Earlier this month, my wife and I went overseas for a short couple retreat. We had a fruitful time as a couple, and we really got to relax and unwind. One of the benefits of being away was that we also got to catch up on reading, something that we don’t always do back home given the busyness of life. I brought along the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. It was an interesting book as it is based on the authors’ experience as parenting experts. It also uses comics to highlight some of the key concepts, making it an engaging and easy read.
One of the chapters in the book, titled “Alternatives to Punishment,” was especially relevant for us. We have been facing a challenging situation at home with one of our children, and have been adopting many of the traditional methods of disciplining our child, such as scolding, nagging, and withdrawal of privileges. However, none of these has worked. As such, we thought of applying some of the suggestions in the book.
Alternatives to punishment
Faber and Mazlish share 7 alternatives that parents can use instead of resorting to traditional forms of punishment. These are as follows:
- Point out a way to be helpful
- Express strong disapproval (without attacking character)
- State your expectations
- Show the child how to make amends
- Offer a choice
- Take action
- Allow the child to experience the consequence of his misbehaviour
A different approach
It was not long after we returned home that we got a chance to try out some of these suggestions. One day, I walked into the living room and accidentally stepped on one of the boys’ Lego pieces. It was extremely painful and I gave out a yelp of pain. Rather than yell at them for not packing up their toys, I decided to try a different approach.
“Z and E, come here please,” I called, “I have something important to tell you.” The two boys came obediently. I continued without skipping a beat. “Do you know what happened today? I just stepped on a piece of Lego, and it was very painful!”
“Oh,” exclaimed the boys, as they hurriedly went to pack up the rest of the Lego pieces. I was amazed. I did not have to nag, or scold, or threaten them with punishment. I merely followed suggestion 2: Express strong disapproval.
On another occasion, we woke up to find that our boys had left the milk out overnight. I called them to my side and said, “Boys, Daddy has something very sad to tell you.” I then pointed to the cups of milk on the coffee table and said, “Do you know that our delicious chocolate milk was left untouched overnight? It’s so sad that we can’t drink it anymore.” The boys looked very apologetic and promised not to forget their milk again. And I had merely allowed my child to experience the consequences of his misbehavior (suggestion 7).
I was amazed. I did not have to nag, or scold, or threaten them with punishment. I merely expressed strong disapproval.
A paradigm shift
Although I’ve tasted the fruit of early success, I have to admit that it takes all of my willpower to refrain from going back to my old ways of nagging or scolding or any other form of punishment. It takes a complete shift in mindset to change the way I respond to my children. After all, I remember I used to hate being nagged at by my mum when I was young (something that still bugs me today). Why then do I adopt the same methods in dealing with my children? They don’t work anymore, and that’s why there is an urgent need to change the way we think about discipline and parenting.
I remember I used to hate being nagged at by my mum when I was young. These methods don’t work anymore, and that’s why there is an urgent need to change the way we think about discipline and parenting.
The challenge before us
As for the challenging situation I mentioned earlier, we decided to apply suggestion 3: State your expectations. We told our son that we did not like a specific behaviour and told him what we expected of him instead. We also gave him a time period of one week, during which he was expected to work on changing his behaviour. He listened to us soberly, and we could tell from his facial expression that he was paying close attention to our words.
Only time will tell whether our son will really change his behaviour. It is likely not going to be an overnight process, but one that requires much patience and practice. However, we are content that we are able to see in him a desire to make amends.
After all, discipline isn’t just about correcting outward behaviour. Change can only be lasting if there is an inward change, a genuine change of the heart and attitude. This is why it is important that we understand the root causes of problematic behaviour and discipline our children from the heart.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy company which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, counselling, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 8 and 6.
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