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How I chose to discipline my son when he was a toddler

February 19, 2014

To spank or not to spank?

It’s one of THE big questions for the parents of young children. It’s a complicated topic. Many people do what their parents did, or what everyone around them does. This post will detail some of my own thoughts regarding discipline and kids. These are my practices. You may agree, or you may be on a different page. I’ve never spanked my son, and my parents never spanked me. I am not going to judge you if you have spanked your kids or do spank them as a form of punishment. After all, we are all in this together; there’s no judgment here. If you feel differently, you have your reasons for doing what you do.  I will attempt to share some of my reasons for why I do what I do, and how I’ve done it.

Truth be told, I don’t know if the reason I wasn’t spanked is because I was one of those kids that rarely got in trouble, or if it was actually against their principles. All I know is that they didn’t. If I got in trouble, I was given a look that made my heart sink and was sent to my room. I was told by my mother, very gravely, that I had disappointed her. To be honest, that was enough to send me into a tailspin of guilt every single time. Sitting on my bed in my room, I would vow not to do whatever “it” was that got me into trouble ever again!

Just because that has worked for me, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Every kid is different; every parent is different. When I became a parent, I had already worked with children for about ten years. I was pretty familiar with behavior management, time-outs, losing privileges, and using my tone of voice and words to communicate my disappointment. My plan was to use my tone and actions to discipline rather than my hands.

Putting time-outs into practice

When my son was about two years old, we started utilizing time-outs as discipline. I am not going to lie.  It really was a pain in the neck. I understand why people give up on it. Doing the “time-out thing” requires quite a commitment, a commitment I didn’t quite get until I was the one doing Every Single Time Out.

We were not overzealous in our expectations for our toddler’s behavior. However, if he was aggressive towards one of us (or someone else) or did something unsafe, we felt that in order to teach him not to do those things, that a time-out was in order. Our time-outs consisted of a clear warning (“If you hit Mommy again, you will have a time-out.”). If the behavior happened again, we would say calmly, “You chose to hit Mommy again. You will be having a time out.”

If you have or have had a two-year-old, you know what came next. My son would SCREAM, hit, kick, try to run away, whatever. You name it, he did it. We would pick him up and carry him all the way upstairs to his bedroom. There was still a lot of screaming and struggling going along. We would place him on the floor of his room and tell him he needed to sit there for his time-out. Even though he had little concept of time, we would tell him he had to sit for two minutes. A time out should be the same amount of minutes as the child’s age. If you go much longer than that, you’ll lose their interest. So, the expectation was that our son would sit on the floor of his room for two minutes. He could cry, scream, lay down, anything he wanted. However, he was not to get up and play. I would stand outside of his room, just out of his line of sight, for a few reasons. One, to make sure he did what he was supposed to do. Two, to make sure he was safe (he wasn’t at an age yet where we let him play in his room by himself). Three, so I could have a moment to collect myself. After struggles like that, my nerves were always pretty frayed.

What if he got up and started to play? I would go into his room and place him back on the floor, explaining that this was a time-out and it was not time to play. I let him know his two-minute time-out was starting over. If he continued to get up and play, I would not keep this going for any significant amount of time, I would simply let him get as close to the time-out time as possible, and then move on.  The idea is to teach through discipline, not punish unnecessarily.

After the two minutes, I would go back to his room and sit down next to him on the floor. Calmly, I would tell him his time-out was over. I explained why he had the time-out: “You were in time out because you chose to hit Mommy. Hitting people hurts them and it’s not safe. That’s why it’s against the rules of our house.” Then there was a hug and an “I love you” and it was over. Well, it was over until five minutes later, when we did the whole thing over again for the next behavior issue we faced. See what I mean about a pain in the neck?

Explain the rules of your house

My words to him before and after the time out were carefully chosen. I would clearly tell him that whatever it was that he did, he “chose” to do it. The purpose of that was to teach him that he is responsible for his own behavior and that he is the one who chooses his actions. I would stay calm because I did not want to scare him with my voice or actions. To me, discipline is about love, not fear. I would always bring things back to being “safe” and “these are the rules of the house.”

From time to time, we would have little talks about the “rules of the house.” The rules were to be safe and to be respectful. Those rules applied to parents as well as kids.  We would emphasize safety because of our love for each other. We would tell him, “We want to be safe and smart about what we do because we love each other.” This affirms our love for him, as well as teaches him a way to show love to each other.  Sometimes, during our son’s behavior warnings, we would remind him about being safe.  We also really tried to keep it simple.  We didn’t want to overdo it by going on and one about behavior and expectations.  The concepts of safety and love were things that our son could understand.  We wove those two concepts into every conversation regarding discipline that we had.

Consistency is the key

Getting back to the pain in the neck thing. We all know that it’s not unusual for a toddler to do the EXACT same behavior just a few minutes later. We always figured that he was testing us. I really think he was wondering if he could get away with it THIS time. Here’s where time-out became challenging. When he hit me again, we started the ENTIRE process over again: a warning, a big, loud, dramatic time-out, a talk at the end, an “I love you” and a hug. All over again (well, I didn’t mind the “I love you” and the hug).

In my experience with friends and their kids and families I’ve worked with, the requirement of repetition is what causes people to give up on time-outs, or rather, they say that they don’t work. This is because the procedure of doing it over and over again is tiring and challenging. It can also lead the parent to wonder if it is working.  “If the time outs were working, wouldn’t he/ she have stopped misbehaving by now?”

Here’s the tricky thing with toddlers: they learn through repetition. How many times have they asked you to read their favorite book? How many times have they asked to watch the same show (maybe even the same episode) on TV? How critical is it to get that bedtime routine just right? They love repetition, and there’s a reason for it. Repetition gives them structure, a definitive framework to live within.  Repetition can be calming and soothing to a little one that lives in a perpetual state of emotional chaos.

Being a toddler is hard. They have very little control and very little ability to understand why they don’t have control. We are often telling them “no” just as often as they are telling us “no.” Giving them clear, consistent results gives them peace of mind. This means that when they test those limits of unacceptable behaviors, they are doing exactly what they should be doing, developmentally speaking.

Knowing this doesn’t make discipline any easier. Toddlers can get into all kinds of trouble, and their behavior can be frustrating to us, their parents. Parents can be pushed to their limit pretty easily by their very own adorable, yet defiant, offspring. Additionally, a quick spanking may be what we know to be effective as immediate behavior control. I have heard people say many times, “When I spank him, he stops doing it. So it works.” However, it can unintentionally send the message that violence and fear is okay for parents to use on their kids. Many kids could take that message to the next level and rationalize, “If Mom and Dad can do that to me when they get angry, I can do it to others.”

Make sure your child understands your expectations

Whatever method of discipline you choose as a parent, one important step is making sure that there is some sort of discussion that occurs afterwards so that the child can understand what the undesirable behavior was and what they could do differently next time. We stopped doing time-outs a long time ago. By the time our son got to be about four years old, he really didn’t seem to need them anymore.  Now, when he misbehaves, we correct his behavior firmly, and give him a chance to speak his mind, as long as he is respectful. An open discussion allows for us to talk about what sort of behavior is expected and what sort of behavior is not ok, and it gives him a chance, at eight years old, to say how he feels as well.

I don’t miss time-outs. It was not an easy season of life. It is challenging to remain consistent and implement a time-out every time that it’s possible and needed. Busy lives, large households, and a lack of time or understanding of the process can all make doing time-outs more challenging. However, as much as I’m glad those days are over, I am grateful that I did it. I was able to instill the behaviors that I wanted my child to possess: to be respectful, safe, and kind, and I did it all through a systematic process where I never once raised my hand to him.

Please share!  What works for you and your child when it comes to discipline?  Have you tried time-outs?  How did it work for you?