media messages and peer pressure, and reinforce healthy, realistic attitudes.
  • Understanding Social Norms about Nudity and Public vs. Private Behavior
    • Children under age 4 may naturally have ‘no shame’ about their bodies – they may show body parts to others, look at and touch other people’s bodies un-self-consciously. We want to teach them the idea of ‘private parts’ – the parts of the body that a swimsuit covers – and your family / cultural norms about where and in what contexts it’s appropriate to show them or touch them and where it is not appropriate. For example, some families say “It may feel good to touch your private parts, and it is OK to touch your own private parts, but only when you’re alone, and only in the bathroom or your bedroom.”
    • At age 4 – 6, children usually understand this, but they may occasionally try to sneak a peek at others, or touch others, or play “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” This is not deviant… Playing doctor is normal behavior at this age (as long as it’s between children the same age, it’s consensual for both, it’s motivated by curiosity and only happens rarely). However, you should set limits and calmly explain why this behavior is not allowed in your family. (Learn more baout sexual development and behavior in children: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf)
    • This is also the time frame for potty humor, and then testing out swear words. Set limits for what is appropriate and in what contexts.
    • At age 7 – 12: Kids may play truth or dare style kissing games, look up words in the dictionary, or seek out pictures of nudity online. You can set parental controls and monitor media usage, but you should also talk to children about pornography and how it is designed for adults – tell them that if they encounter it on the internet, they should click away from it. (You might also talk about how pornography is often misogynistic and/or exploitative, and also that pornography sex is different than real world sex.)
    • It’s important for you to teach your child your family values and standards. For children ages 5 and up, explain that different people may have different standards.
  • Bodily Autonomy – Teach your children that their body belongs to them and ensure that they feel empowered to set limits on how others may touch them.
    • This can begin very young – when you are changing your child’s diaper or bathing them, you can talk with them about what you’re doing. Now, this doesn’t mean we ask permission to change a diaper. A lot of toddlers would say “no!” to that. But, we can still be respectful and explain to them what we are doing.
    • Don’t require that your child give hugs or kisses to anyone if they don’t want to.
    • Before tickling or rough-housing, ask them if they want that. Let them know that any time they want you to stop, all they have to do is say stop and you will. Also stop every once in a while and ask “are you having fun? Do you want to keep playing?”
    • For a child 3 or older, let them know it’s not OK for others to touch their private parts without permission. Even parents and doctors should ask if it’s OK, and explain why they need to touch them.
    • Talk about healthy touch – touch that is comforting, welcome, and pleasant – versus unhealthy – intrusive, unwelcome, uncomfortable. Tell them what to do, and who they can talk to, if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
    • Due to fears of abduction and abuse, we used to teach stranger danger. However, most crimes against children are done by people the child and the parents know. We need to instead teach about “tricky people.” Tricky people might try to arrange alone time with the child, ask the child to do something which breaks family rules, or doesn’t feel right, or ask the child to keep a secret. Learn how to teach about “tricky people” here: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2017/02/13/tricky-people/
  • Learning to Ask for Consent Before Touching Others
    • Around preschool, start encouraging your child to ask before giving hugs and kisses or climbing in someone’s lap. They should also not assume just because someone has welcomed their touch in the past means they want it right now. You might say: “I love having you in my lap, so usually I say yes, but ask first to be sure.”
    • You can apply consent in discipline situations: “Did you ask him if it was OK to hit him? If you had asked, what would he have said? Yeah, then it’s not OK to hit him.”
    • Read: “How Sex Educators Talk to their Sons About Consent
  • Gender Identity and Gender Roles
    • By 2 – 3 years, children begin to label themselves and others as male or female, By 3 – 4 years, they categorize thing as boy things or girl things, by 4 – 6, they say “only boys can do this” or ”girls never do that.” By 6 – 7 years children understand that boys grow up to be men, and that women aren’t “daddies.”
    • As they get older, their perception of gender roles will be highly influenced by peers, by the broader culture and by media. But the early years are an opportunity for you to share your family values and beliefs about gender roles and gender expression. Think about what you say and what you do, and how this shapes their views.
    • There are different components of gender: a person’s biological sex (their body parts), gender identity (do they view themselves as male or female), expression (how they dress, wear their hair, and move), and gender roles (what others expect them to be interested in or to do based on their perception of their gender).
    • Most of us were raised with a binary concept of gender – you are either male or female. There has been a significant cultural shift where the current generation of youth may have a view of gender more as a spectrum, which includes transgender, gender fluid, and gender non-conforming. To learn more about how to talk with your child about gender identity, see: plannedparenthood.org/learn/parents/
      preschool/how-do-i-talk-with-my-preschooler-about-identity
  • Sexual Orientation and Attraction
    • Kindergarten age children often explore the idea of couple relationships – “I’m going to marry her.” They may imitate relationship behaviors such as holding and kissing. 7 and 8 year olds may explore relationships “that’s my boyfriend” and may start to wonder about sex. They may be working to figure out the difference between liking a friend, loving a family member, being attracted to someone and being in love.
    • By age 4 or 5, most children have noticed in the families around them and in media messages that it is more common for men to marry women, and for boys to be in relationships with girls. Think about your family values about sexual orientation and same gender relationships and share those with your children with your words and actions. As your children get older, talk about how others may have different values.
  • Babies and Sex
    • Preschoolers will notice pregnant bellies and may tell you that babies come from mommies. And they may want to know how the baby will get out. But age 5, children may get curious about how the baby got in there.
    • For a preschooler, we might tell them that a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg make a baby, and the mother carries the baby in her uterus. For a 5 – 6 year old, many parents talk about how a man and woman lay together in a special way to make a baby. For older elementary students you may talk in more detail about sex, and also address the fact that sex can make a baby, but more often adults engage in sex because it feels good to adults.
  • Healthy Relationships with Others
    • Throughout your child’s early years, your words and actions, and those of other people in their lives model for them what to expect from relationships. Try to model healthy relationships. If there are unhealthy relationships in your environment, try to insulate young children from them, and talk to older children about them.
    • In general, a healthy relationship is one where you feel good about yourself, you feel supported and valued by the other person, and you feel safe with them.

When and How to Have the Conversation

Answer questions as they come up. (If the child is old enough to ask, they’re old enough to hear the answer.) But, be sure you know what question they’re asking, so you don’t either just tell them what they already know or give them way more than they’re asking for. Start with a brief answer, then ask “Does that answer your question?” or “Is there more you want to know?”

Look for teachable moments: When you happen to see something in a book, a movie, or while people watching that could lead into a conversation, just drop in a few little tidbits of information. Make these topics that are normal and comfortable to talk about. Watch their non-verbal cues for when it’s time to move on to another topic.

If there’s something you want to talk to them about, first ask them what they already know about that topic – that helps you set your conversation at the appropriate level of sophistication and also lets you catch and clear up any misconceptions they have.

Buy a book or two on the topics to keep on the shelf at home. For younger children, you may read them together. For older children, we often just have them available for them to use as a resource whenever they want to. They might not ever admit to you that they read the book, but you might notice some pages getting a little tattered over time as they seek out the information they want when they’re ready for it.

Recommended books for kids about sexuality:

For preschool ageAmazing You: Getting Smart About Your Private Parts, by Saltz. 

For early elementaryWhat’s the Big Secret? by Brown.

For upper elementaryIt’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families by Harris. Age 7 – 10.

For additional book recommendations, and details on available books, check out my post on Books for Children about Sexuality.

Online Resources:

Sexual Development and Behavior in Children: www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files
/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf

Talking to Your Preschool Children about Sexuality: www.frfp.ca/parents-resources/parent-education/sexuality/talking-to-preschoolers-about-sexuality.pdf

Talking to Your Young Child About Sex: https://healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Talking-to-Your-Young-Child-About-Sex.aspx

What Your Child Should Know… by 8 years old: http://birdsandbeesandkids.com/what-your-child-should-know-about-the-birds-bees-by-8-years-old/

Classes

Classes for parents:  Birds + Bees + Kids – Online or Seattle area

Classes for parents and pre-teens – Great Conversations – Washington, Oregon, and California.

Classes for kids: Unitarian Universalist churches and the United Church of Christ sponsor classes using a curriculum titled Our Whole Lives. They have programs for k-1, for 4th – 6th graders, for 7th – 9th grade, and for high school, and often welcome non church members to participate.

A Handout

If you’re a parent educator, and you’d like a handout on this topic to share, just click here: Talk about Sexuality With Kids. I also have free printable handouts on LOTS of other topics on my Materials for Parent Educators page.

Other Topics:

Are you wondering how to talk to your child about other challenging topics (like death, war, drugs and alcohol, and more? Check out Better You Than YouTube.)

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Weapon Play

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In our Family Inventors class one week, we had giant tinker toys for the kids to play with. A group of boys designed and built three identical “blasters”. From a tinkering / creativity perspective, I was impressed at how they had worked together to create and replicate something cool.

But once a kid builds a gun, what usually comes next? Gun play.

They were pretending to shoot them at each other, and some kids were having fun, but one child was upset about being shot at. Since weapon play only comes up about once a year in my class, I had to decide in that moment how to respond. We have two simple rules in class:

1. “Be creative, not destructive” or in simpler terms, “Make, don’t break.”

2. “It’s never OK to hurt anyone.”

They had made something creative, but they were using it in a way that was hurting someone. Rather than asking them to take apart their new inventions, I decided to

  1. Set limits – “Our friend is not having fun. It’s not OK to pretend to shoot at him if it makes him sad.”
  2. Re-direct.  I suggested target shooting. I went to draw a target on the white board, but my husband had the even better idea of drawing asteroids on the white board that the kids would “blast apart” before they could crash into the earth. He would draw, erase, re-draw and so on as they blasted asteroids to save our planet.

It was a very fun game. And it re-framed their blasters. Instead of being weapons to (pretend to) hurt other people with, they were tools used to (pretend to) destroy dangerous objects in the distance before those objects could hurt people.

I also:

3. Followed up with the parents in the class to encourage them to think about how they wanted to speak to their kids about guns and weapon play at home.

This situation encouraged me to do some more thinking and more research into the topic. Although with all research, you can find studies to support either side of a topic, it was interesting to see what had been written.

Does aggressive play and weapon play increase actual aggression?

Parents worry that if young children play aggressively or pretend to use weapons, that they will become violent adults. The research shows that just the opposite may be true.

Researchers Hart and Tannock say “If playful aggression is supported, it is highly beneficial to child development. The act of pretending to be aggressive is not equivalent to being aggressive. Role reversal, cooperation, voluntary engagement, chasing and fleeing, restrained physical contact, smiling and laughing are common characteristics of playful aggression.” (Young Children’s Play Fighting and Use of War Toys.)

In one study, researchers found that children who displayed a lot of aggressive behavior in their pretend play were less aggressive in the classroom. The pretend play allowed them to work through some ideas so they did not have to bring them in to their real interactions. Other researchers argue that: “omission of aggressive play in early childhood programmes fosters the underdevelopment of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and communicative abilities in young children.” An example of this is when kids are engaged in rough and tumble play – say wrestling. If they accidentally hurt a friend while playing, they realize the impact of their actions, and we work them through the empathy and apology, and work on healing the relationship – it gives an opportunity we might not have had if wrestling was banned.

Several researchers and authors, including Stuart Brown, Frost and Jacobs, Peter Gray, and Charlie Hoehn have noted that many violent criminals have a history of being deprived of free-play opportunities as kids. Brown’s studies of homicidal males found that being deprived of play as children was strongly associated with violent criminal activity.  (Source)

So, we know that kids need to have lots of opportunities for free play to learn a wide variety of social and emotional skills. Kids, in my experience, naturally explore weapon play and aggressive scenarios in pretend play, but it appears that doing so may reduce the likelihood they’ll be violent and aggressive for real. So, given that, how do we, as parents or teachers (who are justifiably distressed by the idea of real gun violence in our country) find an approach to weapon play that feels right to us?

Sometimes we start by understanding the kids’ perspective.

What makes gun play so fascinating? Why are kids so interested in it?

  • Guns and other weapons are perceived as powerful. Kids often feel powerless, so the idea of power is intoxicating.
  • One way that children learn about and make sense of adult experiences is to play at them. So, if they watched a cooking show, they might play at cooking. If they watch a show with guns in it, they’ll want to play with guns.
  • Guns are a way to vanquish bad guys, or monsters. (Note: some children may use magic wands or pixie dust to accomplish the same goal. In both cases, it’s about vanquishing a foe.)

Given all these motivations toward weapon play, it can be hard to successfully ban it. Often attempts to ban it make it even more appealing as the “forbidden fruit.” So, how do we work with it?

Ways to Manage Gun Play:

Ban It: This is a choice many make. I don’t ban it, but if I sense play is moving in that direction, I often provide a distraction to move play in a different direction.

Re-Direct: You can try white board target shooting like we did, or if children are shooting  actual missiles (like Nerf guns) you can set up empty cans or some other object for them to try to hit and knock over. Or think about what type of energy the guns might shoot out – Teacher Tom tells a story of children firing “love shooters” at each other.

Some parents make the rule that you can’t shoot your gun at people, only at imaginary bad guys. (I’m not a fan of this one, because I don’t like the us/them mentality that can be common in many political circles, where people who are different are assumed to be “bad guys.” But, that’s a whole other discussion….)

Talk about the power of other options Talk to children about other ways to defeat (or reform or escape) from “bad guys” or other creatures that frighten them. Absolutely at other times in my class, I talk about all sorts of other options. I just find children are much more open to hear that in other contexts than when they are hearing it as the-words-the-teacher-says-when-she-stops-us-from-playing-what-we-wanted-to-play.

Set Limits: It’s fine to limit the times and places where weapon play is allowed. Maybe it’s an outdoor only thing, or only with one particular set of friends, not at school.

If the play is making you feel uncomfortable, you can say that. “I know you guys are playing, but it made me feel sad when you said you wanted to hurt your brother. So, I want you to move to a different game.”

Ask the kids to help make the rules: In a neighborhood squirt gun battle, not everyone wanted to play. I called the kids over and asked them what they thought fair rules were. One said “Only shoot at people who are playing.” I said “How do you know if they’re playing?” “If they have a squirt gun, you can shoot them.” We all agreed that seemed fair. One child had a smart phone in his hand, and said “don’t shoot people with phones!” I had my laptop and agreed “no shooting anyone who is working with electronics, because the water would ruin them.”

That was all the rules we needed for a while, till one child blasted another in the face with a super soaker. The soaked child was upset. New rule: no shooting in the face. Then a car pulled up and kids asked if they could shoot it, and we asked the driver, who agreed. We talked about how we know cars get wet all the time and it doesn’t hurt them, so generalized our rules to say that it was fine to squirt water at any car, but FIRST they needed to make sure all the windows were rolled up so no water could get inside.

Pay attention to other’s feelings: It’s also important to teach kids to notice the impact of their play on others. How do they know if someone else wants to play the shooting game or would rather not participate? (Encourage them to use words to ask, listen to words, notice body language, etc.)

Check In: When kids are engaged in weapon play, occasionally check in and ask: “Are you all having fun? Is anyone feeling worried or scared?” If anyone feels unsafe, the game needs to change. Encourage them to self-initiate occasional check-ins with friends to be sure everyone is having fun.

Think about the toys you buy. Try  to find open ended toys that can be played with in a wide variety of ways. They will, of course, sometimes use open-ended toys to create weapons (like tinker toy blasters, or sticks as swords), but at least they are open to other types of play.

If you do buy toy weapons, you may consider choosing ones that look nothing like a real weapon. Also, do safety checks: make sure toy weapons can’t cause real harm.

Consider choosing toys that are “powerful” but don’t tie into violence: If you choose action figures of a superhero or soldier or someone who always does battle, your child is likely to play at battles with it. Think instead about how a child plays with the action figures from “Paw Patrol” who have adventures as they rescue people. Or Spider-Man who swoops in to save people by carrying them away, and webs the bad guy to the wall for the police to pick up later.

Reduce exposure to media violence. And talk about media violence with your child in ways that reinforce your family’s values. (Common Sense Media is a great resource.)

Play Fighting vs. Intent to Harm

It is important to differentiate between play fighting and serious fighting. Play fighting has no intent to harm and is enjoyed by all participants. Even when kids are truly play fighting, it’s a good idea to closely monitor it, as sometimes a child will accidentally hurt another and the harmed child may strike out in real physical anger as a response.

Serious fighting is motivated by anger and a desire to harm, and must be handled with appropriate discipline tools.

Note: If a child has a pattern of purposely hurting other children, and either seems to enjoy that, or shows no empathy or remorse, that is concerning. and you may want to consult with a professional about the situation.

Teaching Empathy and Emotional Literacy

What I have described here on how I handle weapon play is a small portion of all the things I work to teach my children and my students. This conversation takes place in a much broader context, where we work a lot on kindness, empathy, and mutual respect, and where we actively teach emotional literacy skills. These are all essential to raising children to be good, caring adults.

Talk to your children about real guns

Children do need to know about real guns. We need to talk about them. This article in Slate does a fabulous job of addressing this topic.

We also have to understand that research shows that no matter how many times we tell a child not to touch a real gun, if they see one they are likely to touch it. So, we also need to talk with other adults about how to keep real guns away from our kids. Also, check out advice from Seattle Children’s Hospital about gun safety: http://www.seattlechildrens.org/Kids-Health/Parents/First-Aid-and-Safety/Home-Sweet-Home/Gun-Safety/.

Your mileage may vary

What I have written here comes from my own experience, and I need to address the privilege of my experience. As a white parent / teacher in an upper middle class, suburban, politically liberal city, real gun violence is not present in the day to day lives of my children or my students. What I feel is appropriate to my setting may or may not be appropriate to yours.

What I write here is about play and young children. As children get older, we will talk more to them about the real harms of real weapons, and more about the impacts of their actions on others. There is much more to consider on this topic as they age.

In my own experience. I grew up in Wyoming in the 60’s and 70’s. We played with cap guns, BB guns, squirt guns, toy bow and arrows, toy swords. I loved shooting all these things at siblings and friends! Yet, as an adult, I am an extreme pacifist. I have never touched an actual gun, by conscious choice, and I advocate for strict gun control laws. My siblings and childhood friends who were raised in the same environment vary in their choices: some keep guns in the home for self-defense, some own rifles for hunting, or enjoy target shooting. Others, like me, avoid guns. But none of my family or friends are aggressors – there are no cases of gun violence or gun accidents among us.

But what’s true for my family and friends was not universally true. When I was in junior high and high school, I lost 3 or 4 classmates to guns (suicides or accidental shootings), and had a classmate at my high school who had shot and killed his abusive father.

Two of my children are now adults. When they were young, I followed the guidelines I share here about weapon play. As they got older, we talked about guns and violence. I found that having had a well-thought out, open discussion about weapon play was a first step to meaningful conversations as they got older. For me, as a parent and teacher, this works better than trying to avoid the topic by banning weapon play.

Read more on this topic:

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)

 

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.

Ignoring Annoying Behavior

The second step on my discipline flow chart is to “pick your battles.” Ask yourself: Is their behavior really a big problem that needs serious consequences? Or is it just annoying? If it’s just annoying, just ignore it.

Let’s start with a few examples:

  • If you’re trying to get work done, and your child keeps coming over and whining about a snack, this is certainly annoying. But asking for food isn’t a discipline problem. You could just ignore the child until they ask politely, or you could give the child a hint: “it’s hard for me to understand you when you’re whining. If you used polite words and a nice voice,  I could hear you better.” Ignore them as long as they’re whining. As soon as you hear the polite request, respond to it.
  • If you’ve asked your child to pick up their toys, and they are doing so… but they’re stomping around and making faces while they do it, ignore the bad behavior, and turn your attention to what they’re doing well: “Thanks for getting all the Legos back in the tub.”
  • If your kids are squabbling in the backseat, instead of scolding for that behavior, just say “hey, I downloaded a great science podcast you’ll really like. When you’re ready to listen, I’ll turn it on.” Drive on, ignoring the bickering till they settle down, then turn on the podcast.

Your goal is to ignore the annoying behavior. As soon as you see positive behavior, focus on that. This ignoring method is a corollary to the attention principle. The more attention a child gets for a behavior, the more they will repeat it. So, play plenty of attention to positive behaviors. Ignore the ones you don’t want to reinforce. (Of course, if the bad behavior is significant, you’ll set limits and consequences… Ignoring is mostly for the things that are annoying little things, not the big stuff.)

All discipline is grounded in relationship.This technique does not work in a relationship where the child is often ignored or dismissed. But in a warm relationship where they regularly get attention for positive behavior, ignoring can be effective. It’s important to be clear that this ignoring is not intended as a rejection of your child, just of their current behavior, so it takes place in the context of a loving relationship.

Also, if your child is having strong feelings, don’t dismiss the emotions. Validate the emotions and turn attention toward the positive things they are doing to cope with them, but ignore annoying behaviors that result. For example, my son was begging for more screen time, and I said “I know you’re really sad about not being able to play more.” And “I see you’re looking through your books for something else to do.” But I didn’t acknowledge the repeated begging.

You can also teach your children to use their “ignoring muscles.” If their sibling or classmate is annoying them, they can ignore the other child. If they respond, the annoying behavior continues. If they don’t respond, the other child may give up.

When ignoring, you really want to be bland and poker faced and show no outward sign of noticing or caring about the bad behavior.  Don’t roll your eyes or sigh. Just think: If your daughter puts her fingers in her ears, turns her back and says “I’m ignoring you” and then turns back to make sure your son has noticed he’s being “ignored”, then he’s not really being ignored is he? He’s actually got all of her attention right now. It’s better to walk away and do something else as blandly as possible.

Test this method out, and comment to let me know what you think!

This is one of the many tools taught by the Incredible Years parenting program – check out their book for all the details!