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Proactive Discipline and Well-Behaved Children

by Becky Jackson

I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room recently, taking my 4 month old for a checkup. My 8 and 7 year old daughters were reading together across from me. My 6 year old son sat beside me talking as I sat in the corner nursing my baby. We had been waiting for about 30 or 45 minutes when a man’s name was called for his turn. As he walked toward the nurse who was holding the door, I heard him stop and turn around.


I didn’t think he’d be talking to me so I just sat there.

“Ma’am,” he repeated as I looked up. “I appreciate well-behaved children. There’s nothing worse than coming to the doctor’s office when you’re sick to have to deal with kids running around being loud and rude. I just want to commend you because your children are very well-behaved.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that,” I replied and he went on.

As you can imagine, I was on a proud mama high that afternoon. But that wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a comment. My children’s good behavior has been noticed and praised in the dentist’s office too, and a photo studio and church and a Wal-Mart checkout line and in our home. People have asked me if I keep them away from sugar or if we “beat” them. I guess they want to know my secret.

Now before this starts to sound like an article full of boasting, let me say that I only share these things in order to establish my credibility that the perspective I’m about to share really can work. Most people seem to think that physical punishment is the only way to elicit good behavior and assume that children who aren’t given prompt and regular spankings will be out of control “monsters”. Well, my kids are not perfect little robots. They have to be reminded to do things and they fight with each other. But my focus is not so much on obedience (do what I say right now!) as you might have expected. Instead my focus is on raising kids who are generally polite and content and care about how those around them feel. And that’s what I’ve got, kids who are noticeably considerate to adults and other children alike.

One of the biggest accolades for many of us as mothers is the elusive “well-behaved children” compliment. We see so many kids today who are rude or disrespectful or plain old annoying to be around and we want to work hard at making sure our children don’t become one of them. People do a lot of crazy things in the name of trying to raise well-behaved children. Some slap 5-month-olds on the hands or legs. Some hit their children with a wooden cane. Some other techniques might not sound quite as extreme as these, but might look quite bizarre if we took a step back to watch ourselves and examine our rationale.

I want to share with other parents a more proactive approach to discipline. Also called positive discipline or grace-based discipline, it’s just a way of focusing on evoking good behavior instead of reacting to bad behavior. Many people equate discipline only with punishment, but if a child is only punished, I can’t imagine how they would ever learn good behavior. I have reflected on some of the key elements in our proactive discipline approach and here are some of the most important:

Number one on my list of factors that contribute to good behavior is that we pay attention to our kids. I often notice that kids who are starved for their parents’ attention will try to get attention through acting out. But well-behaved kids don’t have a need to be noticed, because Mama and Daddy notice their drawing and say “that’s great!” We notice their interest in cowboys and take them to the rodeo. We notice when they are sad and ask “what’s wrong?” Along those same lines, we notice when they are in need of correction or need steering in another direction. We don’t just turn a blind eye and hope that negative behavior will disappear. We intercept before it gets out of hand. When my 8 month old keeps crawling over to chew on the lamp cord, I remove her and play pat-a-cake. When my 6 year old son starts getting mad at his big sister, I sometimes have them play in separate rooms for a while. As they get older, children who know that what they do matters to their parents are going to make better decisions and think more carefully before they act. In other words, they’re less impulsive.

Just as important as attentiveness is the time we spend with our children. We realize that they need quantities of quality time with us, even if what we’re doing is as simple as talking, reading, or playing checkers. It’s these seemingly small, simple day-to-day activities that “fill up their tanks” with love and make them feel special and important to us. When we do these things, they are more calm and at ease with themselves and their surroundings. Sometimes I can tell when one of our kids needs more time with us on that particular day. They will start to seem whiny and short-tempered. It’s amazing the difference a little cooking with mom or wrestling with Dad can make in their behavior. A kid whose needs are met is simply going to be more capable of controlling his behavior.

Another key that goes hand in hand with time is stability. Instead of being in the care of a different day care worker every few months, my children have been home with Mama every year of their life, with Daddy walking in the door at the end of every day. A consistent, steady, long-term commitment from the people guiding them goes a long way in helping kids know what the limits are and what to expect. They want and need warm responsive parents to spend their days with in order to form healthy attachments. Because of that stability, they believe me when I tell them something is important because I am the one they look to for guidance. When I tell them they need to do or not do something, they usually accept that I must be telling them this for a good reason. Because of the huge shift of mothers to the workforce, I believe that many kids are now lacking this stability in early childhood. Kids today may have a dozen different babysitters or day care teachers and preschool teachers before they even reach the age of five. And it’s that, rather than any perceived reduction in spankings, that makes this generation of kids seems more unruly than in “the old days”.

Another area of importance in proactive discipline is realistic expectations. We don’t expect our baby to leave the cat food alone and we don’t expect our kids to keep their jeans clean. I see a lot of toddlers getting in trouble at basketball games because they are simply too young to sit still for 3 hours or understand what’s going on. Sometimes McDonald’s is more appropriate than a fancy restaurant. And the park is a better choice for an outing than a trinket shop. We move breakables or dangerous items up high when a baby is on the prowl. We do all of these things because we want to set our kids up for success. Otherwise, you will be constantly at your wit’s end and saying no becomes static in their ears. It is our responsibility as parents to monitor our children well enough to keep them from running into the street or getting into other dangers. We can't wait for it to happen and rely on subsequent punishment to teach them safety.

Consistency is a crucial part of discipline. We have certain rules that are always in effect. We as the parents don’t allow ourselves to change our minds about french fries or a toy just because we don’t want to hear whining. When parents give in to whining or tantrums they are reinforcing negative behavior and assuring that it will happen again. There are just some things parents have to stick to. Just as car seats and seatbelts are not optional, so are several other rules in their lives. And just as the car stays put until they are buckled, we often have to stop in the middle of our daily activities and wait until they have done what is expected. This is one reason why family life shouldn’t be so busy that you say, “whatever, just do what you want, I don’t have time to deal with this.” We need to take time to address problems as they arise and spend however long we need to in teaching and correcting.

Although many parents will argue that their child is well-behaved because he fears punishment, I believe that the most important determiner is whether the parents exhibit the above behaviors. The majority of kids who stay in trouble at school are the same ones who receive plenty of physical punishment at home. But find a well-behaved child and you’ll almost always find parents who devote their time and attention to their children creating a stable, consistent environment with realistic expectations. Is this outcome guaranteed? No, partly because kids have different personalities and activity levels. But gentleness, patience, and a proactive approach to discipline go a long way toward helping a child feel good about himself and his interactions with others. He will even take pride in knowing that he can conduct himself with courtesy and respect.

For an expert explanation of grace-based discipline or a Christian perspective on “sparing the rod” visit Pastor Crystal Lutton’s site http://www.aolff.org/ You can also buy her book on grace-based discipline, Biblical Parenting, there.

This article was first published on Suite101.com and is reprinted with permission from the author.
Copyright 2002 by Becky Jackson


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