By Noelle Mering
At several points in my younger parenting years I remember sitting, helpless and hamstrung, nursing a baby while watching my 3 or 4 or 5 year old behave badly. "Who will mother this child?!" I'd asked to the exactly zero other adults in the room. Clearly, a competent woman was needed, and I wasn't it.
When exhausted and confronted with a child acting up, the last thing I needed was a complex parenting method. Behavior charts, graphs, spreadsheets were never simple enough for me. What I needed was a clear plan of action, so I distilled all the parenting wisdom I'd read, heard, and observed down to three basic, but effective, concepts that I'd use to right the ship whenever a child was slipping into a pattern of misbehavior.
Let me preface this by saying this applies to the normal behavioral issues to which any kid might be prone. This isn’t for more severe dysfunctions. It's also not a recipe to elicit perfection from a child. We need to make sure our expectations are reasonable and age appropriate.
I’ve not invented these ideas, and they’re surely in 5,867 parenting books, but it really helped me to keep it to three basic principles. I call this method my three-legged stool; missing one concept renders the entire thing useless. Whenever a child would get off-kilter I’d decide that for the immediate time being I’d focus like a laser on doing three things as attentively and intentionally as I could. It truly yielded great results every time.
1. Consistent consequences.
There’s usually a particular way in which the child is misbehaving. Have a discussion about why that behavior is not helpful for him or for the family, explain what the consequence will be from here on out, and then follow through each time that behavior surfaces. You can do natural consequences (fighting over a toy means the toy is taken away, a whiney request means the request is denied, for example), but it really helps to have one consequence in your back pocket for when you can’t think on your feet. Most importantly, you have to carry it out without argument, discussion, or exception even if that means momentarily interrupting nursing a baby or leaving a fun event.
2. Unemotional discipline.
Never get angry. How can we expect a 5 year old to control his or her emotions if we adults cannot? When doling out a consequence do it calmly and without raising your voice.
3. Love therapy
This is the fun one! Resolving misbehavior isn’t just about dealing with it in the moment; often that child is needing our attention and affection in a special way. Point out and praise good things you see her doing, spend time asking her questions, reading stories, talking about how much you love her. Make it a point to shower her with affection and attention. Cuddle longer! Cuddling is such a common event for our kids that my ten-year-old daughter still regularly asks to cuddle and chat. I’m convinced that this simple act communicates safety and love in a language that a child absorbs on a deep level.
That's it! Helping children develop the power to control their impulses and cope well with their emotions in small ways, empowers them to choose well in larger ways. Most importantly, our children should feel that our love for them is unshakeable. That assurance undergirds how they feel about everything else we try to teach them including, and most importantly, their concept of God. Are they going to grow to be adults who know that they’re beloved children of a loving father? Helping them to feel the truth of that now will make it more likely that, later in life, they'll recognize and remember who God is, and who they are to Him.