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Disciplining Babies

by Jeri Carr

In the beginning, a baby cannot do anything for himself. He naturally lives his life in the way that best ensures that his needs will be met, and he doesn't do anything out of a desire to manipulate or hurt anyone. He can't control his hands, his legs, his mouth, his whole body. If he pulls someone's hair, he has no clue that it hurts. When he cries from hunger, it's because his tummy hurts, and that's the best way to let others know. When he feels lonely, his cries communicate his need to be near his mother, for a baby's need for the physical nearness of his mother is as intense as his need for food.

Some say parents must "teach" their newborn how to be a servant by making him sit around while his mother makes dinner for visitors she invited over--they say babies must learn to put others first. A baby will not understand the lesson taught this way. Instead, many parents have found that the first and most powerful way a child starts learning to put others first is for his parents to put him first. A mother who consistently and responsively meets the needs of her baby will foster a deep trust and contentment in her child. Her baby will learn "servanthood" by seeing service in action. . . by being a recipient of the serving.

A young baby's wants and needs are synonymous. Parents are older and can wait, but making a baby wait confuses and scares him. Since he has no concept of time, to him a minute is an eternity. So, for a baby, discipline consists of consistently and responsively meeting his needs. Their child will learn to trust them, and this will help him listen when they tell him he shouldn't do something and will help him want to please his parents.

Many parents try to force premature independence on their baby by making him sleep alone, even if he sleeps better with them, or by ignoring their baby's cries. They feel that if his diaper is dry, he just nursed, and it's time to sleep, then their baby's needs have been met and to do more would be giving in to their baby and would potentially create a spoiled child. Many think this is the way to discipline a baby.

While at first a baby lives in total dependence on his parents, and this could possibly be perceived as a terrible inconvenience for the parents, this time will not last forever and should be treasured. This time provides a wonderful opportunity for parents to foster a strong attachment and build a sense of trust between themselves and their baby. How a baby relates to his mother will be the basis of his future relationships with others. As experienced mothers will affirm, a baby grows older soon enough, and his independence will blossom if given ample opportunity. By meeting their baby's needs, parents help him grow into healthy independence as he becomes ready.

One of the situations that causes stress to many parents happens when their baby learns to crawl or scoot around and refuses to leave certain objects or areas alone. For this type of "problem," babyproofing is essential. Babyproofing not only helps protect a baby from dangerous objects and situations, it gives him the opportunity to satisfy his innate curiosity and helps protect material valuables.

Some parents choose not to put away their valuables and instead slap hands, etc., or even yell, to get their point across. It's harmful and unfair to expect something of a child that he is not developmentally ready to handle. Often, the best and safest way to protect both your child and breakable items that are special to you is, if possible, to remove the item. On the other hand, showing a child he cannot touch something by slapping or spanking him will bewilder and scare him and teach him that hitting is an okay thing to do.

Parents who leave breakables where a little one can reach them should accept the fact that they might be broken. By following their child around and guiding his activities, they can teach him what objects to avoid and how to touch other objects gently. When he wants something he can't have, they can explain that "This is not a toy," or "This is not for baby," and then offer an alternative and say, "You can play with this instead." Sometimes simply distracting baby will work. For instance, if he is headed toward something he can't play with, he might easily be enticed to change direction when offered one of his favorite toys.

Children commonly insist on having something they can't have, and if the object can't be removed, sometimes it can be best to remove him from the situation. He might be happier in another room or might enjoy going for a walk to get his mind off of the forbidden object. Also, parents should be prepared for the fact that their baby will probably soon forget what they have tried to teach him, but with consistent guidance and patient words and actions, he will eventually learn.

If a child tries to touch something dangerous, many parents have found it helpful to use a descriptive word such as "hot" or "ouch." They explain to their baby, "This is hot, ouch!" with a startled look on their face to help convey the seriousness of the situation. The importance of these words will sink in more readily if parents normally talk to their baby gently and save harsher tones for serious situations when he really needs to stop and listen.

These ideas can help a child learn gently. This approach to discipline requires a deeply involved and active parent, but the rewards are great. As parents strive to lovingly guide their child into maturity, it can help to remember that it's a long process that doesn't happen in one day.

This version of this article was first published on Suite101.com.


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