Problems With Gentle Discipline

One thing I’ve discovered since beginning this blog is how tough it is to come up with general guidelines for a parenting topic that is as specific-to-the-moment asrespectful discipline. I’ve needed to examine and re-examine the effective responses that for me have become second nature. I’ve struggled to explain in words interventions that are so much easier to demonstrate in person.
So I appreciate the feedback I get from readers. Your comments and questions compel me to clarify Magda Gerber’s respectful approach to parenting through specific examples.

The comment below is in response to my post “If Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working, This Might Be the Reason”, and it exemplifies many of the more general guidelines I recently shared in “The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits”:

Okay – so I’m trying to do gentle disciplining, but my 3-year old daughter can be incredibly challenging sometimes. To start, when she is doing something I don’t like, she will purposely refuse to look me in the eye. I could be in the most delightful mood, but when she is doing something she knows I don’t want her to do, she will avoid looking at me. Here are some examples of her behavior:

She jumps on her 1-year old brother, seemingly unprovoked, and “hugs” him tightly around the neck from behind. I pull them apart. I make sure son is okay. I pull daughter aside and try to look her in the eye and say, “I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?” Unfortunately, she will not look me in the eye, and trying to force her seems unnecessarily aggressive. Within 15-20 minutes she will often try the same behavior again.

The second scenario goes like this: Daughter dumps the water she was drinking on the ground and throws in her dinosaurs proclaiming that they are taking a bath. I say, “Daughter, I don’t want you to dump your water on the floor. If you want to play with water, I can fill up the sink. All you have to do is ask me. Let’s clean this up together.” I give her a towel, and I get down on the floor with her to clean it up. We start drying the floor together, and then she starts wringing out the towel in another spot on the floor. I again try to get her to look me in the eye to let her know that dumping water on the floor is unacceptable, but she refuses. We then clean up the new wet spot, and she again wrings out the towel in another spot. I give up and tell her she has to go play with something else like Legos, and I finish cleaning up the mess.

Any suggestions?

Kate – my suggestion is to 1) recognize that this is typical sibling behavior;  and 2) say much less. This is way too much focus and lecturing: “ I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?”

Your daughter may be looking away because she feels scolded and shamed, when what  she needs is to know is that you understand her impulses and will prevent her from following through with them. If you get there too late or are unable to prevent the action, just give a brief reminder: “I don’t want you to hug his neck, that isn’t safe,” and then completely let it go. At another time mention to her, “I know how hard it can be to have a little brother… I imagine he makes you angry sometimes.”

Also, it seems you are misunderstanding your daughter’s behavior. She is not strangling her brother because she wants to hug…and she is not dumping water because she wants to play with water. She is doing these things to express her feelings (anger, rage, jealousy, etc.) and also to gauge your response… She knows full well that this is unacceptable behavior, so your responses are only drumming into her that she’s a “bad girl”…and the danger there is that children can begin to identify as the “bad, disappointing one”.

So, the best way to help her stop doing these things is to understand, and calmly stop her without a lecture or emotional reaction. Matter-of-factly say, “I don’t want you to dump the water. Can you help me clean it up?” Then, let it go, forgive immediately and believe in your daughter, so she will be able to garner your attention in more positive ways.

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