Closeup Rachel Wigglesworth

Rachel Wigglesworth, once a wildlife biologist, turned her research skills toward another passion: childhood development and parenting.

In my last column, published on Dec. 5, 2018, I discussed the idea that the goal of discipline is to teach kids a skill rather than punish them for a challenging behavior.

“If I can’t punish my child for a misbehavior, does that mean I should let my child get away with it?” you might ask.

Not at all.

I am not saying you should let a challenging behavior go unnoticed. I am also not saying that a child should be punished because of a behavior. Challenging behaviors come from a few places, including a lack of skill. Children are continuously learning skills at various rates, depending on their development. Punishing kids who haven’t learned a skill isn’t teaching them what they need to learn. It only teaches them what they should not be doing, and it can also damage the relationship.

There are four kinds of parenting styles defined by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind, and research shows that only one of them increases the likelihood of positive outcomes for children. These parenting styles are based on the continuum of the support we give to our kids and the expectations we have of them. The interplay between how much of each we give to our children affects how we parent:

Permissive parenting: We give our children lots of support, but we don’t hold them to high expectations. We let our limits slide, and we don’t have firm and clear boundaries that we maintain.

Strict parenting: With strict parenting we have high expectations, but we don’t give our children the support to meet those expectations. Baumrind called this “authoritarian” parenting. This is more of a “my way or the highway” style, where we expect total obedience and we rarely listen to the child’s point of view.

Uninvolved parenting: Uninvolved parents neither give support nor have expectations of their sons and daughters. They minimize the time and energy they give to their children. In extremes, this can be neglect.

Authoritative parenting: Authoritative parents place high expectations on their children and give them the support they need to meet those expectations. They are both demanding and responsive. They parent their kids with warmth, give them structure and promote their independence and individuality. In the parenting realm we refer to this as “firm and kind,” and research points to a host of positive outcomes for children and adolescents parented this way.

So how does this relate to discipline? It relates in that we want to discipline (or teach) our kids in a “firm and kind” way. That means we maintain our limits with empathy and understanding. We hear our children’s perspective and validate their experience. We understand that the situation might be challenging for them. We give them a hug if they need one.

And it doesn’t stop there. It is just as important to maintain the limit that we had set, the agreement or rule we had come to together regarding specific types of behaviors or the expectation to take care of a responsibility. We can decide if we want to allow for negotiation or change our mind based on our child’s good argument. Natural consequences can be a part of that by allowing our children to experience the pitfalls of choices they have made.

For a child who doesn’t want to leave a fun situation, you can say, “I can see you are having so much fun right now, and leaving could be hard for you. We agreed that we would leave after a five-minute warning so we can get home and start dinner. Is there anything we could do that would make leaving easier for you?”

For a teen or ’tween who needs to take care of household responsibilities before going out with friends, it might look like this: “I know all your friends are meeting in 15 minutes and you really want to join them. We agreed that you would take care of your responsibilities before you leave the house. You can leave as soon as the job is done.”

Even if you are firm and kind, your child may fuss or argue out of disappointment or anger that you are maintaining a limit. But you are the parent, and it is your job to hold firm, regardless of the emotional fallout, when you believe it is important to do so. Easier said in writing. Much easier. Over time, with that kind of response, the relationship you have with your children may deepen and their capabilities may grow stronger. Kids will begin to understand the expectations you have, and you are understanding their experience.

Here is the idea in a nutshell: What do we do instead of punish? We teach.

How do we teach? In a firm and kind way.

How can we be both firm and kind when we are frustrated by the behavior? We have to calm ourselves before we respond.

How do we keep calm when the behavior seems irrational, is repetitive and becomes infuriating? We have to step back and understand where our reactivity comes from.

It’s hard to stay calm when we have all sorts of beliefs or misinterpretations or don’t understand the reasons behind a behavior. And it helps to get into our children’s shoes so we can understand where the behavior is coming from. With understanding can come empathy.

In my next few columns I will get into more detail about this, discussing brain development and the differences between adult and child brains, and the most important part of parenting. Hint: It’s not about the child.

Until then, practice maintaining a limit (firm) in an understanding way (kind). Then spend some time truly connecting with your child or teen when you can be present without distractions. Let her or him be in charge of what you do. That kind of connection can do wonders for your relationship, and a strong relationship creates the foundation for teaching.

This column has been updated to include the correct publishing date of the columnist's last writing. — Eds.

Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education. She provides guidance to parents and caregivers through classes, workshops, and individual sessions at www.GrowingGreatFamilies.org. You can email her at GrowingGreatFamilies@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.

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