Tag Archives: preschool behavior

Spare the Rod: What Spanking Teaches Children

I heard a comedian the other day, who really made a good point.  He said essentially this:  “My friends are always questioning my choice not to spank my kids.  They’ll often say, “Never?  You’ll never spank you kids?  There’s no situation where you think you might need to spank your kids?”  When I say I’ll never hit my wife, nobody says, “Never?  You’ll never hit your wife?  There’s no situation where you think you might need to hit your wife?”  This logic got a good laugh from the crowd, and I think it was spot-on.

I was teaching a group of care-givers recently and was surprised as I realized that while they were each aware that spanking was not acceptable in their professional setting, there was definite support for spanking at home.  And so our training took a sidebar.  We talked about what spanking teaches children, and I thought I’d share the same with you.

“Hitting is Acceptable Communication.”

I heard one proponent of spanking say, “Sometimes you just need that spankin’ to get their attention.”  Do you want your child to get people’s attention by hitting, or by using words, eye-contact, and soft touches?  Whichever you choose, be sure your behavior is likewise.

“Do as I Say, Not as I Do.”

We’ve all seen it.  The Grand Pooh-bah of all inconsistencies.  “Stop hitting your brother!” ….followed by a smack.  How can a child make sense of being hit for hitting?  How can an adult say hitting is not allowed, when they themselves will hit?  Spanking, particularly for physical aggression, is hypocrisy and will send confusing messages at the very least.  Very likely, it will also degrade your position as a trusted adult and mentor.

“Might Makes Right.”

For some children, spanking sends the message that it’s not OK to hit…..unless you’re bigger/in charge/ a grown up.  Consequently, many children will feel justified “spanking” other children when they are the older one, the bigger one, or simply want to be in charge.

A Question…

When you spank, are you truly trying to guide the child’s behavior, or are you reacting to your own urges and overpowering anger and frustration?  Responsibly guiding a child can never be done out of anger.  That doesn’t mean we don’t feel angry, but anger can’t be the source of our action.  Guidance has to come from love and respect and a desire to shape positive behavior.  Not a desire to punish with pain.  Some may argue that spanking is not the same as hitting, but a child won’t likely know the difference.

Abuse and Bad Practice

There are two over-arching premises in opposition to spanking.  One is that it can be abusive, and the other is that it is simply bad practice in terms of its effectiveness in teaching children correct behavior.

I was spanked on occasion as a child, and I certainly don’t think I was abused.  But I do know that some people believe they are “disciplining” their children when they resort to abusive tactics in the name of “spanking”.  That line can often be so small it’s nearly invisible.  It’s best not to start something that could easily get out of control.  Something you will inevitably regret.

But even if you are quite certain you would never spank out of anger, never cross that line into abuse, spanking is simply not good practice.  If you’re trying to teach good behavior, can that ever be accomplished by using broken tools? 

Spanking a child does nothing to teach a child good behavior.  It doesn’t build problem-solving skills, or communication skills, or magically instill them with the ability to share.  It teaches them only that they are “bad”, that they need to be “punished” and that your protection and love is conditional.

Better Tools

As the comedian above pointed out, many people are skeptic when they hear a parent will not spank.  They envision a passive, laissez faire parent with an unruly child as a result.  But it isn’t a lack of spanking that causes poor behavior.  It is the lack of tools.  Spanking is a broken tool.  But it’s a tool many people cling to because it’s the only one they have.  Once parents become aware of a full assortment of tools they can use to effectively guide child behavior in a positive way, they can be more confident as they lay their broken tools aside.

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Magic Words for Guiding Behavior: “Let’s Pretend”

In Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she mentions the opportunity to use fantasy play as a tool for classroom management or child guidance.    I found this interesting, and it caused me to think about that premise, the ways I have used it in the past, and the ways I could use it to smooth out difficult situations.

As she states, “Conversations with children may arise out a ‘last straw’ annoyance, in other words, or from a sense of dramatic flow.  They can come from concerns over decorum or from respect for our imaginations.  Both approaches will manage a classroom, but one seems punitive and the other brings good social discourse, communal responsibility, and may have literary merit.” (pg. 74)

This quote reminded me of when I was a first grade teacher in a school where classes needed to walk very orderly and quietly down the hallway.  Stern looks, nagging, and threatening worked from time to time, but what really made for a silent trip down the hall was asking the children to pretend we were sneaking past a sleeping giant.

Getting imagination on his side worked for my dad as well when he took my boys along on a fishing trip.  Keeping two preschoolers entertained while strapped to their car seats for a few hours of winding wilderness roads is a challenging task, even for a “seasoned professional” like Grandpa.  But he literally transformed what could have been an excruciatingly boring drive into an intergalactic adventure.  He had the boys guiding the flight from their seats and scanning the universe from their windows.  Consider the difference between this memorable adventure and the typical “Are we there yet?”  + “Don’t make me come back there!” drive.

In Paley’s book she gives an example of a young boy with a behavior problem and her own use of storytelling and dramatic play to guide the child’s behavior.  She created a narration about the problem and created a new character, “Good Player”,  and invited the child with the problem to act out Good Player’s positive behavior.  This play-acting helped reinforce the desirable behavior for the child and gave a model for the teacher to reference in the future (“…You’re pretending the wrong boy, remember?”)

While I will say that it is still important to teach behavior explicitly, we can sweeten the pot with imagination and narration. State what behavior is needed and why, but then add those magic words, “Let’s pretend……”

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Time as a Natural and Logical Consequence

When we think of teaching children with natural and logical consequences, using time as a consequence is one that can fall into both categories.  Let me tell you a story to illustrate.

My Name is Mud.

Early in the spring my older boys were playing in the back yard with some cousins while I went into the kitchen to make some cookies they had requested.  After straightening some things (I don’t know why I always have to straighten the kitchen before making another mess in it) I glanced out the window to check on the kiddos and couldn’t see them.  I spent the next few minutes tracking them down, and found them trudging through the mud in our freshly tilled, and thoroughly rained on, garden patch. 

Now, I would not consider mud-trudging an offense in itself, but they had already been told several times that the garden area was off-limits for a variety of reasons.

The next several minutes were spent hosing off 80 fingers and toes and changing a few clothes.  Along with a lecture about listening and obeying, I pointed out that the time I was going to spend making their cookies had now been used to clean them up.  This was a natural consequence, a matter of fact.  The time was gone.

my name is mud by diegodiazphotography.

As a way to help them make restitution (as well a way for me to be able to satisfy my own cookie craving) I offered a logical consequence.  I told the children that the time for making cookies was used up washing their feet, but that they could help me get some time back by cleaning up the playroom while I made their cookies.  Eight feet quickly rumbled up the stairs and got quickly to work as I measured, mixed, and of course sampled, the much-anticipated cookie dough.

Filling Up the Toolbox.

There is not always one right approach for correcting behavior.  It is usually a very delicate formula that must take into account the child’s temperament and disposition as well as many situational elements specific to each instance.  That is why it is useful to have so many tools at your disposal.  Consider time as a consequence as another corrective tool you might use to guide child behavior.

You may find that using time as a natural consequence is most fitting.  Because a child’s choice and the accompanying restitution take time, time for other planned events may be lost.  Cleaning up the thrown food will take time and may mean that the show he was planning on watching will be over.  As a natural consequence, time and opportunities pass without any intervention on your part.

Other times, you may want to use time as a logical consequence.  In these instances, you are basically exchanging your time, lost as a result of their poor choices, for their work or help.  Because you had to help them mop up the water left over from the water fight in the bathroom, you are now late to start dinner.  Have your children help you get that time back by helping you in the kitchen- washing dishes, setting the table, or helping prepare the food.  Having these youngsters help out may not actually speed things up sometimes, but the concepts of responsibility and restitution are taught. 

This logical consequence has the added bonus of giving you the opportunity to work together, which can create a positive aspect, a high-note to end on.  Always remember to compliment the children on the work they did and thank them for helping you get some of that lost time back.  Ending correction with a positive experience reinforces the fact that you are on the same team, and that you are correcting out of love, not punishing out of anger.  (This doesn’t mean that you don’t ever feel anger- we are human here – it just means your decisions are based on love.)

Using time as a consequence teaches children not only about choice and behavior, but about the conscious use of time – something that many adults struggle with.   Learning to responsibly make choices about time will be a valuable lifelong skill the children you love and teach will be grateful to have.

Top photo by elkojote.

Mud photo by Diego Diaz Photography.

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Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade – Disengage

My childhood and teenage years were shaped quite a bit by the fact that my dad was a lawyer and then a judge.  Building and presenting a logical and convincing argument was a favorite family pastime.  We engaged in (usually) friendly debate the way other families play Scrabble.  As my father’s child, I learned the art of pursuing an argument.  As a parent and a teacher, I have learned the art of ending one.

Often times, when we find ourselves engaged in an argument with children, the logic is sometimes lacking.  But that doesn’t matter much to the child.  It all makes perfect sense to him.  He still wants a sucker for breakfast in spite of the fact that you already told him he needs to choose from one of the healthy options.  She wants to play at her friend’s house NOW, even though you’ve explained that her playdate is tomorrow.  Often, we get passionate arguments when children realize the consequences of their choices and are trying to escape.  Susan begs for you to pick up the puzzle pieces, even though she is the one who threw them.  When a discussion with a child reaches the point that you find that logic isn’t going to bring you eye-to-eye and that you’re simply going around in circles, it’s time to disengage.

Disengaging means you, as the adult, has to take the high road and stop feeding the flames so that the fire of argument can go out rather than flare into an all-consuming inferno.  Monitoring your attitude and voice, very kindly and softly explain just one last time what the situation is, so that the child knows he has been heard.  Then follow it up with a terminal statement. 

 Here’s how that would sound:  “John, I understand that you want to watch the show.  But you chose to play with your Legos for twenty more minutes instead.  That time is gone and now it’s time for bed.  I love you too much to argue about this anymore.”  “Sasha, I understand that you want a sucker, but I don’t even have any.  So I’m not going to argue about it anymore.”  “Tyler, I know you want to paint now, but your name is right here on the sign up list.  So as soon as Ellen is done it will be your turn.  Arguing with me won’t change where your name is on the list, so we’re not going to talk about it anymore.” 

I can’t stress enough the importance of monitoring your tone and temper as you make these statements.  The point of disengaging is to diffuse the situation.  If you say all the right words, but with all the wrong non-verbal cues, you’ve just upped the tension.  Say it calmly, give a little hug, and then stick to it.  You can’t disengage and then jump back into the argument when the child inevitably tries one last shot.  You can ignore, change the subject (“Now who wants to read this hilarious story?”), or calmly repeat your terminal statement (“I love you too much to argue about this.” or “We’re not going to talk about this anymore.”) like a broken record. 

Sometimes a child will turn from an argument to a tantrum when she sees that you have decided to disengage.  Treat that as a new situation.  (Check out my Tools for Tantrums and see if that helps.)  Give the child space and help her to get control.  Then offer some choices of where to go from here.  (“Do you want to play with some playdough now, or go play outside?”  “Do you want to pick up those puzzle pieces now or in five minutes?”)  Trying to reason with them while they are out of control, going back to the argument, or simply caving aren’t options.   

You’ll find that as you are consistent in disengaging, it will become more effective in the future.   This practice lets the child know that we each own our own behavior.  Just as he gets to make his choices, you, as the adult, make yours.  When you choose not to argue, you are modeling positive behavior.  So even if you are a passionate arguer like I am, with careful application, you’ll find that you can “win” more arguments, simply by ending them.

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Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade – Modeling

Charles Barkley is notorious for saying he is not a role model.  While this provided for an interesting campaign, and has the best intentions (implying parents should be a child’s primary role models, not athletes) it’s still a bit flawed.  (Sorry, Chuck.)  The truth is, any adult in view of a child, is to some degree a role model.  I mean, break down the word.  A role model is someone who demonstrates how a role is filled.  They are modeling behavior.  This is contingent upon a child being able to observe you, not upon your willingness or objection to being considered such.  Children are watching all around them and picking up cues on how to navigate social situations.  They are looking for social behavior to emulate as references for navigating their own social situations. 

They watch the clerk at the grocery store and file that away in the “How to Be the Clerk” part of their brains.  They observe the bus driver as an example of how to fill the bus driver role.  They see their grandparents filling the grandparent role.  And yes, back in the day, children even watched Charles Barkley and filed him into a role as well.  As they watch adult behavior, children are picking up cues for social behavior, social roles, and social speech.  They note how Mom takes care of Sister Sue, and next thing you know, they’re imitating that with a doll in a dramatic play situation, internalizing and making sense of what they’ve observed.  As the observations are refined and assimilated, parts begin to appear in their own behavior, even outside of play situations.  As parents and teachers, we’ve probably all had the experience of hearing one of our children lecture another child, a doll, or even ourselves, using the same tone and words (though sometimes in exaggerated caricature) that we have used ourselves.  They are constantly looking to adults and even peers for social examples.  It’s a simple truth for better or for worse.  Let’s talk about the better part.

One part Sir Charles did get right, is that loving relationships can increase the potency of a role model’s influence.  Parents and teachers can be extremely influential role models.  As we become cognizant of this, we can use our examples to shape and scaffold positive social behavior in the children we love and teach.  Here’s an example.  I was training a group of teachers recently, when one shared that she had spilled some milk during snack time with the children earlier that day.  She said the children were absolutely astonished!  “Teacher!  You spilled the milk!”  Their response displayed utter disequilibrium.  First of all, teachers are perfect, and don’t spill, right?  And secondly, this teacher was completely and perfectly calm about it.  Another confusing response in the view a young child who might panic or have a meltdown during such a calamity.  This teacher simply calmly said, “I did spill the milk.  Teachers make mistakes too.  How do you think we could clean it up?”  A simple incident, but a huge learning tool as well.  Through her mindful, positive modeling, this teacher taught:  1) It’s OK to make mistakes.  2) You can stay calm when you’re disappointed.  3)  We can fix our problems.  4)  Because of observing 1-3 with this teacher, a child knows it’s safe to take a risk with this teacher.

If you are working with a difficult behavior in a child, be sure to model the behavior you would like to see.  For example, if the child is having tantrums, model being very calm.  Particularly when the child is having a meltdown!  If the child is being aggressive, be sure you are not responding with aggression yourself.  If you have a shouter, model using a soft voice. 

Take note of your own behavior.  Is it being reflected in the children you love and teach?  Is it behavior you would want reflected?  As one test, imagine if a child spoke to you the way you speak to him or around him.  How would you feel?  If you’re uncomfortable, reconsider your own behavior.  Think also of the challenging behaviors you’re trying to modify in a child.  Can you teach through modeling, either explicitly (as in role playing) or implicitly in your every day encounters with the child? 

There’s a quote (though I don’t know the source) that states, “Your actions are so loud that I can’t hear your words.”  This is so true with young children.  Their language centers are still developing, so some of what we say may not always get through.  But they are also keen observers; what we do will almost always be noted.  These little ones can be like mirrors in a fun house.  We see our own motions and actions but in another form in front of us.  Make sure your own behavior is such that you would be OK seeing it again in the children around you!

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Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade – Choices and Consequences

Sorry about the delay on Positive Guidance Posts!  Hopefully the combination of a few topics here will make up for my paucity of posts!

I mentioned in an earlier post about the importance and power of choice for children.  Giving children the opportunity to make choices builds their esteem, their independence, and gives them practice for future, more critical choices.  Here, I’d like to add to that by discussing how offering choices can be used to guide behavior, and how the consequences of a child’s choice can also shape current and future behaviors.

Guiding behaviors.  There are several ways we can use choices to guide behaviors.  The first is by redirection.  When a child is engaged in an inappropriate behavior, say running inside a classroom for example, we can use choice to redirect that behavior by giving appropriate choices.  We might say something like, “Sarah, running inside isn’t a choice today.  There are too many people and things in this room, and I’m afraid someone might get hurt.  You can choose to go outside and run, or you can walk with me around the room to find an activity you might like.” 

We can also use choice to guide behavior as we clarify the choices that are available and their accompanying consequences.  For example, if your child is supposed to be dressing but is not, you might say, “Damon, if you choose to get dressed right now, I will be here to help you.  But if you choose to keep playing and do it later, I will not be able to help you.  You will have to do it all by yourself.”  Be sure to pay attention to your tone of voice.  Don’t state the choices as threats, merely as a matter of fact statement.  Another example might be, “Abbie, this is snack time.  You may choose to eat with us, or to keep reading books.  Either way, there will not be another snack time today.  If you choose to eat with us, you probably won’t get hungry later.  If you choose not to eat with us, you might get hungry later when there is no snack time.”

Choices are not without their consequences.  As a matter of natural law, choices have consequences.  Too often we, as parents or teachers, are tempted to rescue children from those consequences.  We offer “one more chance” again and again.  (And I include myself in this category!) We just hate to see those sweet little ones upset and disappointed.  We avoid the meltdown in the short-term, but we also avoid the teachable moment.  We must remember that our responsibility is not to keep children from feeling any sort of discomfort in life.  It is our responsibility to teach these children and help them to gain the skills necessary to succeed now and in the future.  Sometimes that learning and growth requires a bit of discomfort.  There are far too many people in this world who struggle in life, in large measure, because they do not consider the consequences of their own actions, or do not feel personal responsibility for those consequences.  Learning that can take place in these early years can prevent such behaviors.  Particularly when we have outlined the consequences of specific choices, we must be willing to love children enough to let them experience the consequences they have chosen.

Consequences versus punishment.  Consequences are not really about punishment.  It’s not about exerting authority or inflicting unpleasant  conditions.  Allowing consequences is simply a matter of giving children the opportunity to learn about choices.  It’s about giving them ownership of their behavior. 

When we come from a punishment mentality, we tend to think that if the child doesn’t throw a fit, or exhibit disappointment, as a result of his punishment, then he hasn’t been  punished enough.  We, as adults, come from a position of authority and often try to control the situation, perhaps too much so. 

When we implement a mentality of choice and consequence we come from a place of love and support.  We allow the children to choose, and to fully experience that choice along with its consequences.  We are there to support and coach, but the choice and the consequence are owned by the child.  Just because a child deals with the consequence without so much as pouting, doesn’t mean that it has been a failure.  It likely means that the child is learning to accept personal responsibility and to deal appropriately and independently with those consequences.

As we talk about consequences, there are two types: natural consequences and logical consequences.  The two will be discussed and clarified here.

A Natural Consequence.  Sometimes, all that is necessary to implement a consequence is simple hesitation.  All we have to do, is do nothing.  The consequence will occur on its own as a matter of natural laws.  As an example, if a child chooses not to eat dinner, that child will become hungry. 

We, as adults, must use reason in deciding which natural consequences we will allow to happen.  Not all are appropriate.  A natural consequence of not brushing is severe decay and cavities.  Simply allowing that to happen is not an effective learning opportunity and is negligent on our part.  Likewise, any natural consequence that results in injury or humiliation is not an appropriate learning opportunity.  Waiting for a child to break an arm is not an effective way to teach that jumping off of a slide is not safe.  Obvious, I know, but you get the point!

A Logical Consequence.  Logical consequences may not happen on their own, but are logically connected to the initial behavior.  As in the previous example, where a natural consequence of not eating dinner would be hunger, a logical consequence would be not getting dessert.  It’s logical that if a child does not first have a healthy dinner, she can not have a rich dessert.  An illogical consequence would be not getting computer time or not getting a sticker because she did not eat her dinner.  In these examples, the consequence and the choice have very little to do with each other.

A logical consequence should be timely so that the connection can easily be made.  It should also teach the cause and effect concept of choice.  Logical consequences connect the behavior to the result and may be a preferred substitute for natural consequences that may not be appropriate or safe or that may take too long to occur for learning to be connected. 

Positive Consequences.  As we teach children about choice and consequence we must not forget that their choices often have positive consequences as well.  We should be just as diligent in emphasizing these consequences as we are in supporting their undesired consequences.  If a child is particularly timely in getting ready for bed, it is logical that as a consequence, there is more time for stories.  If a child works hard at the art table, it may be a natural consequence that she has several magnificent projects to take home.  We can draw her attention to that consequence by commenting, “Sylvia, you worked so hard today!  I noticed you spent a long time at the art table.  Look at all these things you were able to make!” 

As we allow children to make choices, and as we allow them to experience the consequences, we begin to build a foundation for future decision making.  When we can allow them full ownership of their behavior, they will begin to recognize that their choices have consequences and that they are able to control those consequences by carefully choosing their actions. 

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Positive Guidance Tools of the Trade – Using Humor

Often what is needed to head off a full-blown melt-down is just a little humor to lighten things up and regain perspective.  Let me give you an example.  Recently, I had spent a full day washing every dirty article of clothing in our house.  A small feat in itself.  I hadn’t, however, folded any of it yet.  So at the end of the day, I was exhausted, folding laundry on my bed, just trying to get to the bottom of it so I could climb in!  Well, my five year-old came in, with body language and a voice that conveyed that he just might try a bit of whining and fit-throwing to get his way as he said, “But I wanted to sit there!”  I responded that the bed was “closed”.  Then realizing the humor, said, “Get it?  The bed is closed with clothes!”  He paused for a moment, then his five year-old logic grasped it and his whole demeanor changed.  He visibly relaxed, laughed a bit, and then moved to another part of the room to settle in and talk to me about something else.

Humor is an excellent distraction.  It lightens the mood and shifts attention, often facilitating either natural or adult-prompted redirection.  It’s not always the children who are the ones who need to lighten up.  They’re naturals at funny business.  In fact, I recently read that, on average, a child laughs 300 times each day, while an adult laughs only 15 times each day.  So it’s logical that humor would be a natural tool to use when working with children.

My husband is an expert at using humor when the little ones are being a bit overly dramatic about their most recent injury or frustration.  He asks what happened and attends to their needs.  Then, if the drama continues, he often says, very seriously, “Now let me make sure I understand what happened,” then recreates the scene in full slapstick comedic fashion, flailing onto the floor or animatedly crashing into the wall, or whatever the drama may be.  The kiddos almost always stop crying, at least long enough to laugh.  And then, if they haven’t stopped completely, they seem to have to really try to cry over laughing – and laughing almost always wins out.

We can use humor to get attention as we’re working with children, starting off an activity with a silly song, a funny story, or your own comedic antics if you’ve got the gift.  It’s hard for a child not to be interested in what comes next once you’ve made him laugh.

Humor can also be used to relate to the child, providing proper perspective on mishaps and disappointments.  (“I remember when I accidentally spilled some water on my pants.  That wasn’t what I meant to do!  How silly!  You know what I did?  I just changed my clothes!)  Laughing at ourselves helps children to do the same.  It shows them that sometimes, it’s just “no big deal”.

Humor also builds relationships by providing positive shared experiences.  It’s fun to laugh together, and you really don’t need a reason to do it!  Building that positive relationship will certainly shade future interactions.

Now, obviously, humor is not for every situation.  We don’t want to brush off very intense reactions with a joke, but sometimes we can head off that eruption, letting out a bit of steam with some well-timed humor.  Also, humor is meant to be used to laugh with the child, not at her.  Never use humor to belittle the child or disregard his feelings.  Be aware of personalities and temperaments, and how they might affect the reaction to your humor.  Keep in mind that sarcasm relies heavily on logic and language skills that children haven’t developed yet.  At best it’s too advanced for children to understand, and at worst, it can be very hurtful.  Just avoid it.

So take a look at how you can use humor to lighten the mood, or re-energize your brood.  There are many times when laughter truly is the best medicine!

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