Wednesday, June 03, 2009

6/3/09 Positive Discipline

Tonight I attended what for me is a "refresher course," a talk on Positive Discipline. As many of my Mom friends know, I often felt like the Positive Discipline methods failed me, made me feel guilty and inadequate and like a failure. As I learned later, the real problem was that my child didn't read the book.

It shouldn't be called "Positive Discipline," because it's not about discipline at all. It's about positive parenting and general practice -- good stuff. I think being creative and humorous and adjusting environments and speaking in positive terms (what a kid can do, not just what they can't), is important and the way we all should be as a first line of defense. There's no harm in it, and much to be gained. It's a far cry from the "children should be seen and not heard" methods of decades ago, and this thinking has gone a long way toward improving my mentality and relationships with my kids when things are good, and certainly reduced conflicts especially with Julian when he was younger.

But Positive Discipline falls short for when, well, discipline is needed, for when kids don't simply back down when a natural consequence is presented, or is given a gentle but firm instruction to "use your inside voice" (instead of "no yelling") and completely ignores you. There seems to be an assumption that you explain something to the child and that's that, the incident is over. And some do -- I can see that moms of Katrinas, who crumbles and cries when scolded -- would think this stuff is easy. But moms of Gabriels, who only escalated into lengthy, futile struggles, are left feeling helpless and inadequate.

I was frustrated again that Positive Discipline speakers routinely suggest you don't pick a battle when someone asks how to handle a battle they've already picked. There's much to be said for avoiding battles, I do it as much as possible, but there's no way around it: sometimes, you choose a battle. And we're allowed and shouldn't feel guilty about that. In some cases, there is no battle to pick if a child isn't following a family rule -- you can't offer choices or redirect or eliminate a problem item from the environment. Sometimes you just have to enforce. Positive Discipline talks don't talk a lot about enforcing rules (unless they have to do with safety, in which case they're "limits" and those are OK).

As an example, one mom asked about a nightly battle with her 3-year-old daughter, who throws a huge fit when it comes time to turn off the TV and sit down to dinner. She's really mad! (the daughter). The speaker advised to really validate the child's feelings -- acknowledge as forcefully as the child that you understand how mad she is ("I know, this REALLY makes you mad!!"). OK, fine, good stuff. My "validation" of my kids' feelings is evident when Gabriel furiously venomously hurls at me, "I AM **FURIOUS** WITH YOU RIGHT NOW MOM!!" Yes indeed, he's developing a rich emotional vocabulary.

But then, the speaker advised to offer the TV-watching 3-year-old a natural consequence: dinner stays out for 15 minutes, and then goes away, and if you're hungry later, too bad. Presumably, the memory of her hunger will cause her to reconsider the next night. So the child -- a three-year-old -- can decide to watch TV or eat dinner.

I was appalled. This is the same thing as just giving in to a 3-year-old's tantrum to watch TV. The child learns the next night to have dinner? I don't know, in my book, most children learn from this "Hey, I don't have to do what Mom says -- all I have to do is throw a huge fit to watch TV and miss dinner, cool!"

The speaker then talked about children's nutritional needs, and how missing dinner causes Moms angst, but it really won't harm the child. OK, but a hungry 3-year-old who just got their way can certainly harm Mom for the rest of the night. No mention of the effect it might have on other children observing the situation.

I personally am pretty proud that we've converged on a far, far better way to deal with food battles and dinnertime behavior (thanks to extraordinarily persistent Gabriel): separate them. We have rules about dinnertime, but no rules about eating. The kids must go to the bathroom and wash their hands before dinner, they must sit down to dinner, they must ask to be excused, and must put their plates away. Actually eating? That's up to them. Dessert or bread is out of the question without finishing vegetables, but everyone has a night when they don't feel like eating, and I can't second-guess someone else's stomach. I hope they eat, and encourage it, and sometimes distract them from leaving by telling a story, but ultimately, if someone decides not to eat a bite, so be it.

I wish the Positive Discipline speaker would offer this sort of strategy to frustrated parents, instead letting a tantrumy 3-year-old watch TV and sort out the natural consequences of being hungry. Parents shouldn't feel guilty about taking on that battle to establish rules. And you know what -- even Katrina is in the habit of putting her plate away after dinner. She needs help, and sometimes she refuses, but then I pick her up and "make" her do it anyway.

I guess a lot of this would work better if I didn't have time constraints when I get home, if I never had an exceptionally strong conflict-seeker, or three children. Or rules.

However, I found that talking about the upcoming Positive Discipline talk was very, very effective tonight! Julian was mortified when I told him tonight that I was going to go ask a lady tonight about what to do when little boys don't listen. "No you're not!" he retorted. "Julian, you can say whatever you want, but I'm going." "I'll listen!" he said, deeply concerned. I told him, "Well, sometimes I have to tell you again and again and again not to fight in the car or make siren sounds in the house, and when I do tell you, you ignore me or keep doing it." "Then send me to my room!" he answered frantically. "Well, when I do that, you complain and ignore me or throw yourself on the floor pretending you hurt yourself and kick stuff along the way and open drawers and slam doors or you just don't go." "I will, I promise!!" I was amazed how effective it was "telling" Katrina that I was going to ask the lady what to do about putziness in setting the table, when Julian ignored my 2nd reminder. Then he spurred into action!

His distress was genuine and heartfelt that I was going to tell this nebulous distant power about his bad behavior. So I kneeled and hugged him and told him I was also going to tell the lady how I have a wonderful little boy who's almost in kindergarten, who loves Cam Jansen books, how I love it when he's my sous-chef, how proud I am of him. I kissed him and tickled him and told him how much I loved him and that I couldn't possibly live without my Julian and that I would tell the lady allll about how much I love him. I didn't have to dig deep, it's all completely true and very present, bubbling to come out. I could go on for hours about how I love him. He beamed and smiled and relaxed, then gave me one of his exquisite kisses.

See, I actually have learned something from positive parenting.


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