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Setting Limits

Steering Down the Rocky Road of Childrearing


Sue Dinwiddie


The Authoritarian Parent

The Permissive Parent


Reflective Listening

Positive Speech

Suggested Reading

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How to Teach Your Child Discipline


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Is your child pushing the limits? Are you unsure of how strict or lenient you should be in responding to your child? Rest assured, you are not alone. In today's world it is often puzzling for parents to know how to respond to negative child behavior. How you respond to your child depends on a number of factors, including your values, your expectations for your child, your temperament and how it complements or clashes with your child's temperament, and your parenting style.

Although you may not realize it, the way you respond to your child is influenced by how your parents raised you. Your parents are your base-line. If you are satisfied with how you were raised, or if you have given little thought to the matter, you will imitate your parents. If you don't feel your parents were a good model, you may do the opposite of what you believe your parents would have done. Neither of these responses may be the best for you and your child in today's situation.

Do you follow your parents' parenting style? There are three major parenting styles. Which one is closest to your parents' style, to your current style, and to that of the other parent or significant adult involved in rearing your child?

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The Authoritarian Parent

This parent values obedience to adults above all. Discipline is achieved by commanding the child. Children who do not comply to the parent's will are punished. The child is viewed as any empty vessel into which the all-knowing parent pours information and morals. This style was predominant for most of Western history. It was effective in status-quo times, for example in agrarian-industrial societies. A master teacher (often the parent) showed the child how to do each act (such as sow the seeds and weed the fields). The child imitated the expert and ultimately passed on this same knowledge to a new generation. Although children raised in this style tend to be compliant and initially obedient, neither a strong self-concept nor original thinking are nurtured. Sometimes, children later rebel against authoritarian parents. Additionally, it becomes natural to follow any perceived "expert", including dictators or undesirable peers.

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The Permissive Parent

This parenting style was popular in the 1950's and 60's. After the atrocities of the Hitler era in Germany, many people looked for explanations as to why so many people would follow a tyrannical dictator. One theory was that children were conditioned early in life to follow the lead of experts. The goal of permissive parents is to raise children who think for themselves, are not inhibited, and are capable of creative, individualistic behavior. Children raised in this mode do not follow the model of the past generation. Many of them are creative and original; but some of them have trouble adjusting to society and fitting into the everyday workforce as adults. (3) The Democratic Parent: These parents believe in establishing some basic guidelines for children. They look at issues, give reasons for their actions, and value discussions with the child. If the child is out - of - control, these parents discipline the child without being punitive. They are firm, yet gentle. Research, such as that done by Diana Baumrind at the Institute of Human Behavior, University of California, Berkeley, find children raised in the democratic style are the most secure and successful children. (Baumrind, 1978).

Awareness of your parenting style helps you decide if you want to make changes. It also alerts you to whether you and others raising your child are consistent in your approach. Today most parent educators favor the democratic parenting style. In this parenting style, parents set limits by guiding children rather than punishing them. The following strategies are effective for the democratic style:

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Young children thrive on predictability and reasonable routine. They are just making sense of the world. Change is confusing for them, seeming to contradict what they are just beginning to understand. When parents and other adults raising the child are united in their guidance, their values, and their expectations, children know what to expect and how to react. Adults who follow diverse parenting styles create confusion for children. Before long children learn to play the adults off against each other. An example of a predictable routine is establishing an order for bedtime: bath, pajamas, teeth-brushing, and finally stories in bed. Starting the routine close to the same hour and doing it in the same order each night is reassuring to a child. Whether Mom or Dad or someone else puts the child to bed, the procedure is similar.

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Reflective Listening

Often children tell us what is troubling them, yet we don't truly hear or understand them. Not being understood leads to frustrations which can quickly escalate into anger in young children. Reflective listening means giving your full attention to your child, getting down to her level, looking at her in a respectful and caring way, and truly trying to put yourself in her shoes. Without interrupting or advising, the parent takes in what the child is saying and then restates the major feelings and issues the child has mentioned. The parent reflects back to the child to check out the message. Since young children are just developing their speech, sometimes they are confused. Hearing a parent reflect back what they've said can help them clarify and make adjustments. Reflective listening helps parents appreciate what is troubling the child.

Reflective listening also validates the child's feelings. Once feelings are validated, they usually begin to deescalate in intensity. A child might say, "I hate you!" A parent who is reflective listening would say, "You are angry at me. I wonder what made you so angry." This parent resists the temptation to tell the child it is not nice to speak to a parent that way. This parent never attacks the character of the child by calling her "a bad girl." The child's negative feeling is valid. The parent will help guide the child in finding appropriate ways to express that anger (for example, words rather than hitting.)

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Positive Speech

Positive Speech is another tool that can help smooth out the road. Without realizing it, parents easily fall into the habit of saying "no" and "don't" often to children. Before long children can feel negative or tune-out what the parents are saying. Save "no" for the important, emergency situations. Whenever possible, tell the child what to do, rather than what not to do. Instead of "Don't slam the door!" say "Please, close the door gently." Exchange "Don't talk with your mouth full!" with "Finish chewing your food, then you can tell me." Children who are treated with respect, tend to become respectful of others.

Ask a question only if you are willing to accept any answer. A parent asks a child if she wants to pick up her toys. The child says, "No!" Where does the parent go from here? If you want your child to pick up toys, tell her: "It is time to put away the toys."

If your child is resistant, testing the limits, try the Problem-solving Formula to help you determine how to proceed:

  1. Define your problem in behavior terms: "My child isn't picking up toys tonight."

  2. Gather data: Look for patterns. How often does this happen? When does it usually happen? Did anything unusual occur shortly before this behavior? Who was around? If your child usually picks up toys, but is very tired tonight following a party, your choice of options will be different than if you child never wants to pick up toys.

  3. Select a positive option. Several are listed below.

  4. Implement that option. Try it out.

  5. Evaluate how the option worked. If you aren't totally satisfied, think about why. What option might have been more effective? Parents get lots of practice. It is almost certain you will have another opportunity to try a different option before long.

Here are a number of positive options which are often successful.

  1. Humor. Make a game out of putting away the toys and include some fun and laughter. "Teddy Bear, blocks and truck are tired, let's tuck them in the toy basket for the night. Good night Teddy Bear, good night blocks, good night truck."

  2. Ignore your child. If you child is trying to get your attention by negative behavior, is not doing anything harmful to herself or others, and is not damaging materials, you may decide to withhold attention until there is a positive behavior. Can you ignore your child's toys on the floor? That will depend on your own values and the individual situation. If the toys are in the child's room and not in the way of others, the parent may decide to ignore them. If things get cluttered and the child cannot find what she wants, she will learn from the consequences of her actions. If the room is cluttered, the parent may not be able to get in to tuck the child in that night. If this isn't comfortable for you, go to another option.

  3. Redirect the child. Redirecting is telling a child what to do in place of what she is doing. A parent might begin to drive a truck around placing toys in it while saying, "It is time to drive the toys to the toy basket." The child may soon join in this game.

  4. Direct the child. Describe the situation, give the child information, be brief, and let the child know your feelings. One effective ways to direct children is with an extended "I" statements:

    "When you leave your toys on the floor, I feel worried,
    behavior emotion
    because I'm afraid I will trip over them, and I want you to put them in the toy basket.
    effect desired behavior

  5. Restructuring the situation. This method is often effective. The parent changes the people, the time, or the place. If picking up toys right before the bedtime routine is frequently a problem, the parent might move pick-up time. Pick up toys before dinner is started, then structure in a new routine while dinner is prepared such as listening to story- tapes, drawing pictures, or using playdough in the kitchen. A child who is already in the kitchen might enjoy helping with the food preparation or setting the table. Sometimes, a child will respond better for a while if Dad, rather than Mom, does pick-up time with her, etc.

  6. Offer choice to your child. Young children don't respond well to unlimited choice. However, offering a choice between two options is frequently successful. "Do you want to put away Teddy Bear or truck first?" A second level of offering choices is the "When_____, then______." approach. " When your toys are in the basket, then we can read the story you have picked out." A third level is the "Either______, or______." technique. "Either you pick up these toys, or I will put them off-limits for a day."

  7. Compromise often works well when time is of the essence. "I will put Teddy Bear in the toy basket, while you put away the truck." If your child is very tired tonight, but usually does pick up toys, this option would be quick and allow you to get on with going to bed.

  8. Problem-solve together. When you have time and your child is not tired, hungry or sick, you can brainstorm together what to do about picking up toys. You want to go for win-win solutions. "These toys in the middle of the floor at night are a hazard. I could trip over them; they could get broken. Shall we problem-solve together?" If your child says, "No!" you can go back to one of the preceding options. If your child says, "Yes!" negotiate. Share your feelings and your desires concerning the issue with each other. Listen to your child's reasons for not wanting to pick-up toys. Then brainstorm together to resolve this situation. Let your child contribute as many ideas as possible. Children who have opportunities to problem-solve become adept at generating solutions. They are also invested in the solution they have played a part in finding.

What if your child is so angry that you can't reason with her or get her to respond to anything? Young children easily are engulfed by their emotions. It is helpful to them to have you validate the emotion. "I can see you are very angry! When you feel calmer we can find a way to solve this problem." A highly distraught child can benefit from a short cooling-off period. This is not a punishment, nor a deterrent for the behavior. It is simply a time to cool-off. Going to the same place each time helps make the cooling-off period predictable for children. Many children go to their room. Looking at books or playing with toys can help some children calm-down. In 2 or 3 minutes the parent goes to the room to see if the child is ready to talk about the situation. Most young children do not need long to cool-down. Sometimes parents also need time to cool-down. Tell your child. "I am very upset right now! I am going to sit down for a few minutes and cool-off. Then we can decide what to do."

Thinking about the behavior in a problem-solving mode can help you decide which option would be best to use. It is beneficial to evaluate the success of the option later, when you have some peace and quiet. As part of your evaluation, check whether you used a short-term, expedient option, such as compromise or redirect, or a long-term learning option, such as problem-solving together. Much of the time parents need a quick, effective strategy to be able to get on with the rest of the day. However, make sure you build in time for learning strategies. It is the learning strategies which your child will take with her when you are not around to guide her yourself.

Your young child will probably not stop testing limits soon. That is part of her achieving ultimate autonomy. Despite her testing, she needs some limits. Children who have no consistent limits feel confused and out-of-control. You now have a large repertoire of positive ways to set limits for your child. In the long run your child will be more secure if she knows that the adults in her life will continue to have reasonable limits for her as well as guide her in positive ways to meet those limits.

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Suggested Reading

Baumrind. "Parental Disciplinary Patterns and Social Competence in Children" Youth and Society: 9, no 3 (1978).

Beekman and Holmes. Battles, Hassles, Tantrums & Tears: Strategies for Coping with Conflict and Making Peace at Home. (A Good Housekeeping Parent Guide) NY:Hearst Books, 1993.

Clarke and Dawson. Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting our Children. NY: Harper Collins, 1989 (Available from Parenting Press 1-800-992-6657).

Crary. Kids Can Cooperate. (Also, see Children's series) Seattle:Parenting Press, 1982-1988. (Phone 1-800-992-6657).

Dinkmeyer and McKay. The Parent's Handbook, STEP: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting. MN:American Guidance Service, 1982.

Faber & Mazlish. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. Six part video. KET, The Kentucky Network, 2230 Richmond Rd., #213, Lexington, KTY 405502 800-354-9067.

Galinsky and David. The Preschool Years: Strategies That Work from Experts & Parents. NY:Ballantine, 1988.

Kostelnik, Stein, Whiren, Soderman. Guiding Children's Social Development. Livermore, CA:South-Western Press, 1988.

Kurcinka. Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic. Harper, 1992.

Reynolds, Eleanor. Guiding Young Children: A Child-Centered Approach. Mt. View: Mayfield, 1990. (Kindergarten and younger)

Samalin. Loving Your Child Is Not Enough: Positive Discipline That Works. NY:Penguin, 1987.

Turecki. The Difficult Child. NY:Bantam, 1989.

Van der Zande. One, Two, Three...The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers. Santa Cruz: Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center, 1986. (Note: Look for Gonzalez-Mena's new book -1992).

Zimbardo. The Shy Child: A Parent's Guide to Overcoming and Preventing Shyness from Infancy to Adulthood. NY:Dolphin, 1988.


copyright Sue Dinwiddie

Sue Dinwiddie; MA Human Development;1995 One Small Step Affiliate Member; For information about parenting seminars at your company contact: PARENT PROGRAMS & STAFF DEVELOPMENT, 650-325-3033. www.daise.com

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