Tag Archives: toddler

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

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)


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There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” When I see that headline, I think of things like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Those probably should fall in the category of things never to say to your kids. Or to anyone else’s kids, for that matter.

But what are the horrible, soul-wounding phrases that Parents magazine cautions against? “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Huh??

Now, when you read their article, it’s actually got lots of good content, with some helpful tips. It’s well worth a read. I agree with them all and I’m not concerned about the topic so much as the tone that is presented by the headline.

A better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Them Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is healthier than kale”) and it helps if they can convince readers that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“Follow our screen time tips or your child will be brain damaged for life.”) Companies who advertise on a magazine’s website appreciate those “clickable” titles, because it means more people look at the article, and thus at their ads.

And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. Here’s just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids”

But, when parents read these headlines, how does it make us feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

For example, check out this anxiety and guilt  inducing intro from Parent Society:

If you’re a halfway decent parent, you do your best to not swear at your children or call them names. But other phrases that roll off the tongue can be every bit as dangerous — especially since you might not even realize you’re saying them. Take a look at six phrases you need to cut out of your conversations…

Then to read through  those six dangerous phrases, you have to click through seven pages that are so loaded with ads, it’s hard to actually find the content…

So, let’s first reality check these messages:

  1. It’s pretty guaranteed… At some point, all parents say mean things to their kids. We do. I do – just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered them all [well, almost all] into the left hand column of this table. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you.

The middle column is just to help raise awareness of how these phrases could have a negative impact if over-used over time. The right hand column suggests other options you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Phrase that “parenting experts” caution parents against using Negative / non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child if this is all you ever said to them Alternative things to say or do (on good days when you have the time and energy) that may be more helpful
Good Job / Great Job / Good girl

 

That’s a beautiful picture
You did that just right
What a perfect building you built!

 

You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world

Empty praise – if it was something that was really easy for them to do, it’s weird to say good job.

Judgement – implies that there’s one right way to do things.

They’re reached their limit – you don’t think they can do any better.

 

They’ll someday realize you’re lying or exaggerating and lose faith in your judgment. Or they’ll feel pressure to really become the best.

Only praise things that took effort.

 

Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product.
Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better.
Read about questions to ask to extend their learning.

Read more about effective praise.

I’m proud of you

I love it when you….

It would make me happy / mad if you…

I’m ashamed when you….

I’ll never forgive you

Conditional love. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior of the moment. Let your children know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that their behavior is always OK – it’s not, and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for them – you do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness is not dependent on that.)
Practice makes perfect Well, practice makes much better. But, it doesn’t make perfect because nothing is perfect. And aiming for perfect implies that mistakes are evil. “Practice and you will improve.”
“Making mistakes helps us get better.”
“If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.”
Read more about “Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success.”
You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]

You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one

You always…

You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]

You’re worthless / a loser

Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

This is all labelling. Labelling your child limits them.

If you label them based on a problem behavior, It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they continue to be that way.

If you label them by a “talent” they have, then that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.

You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change.

Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

You’re just like [someone I don’t like]
Why can’t you be more like….Stop acting like a baby.
You’re so [bad adjective]
Big boys don’t…
Good girls don’t….
The first labels them (see above). The second means they’re always being held to someone else’s standard.
These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else.

If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you? Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation. “What’s wrong?”
“What happened that upset you?”
Let me help you

Just let me do it for you

You’re doing it wrong, let me do it

You’re too slow, I’ll do it

Implies that they’re not competent.

If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?

Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….)
Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…”
Make gentle suggestions “Try…”
If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”
You’re OK (after child is hurt and is crying)

Don’t cry

What a dumb thing to get upset about

Don’t worry, it will be fine

There’s no reason to be scared, just do it

Dismisses their feelings as unimportant.

 

Tells them not to trust their intuition and just do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teenagers.)

Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worried” then you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.
Don’t talk to strangers. This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers! Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers.
Talk to them about how to tell the difference.
Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers.
Be careful. If over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.” Demonstrate / model how to be safe.
Encourage them to look before leaping.
Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason.
When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. Someday they’ll get that bruise, and they’ll learn something important.
Read more about teaching safety skills.
I’ll never let anything bad happen to you

Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe

I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You can tell that you’ll try to do all these things. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”
You’re in the way.

I can’t get anything done with you around.

Hurry up. You’re making us late.

Shut up.

I have better things to do than…

Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

We all know that children are terribly inconvenient room-mates who just make everything harder. But, we don’t need to tell them that every day!

These sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.

Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment.

When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If …. then…..  If you don’t do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment]. “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.” When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.
Wait till your father gets home… Makes someone else into a bad guy.

Implies that you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.

Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.
I told you so

That’s what you get for not listening

Yes, you probably told them not to do something, and yes, it’s frustrating when they do it anyway. But rubbing it in serves no purpose. “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”
Because I said so Implies that you make arbitrary judgments on a whim and they have no control over that. “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Here is a PDF of this table on Words Matter.

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

A Tale of Three Potty-Training Experiences

On every online parenting forum, you’ll see parents who post questions about potty-training, and other parents leap in to share their experiences. The wise ones say “here’s how it worked for me, but your experience may be different.” But that message can get drowned out in “just do it MY way, and it will go great.” Or they may share stories of on-going, exhausting battles.

For a first-time inexperienced parent, it can feel overwhelming. It may feel like “I don’t know what the right answer is!!” And the answer is that there is no one right answer. Like all things with our children, what works depends on: their temperament, our temperament, their motivation to learn and our motivation to teach, plus circumstances in our environment.

As a parent educator, I’ve read countless books and articles, and talked to countless parents about this process. I’ve summarized my best advice in this one-page summary, or in the long version. I also address the 20% of kids who refuse to poop in the potty.

In this post, I’ll share stories from my personal experiences of how this can play out. I have three different children, and three different potty-training journeys, so I’m definitely not telling you any “right answers” here, just the range of what you may experience.

Child #1: At a fairly young age (probably around 2), she could keep her diaper dry for hours. She could pee in the potty when I put her there. She could poop in the potty. She had good body awareness, so knew when she was doing something. So, most of the skills were in place. But… she lacked motivation. She was a child who was very engaged in her play – she had an incredibly long attention span where she would stay focused on what activity for a very long time. She didn’t like transitioning from her chosen activity to other activities. So, if she was in the middle of something and needed to poop, she’d just do it there in her diaper. She didn’t want to interrupt her play to go to the potty. Sometimes she needed to pee badly enough that she was rocking her bottom back and forth, but if we asked her if she needed to use the potty, she’d just say “I fine. I fine.” In other words “leave me alone – I have more important things to do than go to the potty.” I think we tried some motivational things along the way like stickers, but it wasn’t enough. So, when she was 3, I bought a cool dollhouse and some fabulous big girl underwear. I put them in the closet, showed them to her, and said “whenever you’re ready to start using the potty ALL the time, you can have these. But once you have these, we’re not going back, OK? It will be no more diapers from then on. So, you decide when you’re ready for that.” I closed the closet and walked away. She went to use the potty, and was potty-trained from that moment forward. Now again, remember this was a child who already had all the skills in place to make this move. This was just the final motivation to commit to a new way of toileting, even if that meant interrupting her play.

Child #2: She pretty much trained herself. We were busy and didn’t have a lot of time to worry about it, or nag her about it, but it just happened. She’d follow us into the bathroom and follow her sister into the bathroom, so she knew how it all worked. As she got older, she’d pull down her own clothes and sit on the potty, and was soon peeing into it successfully. We talked about it, and praised her for it, but it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t require that she use the potty, but she generally chose to do so, and I think she totally gave up diapers at around 2 years 9 months.

I think part of this was having a big sister to watch. But, a big part of it was her temperament. She was (and is) an independent child who likes to be seen as mature and competent and doesn’t like to burden others. She liked taking care of her own needs.

Child #3. When he was 2.5 years old, we thought we were on the verge of potty training. His bladder control was perfect. He could keep his diaper dry for hours until he got to a potty. He was dry overnight. He wasn’t pooping in the potty yet, but we figured that would come soon.

He finally pooped in the potty for the first time a year later at 3.5 years old!

He had one week of doing it consistently. Then he stopped.

The next time he pooped in the potty, was a year after that. He was 4.5 years old!

In that full two year period, he had bowel control and predictable bowel patterns. He would poop in his diaper every afternoon, when he was alone for naptime. He went to a preschool that required potty training, and we explained our circumstances. We told them that they would never need to deal with it, and sure enough, he never peed or pooped in his diaper at preschool the whole year. He saved it till he was home for nap time.

Why wouldn’t he poop in the potty? I wish I knew! We tried to figure out if it was fear or aversion or if he’d had a painful poop that scared him or what. We never knew. We tried to motivate him in a lot of ways. We tried offering stickers and candy and so on. But, although he would sit on the potty for us, no poop ever came out. We gave him privacy, we tried to help him feel safe. We tried having him sit on the potty with his diaper on to see if he could poop if the diaper was on. Nothing worked. You just can’t get someone to poop on command. When he reached 4.5 we started having occasional success which we rewarded and praised. We went on a road trip, and were afraid we would lose progress when we were away from home, but instead, that was when he finally potty trained. We did give him rewards for each poop, but I don’t think that was the reason he did it. I think he was just finally ready to do it, and the rewards were a nice perk.

By a month after that, he was pretty much independent. He knew when he needed to pee or poop. If we were out of the house, he’d ask to use the potty. At home, he’d just go use it on his own whenever he needed it. He didn’t wipe himself, so that was still a learning process to go through. But huge progress at the end of a long marathon.

By temperament, he is a child who thrives on routine, and likes to do things the same way every time. So, I think he had a routine for his bowel movements and it was working for him, and it was hard for him to change to a new way of doing things. (When he got older, he was diagnosed with autism. He’s a very bright kid with strong language skills and a fair grasp of social skills, so you might not peg him as autistic, but one of the ways it manifests is that he has a really hard time with change. Here’s some advice I found later on about potty training a child with autism.)

So, we’ve tried child-led potty training, we’ve tried sticker charts, we’ve done gradual, we’ve done “Big Day”, we’ve tried a wide variety of methods. But our success depended not so much on what we did as the parents, but on our individual children and what worked for them. The best recommendation I have for other parents is: collect advice. Try the things that feel like they match your preferences and your child’s personality. If they work, keep doing them. If they don’t work, take a break for a month or so. Try not to stress about it. Try again with a new approach when you feel like you can do it in a non-stressed and supportive manner. Try not to lose faith along the way. You’ll get there eventually!

For more info, read my one-page summary of potty training, or the long version all the options for potty training. Or read about kids who refuse to poop in the potty.