Much of the popular bookstore literature regarding discipline of the small child to the pre-teenaged years are sorely lacking, in my opinion.
These resources typically demonstrate one of two approaches. The first approach is to focus solely on cause and effect (ie, carrot-stick, bribe or punishment), which does not take into account that children do not really even begin to develop the ability to use cause and effect reasoning until the age of twelve. A kinder and gentler way of this approach is to talk the child to death in hopes that all your explanations will lead to the child agreeing with you. These are really two facets of this same approach, and neither one is developmentally appropriate.
The second approach is one that focuses on empathizing with the child. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, to connect with the child when there is a challenge, but only using empathy can lead both child and parent bogged down in how each one feels and why without much resolution, or just lead to endless talking (circling back to approach number one as described above). Kim John Payne, in his book “Simplicity Parenting”, talks about how children under the age of nine developmentally display a more diffuse manner of feeling “good” or “bad”, unless they have really been coached in labeling feelings.
I propose a more balanced approach to discipline. After all, the first approach is focused on thinking: cause and effect. Yet this is such a fallacy. Children developmentally don’t think the same way adults do. The second approach is focused on feeling. Whilst connecting to a child through the feeling life is important, there are other ways we can do that besides words, which frequently seem to get ignored: the warm smile, the holding of a steady rhythm in the midst of anxiety and stress, the hug. These cues often seem to get ignored and lost in the literature that focuses on a feeling approach to discipline.
A balanced approach involves not just thinking (mainly on the part of the adult!) Were is the child’s consciousness in this situation? That is for you, the thinking adult, to realize, and to bring your patience and persistence to this), feeling (are you feeling compassionate and loving toward your child? But loving does not mean the child has to be responded to right away or that the child gets what they want! Wants and needs are two different things in children above the age of 2!) but also involves willing. What can the child DO in action, to help the situation.
How are you moving, in movement, in your body, to help the child?
Give your children phrases to use that they can imitate, short phrases that involve not so much thinking but willing – what can they do? What are your words helping them to do , how are your words entering into the child and helping them create their own will?
Other things that help a balanced approach to discipline include boundaries, the word no, positive words to imitate, real work, and a strong rhythm.
Firm boundaries are important, and especially so for small children who live in their bodies. Hitting, spitting, kicking, throwing are all common behaviors of the small child. The word no is an important word. Not everything can be phrased completely positively, especially when it comes to the safety of the child or other children. We can give a child a positive or accepted action, but sometimes it is really important for the child to hear no and live with that boundary before even hearing the positive thing they can do.
Some Waldorf kindergarten teachers use the phrase, “You may…” Some teachers do not like this approach, and for situations where there really is no choice will use the phrase, “You will.”
Real work is something that turns difficult situations about. In the home environment, going back to the basics of food, and sleep are also important. Sometimes as children become tired they get more and more wound-up, and throw and hit and kick and spit more. Keeping a solid rhythm of warming foods and sleep and rest is a vital component of discipline. With small children you must plan ahead and keep things on track.
You can do this! Envision how you want your family to be, and use your patience and persistence to make it happen!