Gentle discipline is the mainstay of parenting life, because it encompasses guiding and validating the authentic spiritual being that is every human being and child. It is a mindset to live by and parent by, and if you can master some of these techniques, you will find yourself even having more positive communication and conflict resolution with other adults.
I have wanted to do a round-up of techniques by age, and here it finally is beginning. I hope it will be helpful to you, and do please feel free to add your own thoughts or experiences to this list.
Today we are focused on birth through age 4. The mainstay of gentle discipline for these years begins with our own inner work and development, as discussed in Part One of this series.
The overall picture of development for these ages I think is two-fold. This time is the child learning about their own bodies as their first physical space on earth, which requires protection of the senses, warmth and physical activity that is unstructured in nature and in the home. The second part of this time is that the emerging child is building trust in a secure caregiver, a good world, and learning to ask for help from trusted caregivers whilst exploring his or her world. Therefore, parents must work hard to believe in their hearts that the world is a good place, that they are good people, that the world is full of hope and love. The smallest of children can often sense this so strongly in a place of religion, the outward beautiful expression of spirituality.
That is the beginning picture. Toward the latter part of this stage, a child of three years or so is beginning to have an emergent sense of self noted by use of the word, “I”. The use of the word, “No!” also has a place and gift in this time as the child uses “no” as a beginning of separation, but not as a disobedient act.
These are our tools for gentle guiding of the smallest child:
- Connection. In Christian circles, we often say the mother’s face is the doorway to God for the child. It is the first icon. Connect with love and warmth. Some of the best times to connect are outside, by starting with a walk during the morning and lots of free time in the afternoon to play outside. Nature is soothing, there can be no bouncing off of walls if there are no walls, and there is real opportunity for connection.
- Rhythm is our best discipline tool in these early years. Regular times for sleeping, resting and eating solid foods as a social mealtime are being developed in the birth through three years of age children. Know that this takes time, and rhythms may change with teething and new developmental milestones. Developmental shifts often seem to come out in sleep and fluctuations in appetite. Rhythm also aids us as parents to provide some predictability, some thoughts of time for ourselves for replenishment, particularly for a three or four year old as they shift toward solid rest and sleeping times.
- Taking our time and slowing down is very important. The early years feel long, but they are short. You have time to do be in an unhurried manner indicative of this precious time. There is no need to rush through the farmer’s market, nor housekeeping with a small child. Have a rhythm for your own work which your toddler or early preschooler can observe from a sling, from a vantage point of free play or by helping. Meaningful work is so important.
- Many mothers I know who stay home have shared with me (whether they practiced “attachment parenting” or not) that their children were very difficult to separate from until the children were around four and a half. I have heard this over and over again, and I don’t think we give this enough attention in our society. So if this is normal, and therefore separation may be hard to come by, brainstorming the best ways to have self-care and support is important to think about. Support can make a huge difference. Surround yourself with supportive family members and those who support your parenting goals for being kind to your children. But remember, the best way to be kind to our children is to be kind to ourselves by taking care of ourselves. Ask for help.
- It is easy to be kind to our children when everything is going “right” and much more difficult when our perception is that things are not going well. Come to grips with where you sit on boundaries and authority. This is so important around the three year mark, when many parents are flabbergasted that their child is really a child separate from them with their own strong will.
- Less talk, more doing. Stop talking. Hum, sing a song, use a verse, use rhythm, slow down, and remember what you are doing is what your little child is going to imitate.
- For discipline for our toddlers, I have this back post that covers specific situations of challenge: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/06/11/common-toddler-challenges-and-how-to-solve-them/
- To help understand normal toddler development: https://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/06/10/tripping-into-the-toddler-years/
Please feel free to chime in with your best tips for gentle guiding of your child as you create a home that is nourishing towards both the adults and children in the home as a family.
There are a couple things that come to mind – (this is WONDERFUL that you are doing this btw!)
1. I also see that separation being easier around 4.5 for many children. I focus a lot on the strength of marriage for parents (I know you do too) so when you say “ask for help” – I echo this. It is very easy to convince ourselves that a child’s grandparents will just let them eat and watch what they want so we hide n our homes and don’t let anyone help us. MOMs: ASK FOR HELP. Your own self care and your relationship with your husband is SO important. Our husbands need us to need them. We must put our marriage in a strong place and keep it there so we can be WHOLE parents to our children. I echo Carrie – ASK FOR HELP – then TAKE IT.
2. I work with a lot of moms with children on the spectrum, some of these kids are easier than others. I have been blessed with two, but they have entirely different temperaments, this makes for VERY different needs. My oldest, now 17, has ASD, but he is an extreme phlegmatic and so while he had many of the classic autism spectrum signs, he was often too lazy to cause much trouble 😉 my 3yo on the other hand is appearing very sanguine with a punch of choleric (much of it is from her age, this is a very choleric stage) she is like herding monkeys, an insane amount of energy in that little body.
The above is IMPERATIVE to having a good start with these kids, just like other children, these guys NEED a strong rhythm, knowing what to expect helps them so much and helps melt downs be at a minimum. They NEED us to hold the space much more than other kids, if we don’t have our energy in the space they tend to fall apart. They also need us to be more firm. Out of my 5 kids, this one takes the cake for needing cross body holds, she needs us to physically remove her more than the others, she needs almost zero words and more DOING. No arm chair quarterbacking in this house (not that it should go on in any house.) I find that with special needs children, self care of parents (BOTH of them) is imperative for us to keep our cool. Feeling inadequate is part of the game so expect that there will be days when you don’t have any clue what you are doing and want to fall in a heap on the floor. Staying close to your partner will allow you both to be able to escape once your little person is asleep and fall into each others arms for comfort.
Many thanks with great and so true sharing .
Thank you for this wonderful summary, Carrie. You continue to be an inspiration to me and make a tangible difference to my ability to parent gently through your much needed reminders on self care, slowness etc. at the moment my just turned 4 daughter spends a lot of time sort of physically ‘wound tight’- she is fidgety, clambering all over me but in a tense way, her body is not soft and relaxed but jittery. We spend a lot of time outdoors so I don’t think it is excess energy as such. Is this ‘normal’ for a 4yo? I am keen to do some inner work to discover what could be going on here…
Tensional outlets -“fidgety” are high at age four. You can try things such as winding a ball of yarn, salt dough and cutters, and other sensory kinds of experiences. She may need help immersing herself into play.
Hope that helps,
Thanks Carrie, but on a day like today I just feel on the end of my tether 😦 I got out some clay for a sensory experience and she just wouldn’t get in to it; just fiddled with the pieces, splashed the wet cloth everywhere and just acting… Destructive, but in a fidgety not aggressive way. It’s so hard to explain. I just ended up packing it away as I thought what’s the point if she’s not getting in to it, and I felt myself getting cross. I tried to help her immerse herself in it by doing it alongside her but that didn’t help. Am I expecting too much?!
Hugs! We have all been there with a four year old who just cannot seem to get immersed. Is she tired? Getting enough rest and sleep?
I love this piece Carrie. Thank you.
For me, one of the things which has helped (I learnt this from your blog as well) is to know my own trigger points – and how I’m going to conduct myself gently when they are pushed.
My little girl is very sensitive and very spirited – so if she picks up the slightest bit of “harshness” from me – it manifests itself ten-fold over the next few days.