Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Positive Discipline From Day One

In my previous parenting posts, I use Ryan and Morgan as my examples, since they've been around a while now and I have lots of great stories and parenting experiences with them.

But this time, I thought I'd talk about the baby for a while, partly because he's super cute and squeezable, but also because we do use PD with him, too! (This post brought to you by the Electrical Cord Chewing Button Pushing Peopleguy--Sean.)

A brand new baby doesn't really need guidance from his parents, but he does need responsiveness. When his parents take care of his basic needs in a prompt way, the baby learns to trust those big people and begins to gain a sense that those big people seem to value him a lot. The primary focus of those early days is (besides sleep) building a connection with the baby. This is also known as "attachment parenting" and for more information about this, go to the website of Dr. Sears, who has coauthored (with his wife) many books on the subject.

But after those first couple of sleepless months pass by, the baby becomes more aware of things and interactive. Not coincidentally, you, the parent, begin to emerge from the new baby fog--just a bit!--and become more aware and interactive. :o)

But the baby isn't really conceptual--the baby can't really misbehave--so what is the purpose of discipline at this stage?

Good for Mom and Dad

Babyhood is the perfect time for parents to begin sharpening some of the parenting tools in their toolbox. Of course, if you have more than a minute or two between all of the new baby tasks like changing diapers and feeding and various cleaning activities, now is a great time to read some books about Positive Discipline.

But it's also a great time to practice. Practice saying the things you're going to be repeating thousands of times in the not-too-distant future. Practice which words you're going to say and practice how you're going to say them.

So when you find baby somewhere he's not supposed to be (who expected him to roll over so quickly?), such as in front of the the cat food or a trapped in a particularly electrical-cord-ridden corner of the room, you can say "Oops! Electrical cords are not for eating. Come with me!" as you remove him.

Now the baby will not understand a word. That's okay. He may not even have noticed that you moved him from the cords. To him, the experience is: I was lying somewhere, then that nice lady who smells yummy scooped me up and made some noises, and now I'm somewhere else. (That's if he could even articulate the experience, which, you know, he can't.)

Of course you'd remove him from situations you deem to be potentially dangerous. And the baby may or may not notice or care. But why not use the time to try out what you're going to say when he's a little bit older? Because before you know it, he will begin to understand.

Practice words and phrases:

  • That's not for touching.
  • You want to hold something; here's a bear.
  • Pulling hair is ouchy! Let me help you do a gentle pat.

Practice distraction:

  • Look! Up in the sky! It's a ceiling fan!
  • You want to touch that. Let's go in the kitchen now.
  • Let's go see what Daddy's doing.

Practice tone-of-voice (which of course I can't really describe in writing, but I really do practice different ways of saying things, so that I am firm but kind in the real situation):

  • Ouch! That hurts!
  • Cords aren't for pulling.
  • That's not for eating.
  • I know you don't want a diaper change. I'll help you hold still and it will be over quickly.

Good for Baby

Obviously, Baby won't really get what you're saying and doing until he is older--in my completely non-scientific experience, around 6 months or so. And even then, he won't understand the words--but he will pick up on your tone of voice. And once he gets some sense of Object Permanence--the idea that things don't disappear just because you can't see them--he will definitely begin to understand what you're doing (removing the object or him) and even start to be upset by it.

But if you're already in the habit of saying the right things in the way you want to say them, then the first time the baby whips your glasses off of your face and nearly drops them in the toilet, you will have some words at your disposal that you can use despite your surprise and dismay. That saves the baby from a shocking sense of "Who is this freaking yelling person who has replaced my Mommy?" if you can somehow put him gently on the floor and say "My glasses are not for touching!" instead of "Nnooooo! Blllaaarrrgg!" (Please. Learn from my mistakes. :o) )

The baby will also begin to pick up on the fact that you mean what you say and will reinforce it in a kind and gentle manner. Kids like consistency and need Mom and Dad to provide that for them. It's unsettling not to be able to predict things--babies and kids are comforted by routines and consistency.

Good for Older Siblings

If you have older kids, there's an immediate benefit to practicing PD with the new baby. The Big Kids get to see that you will help the baby follow the house rules: "Ryan wants to play by himself right now; let's go play over here." or "Ouch! Pulling hair hurts and Morgan doesn't like that! I'll help you stop."

Besides the sense of justice that comes from being able to see that you will be fair and not always default in favor of the baby (which is hard not to do!), the Big Kids will begin to view the baby as a real member of the family, an actual person with legitimate wants and desires. And, you are modeling words and action for them to use with the baby. Ryan helps Sean give the cat "gentle pats" (kind of!) and Morgan will say comforting things to him when he's sad like "You're sad Mommy moved away, but see? She's right over there in the kitchen!"

Strategies for Baby "Misbehaviors"

A baby is becoming self-directed--especially once he can sit up on his own and move around some (rolling, crawling, etc.). He's going to do things you don't want him to--not because he's trying to irritate you or hurt himself. He doesn't even have a sense of that yet. He is merely curious about the world and is trying to learn about it, touching everything and probably tasting everything, too.

This is a good time to practice the PD idea: Assume Positive Intent. If you practice this now, it will be easier to do when the child is older and really does do something on purpose to annoy you. (See 4 and 7 year old Casey Kids for examples).

Nobody would think that a crawling baby is trying to disconnect your computer and wireless router on purpose. He sees flashing lights and neat-o buttons and he wants to know what they are, which means touching and/or tasting. If you're Sean, that also means picking up a stick and beating things to see what they do. Maybe a scream or a gurgle will do something. What if I stick it in my eye?

By the way--I LOVE the stage that Sean is in right now. He is so curious and adventurous--a little Scientist Explorer Peopleguy. Even though I've been interrupted 5 times in the writing of just this paragraph by that curiosity, I just love it.

So, what can you do when he is ripping cords out of the wall and attempting to strangle himself with them?

  • Physically remove baby from the No-No.
  • Say "Not for touching." or "No." or "Stop." in a gentle voice. (I don't say something every time.)
  • Rearrange some furniture--take valuables upstairs, or block off the zone. The makeshift barricade I have near my computer desk is NOT holding anymore, so we'll have to move on to a different idea.
  • Distract, distract, distract. Give him another toy, move him to another area, make a funny face. The main advantage you have as a parent at this stage is the fact that Baby is so interested in EVERYTHING that his attention is (relatively) easily focused on something different. Also, babies in general are not known for their excellent memories.
  • Give the baby an appropriate substitute. If he wants to chew something, remove the cat food or Daddy's iPhone and give him a teething ring or soft toy instead. Pulling up grass is a better outlet for when you get the urge to rip something up by its roots (as opposed to hair). Etc.
  • Be prepared to do this a million times until he finds another dangerous thing to obsess over or until he leaves home for college. (In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.)

I do not recommend:
  • Shouting or yelling at baby. It will scare him and he'll get the same idea--"Mom won't let me over in this corner."--through your action of physically removing him.
  • Hitting baby--smacking his hands, etc. Again, he'll get scared and focus on the hurt--why hurt or scare him when he gets what he needs--redirection--without physical or mental pain?


I'm not sure if this really a PD idea, but it's certainly a value I hold--give the baby as much freedom as absolutely possible. Create a safe zone in which he can play and explore--and make that zone big.

Having older kids has resulted in some logistical challenges along these lines. As parents know, the older the kid, the more pieces their toys, and the smaller the pieces. It's a Danger Trifecta: lots of small pieces are not only a hassle to clean up and keep track of, it's also a Major Choking Hazard!

We've worked around some of these issues by creating Big Kid Zones, where one can play with LEGO in relative freedom. Our playroom also has doors, which has been helpful, although Sean has reached an age where it's no longer feasible to keep him out of there. I've also enlisted the help of the older kids: they can identify Sean-safe toys, and will sound a red alert (literally) if they see him with anything in his mouth. Given all of the birthdays recently celebrated around here, hearing Ryan or Morgan shout "Floor cake!" is common. Sean does love some leftover floor cake. (And I'm confident at this point that he is not allergic to eggs, dairy, or wheat. Although it was definitely NOT my preference for us to have figured it out in that particular manner.)

And even though we let him have as much freedom as we can, we still make judicious use of baby gates (to keep him out of the kitchen and from being underfoot while I'm cooking, for example) and outlet covers. But it's funny--Sean is surviving and thriving in a much more dangerous environment than Ryan did at the same age! Ah, the joys and perils of being a Third! Even so--we still redirect him and guide him all the time. But for both of our sakes, I try to minimize it.

What are some other ideas for guiding young babies and toddlers? I'm sure there are things I've forgotten about toddlerhood, which will re-surprise me in just a few more months here. Ideas?


Travis N said...

Jenn, nice post (as usual). I especially appreciated the "good for older siblings" section. I constantly find myself saying ridiculous thing to our younger boy (who just turned 1), e.g., "Please give your brother some space; he is working on that puzzle now and we need to respect that." Of course the little guy can't really understand any of the relevant ideas (basically respecting another person's property rights... and I suppose he doesn't understand "puzzle" either!), but it's important to treat him as if he could, for the benefit of the older child who is watching. If we let the little guy crawl all over his brother's puzzle on the grounds that "he's too young to understand property rights" the older boy would be justifiably angry and would recognize the unequal treatment. On the other hand, if we just physically moved the little guy without the "explanation", the older guy (who isn't after all old enough to understand what the little guy can and can't understand) would wonder why we weren't treating him very respectfully, which also wouldn't be good. So we go out of our way to "explain" things to the little guy, in ways that the older guy will be able to understand, because it's mostly just a show for the older guy. As you pointed out, there are other benefits too (like that the little guy will pick up on the respectful tone of voice and body language), but the "put on a show for the older siblings" aspect really stands out.

Here's another thought on PD and siblings. One of the things that really resonated with me from the PD book I read was the idea of figuring out what *you* are going to do (in response to some less than ideal behavior by the child), instead of thinking about how you're going to punish him or make him fix the behavior. The paradigm sort of example is, if the child hits you or something, you can just leave and explain that you don't like to play with people who hit. So it's not really a "punishment" -- just a "natural consequence". Now the problem is, when there's more than one child, a lot of the "less than ideal behaviors" occur between the kids. And so the otherwise attractive option of just reacting naturally *yourself* (rather than intervening in some way to impose something on the kid/s) doesn't really work. For example, if (read: when) the older boy has the younger boy pinned on the floor with his arm across his neck, I can't just leave the room and say "I don't like to play with boys who strangle their little brothers"! There's no real point here except that when you are parenting two or more kids, one of the coolest and best PD strategies isn't applicable as often as it would be with just one. So figuring out how to deal with that has been one of the new challenges, for me, of having the younger sibling around.

Finally, am I allowed to make requests? I'd love to hear your thoughts/experiences/stories about potty training, Jenn...

Bill Brown said...

Travis, but there would be natural consequences possible: he'll no longer have a brother (asphyxiated), parents (jailed for negligence), and he'll spend the rest of his childhood bouncing around foster homes. I don't know how old the older boy is, but perhaps you can trot out an episode of Oz or something like it and ask if he wants Mommy and Daddy to experience that.

Just trying to be helpful.

Rational Jenn said...

Hi Travis--you're right that there are different PD tools you use between kids than the ones you may use in a situation with just yourself and the child.

Have you read Siblings without Rivalry? That has lots of good techniques for handling physical (and other) conflicts between kids. In a situation like the one you described, separating the kids is necessary (and I'm sure you do that!)--which is really what you might do to a child who is hurting you. You are separating yourself from the hitting child to protect yourself. When there are two kids, you separate them to protect the kid getting hit. So really, it's the same principle in action--just handled in a different context.

You're the second person to ask about potty training. I will write up a post about that--only this is one area where it's been a real challenge for me. I guess maybe people can learn from my mistakes!

Bye for now, and thanks for your comments.

Kelly Elmore said...


For the benefit of other readers, I am going to pretend that your sarcastic piece of meanness was an honest critique of positive discipline. I will answer people who might have your same misapprehension.

Parents who practice positive discipline do want their children to experience the natural consequences of their actions as often as possible. However, we realize that children are not fully rational, and we have the responsibility to protect them from some of the natural consequences. The hard part is figuring out when to intervene. Because I want my child's focus to be on reality and not on authority, I intervene as little as I can. The question I always ask myself is this: Will this behavior lead to a serious and lasting harm to the child's life or limb or does it violate someone else's rights? In Travis's case, the child is violating his sibling's rights, and I cannot allow my desire for one child to be in touch with reality to harm the other child. This is why I stop hitting and physical force against others and why I carry my child out of restaurants immediately if she cannot be quiet.

Positive disciple is not permissive. Dangerous behavior or violating the rights of others should always be immediately stopped. There is no lack of consequences in positive disciple either. We, as Objectivists, realize that reality punishes irrationality. Positive discipline just capitalizes on that, letting reality be the teacher (with parents as translators and explainers) as often as possible.


Bill Brown said...

"Sarcastic bit of meanness"? I was joking around with Travis's suggestion that he can't just let one son strangle another. I have plenty of beefs with Positive Discipline and a high regard for natural consequences, but this wasn't an example of that.

Kelly Elmore said...

Perhaps the humor didn't come through in your post. I would love to hear some of your objections to positive discipline. I think it would make for interesting discussion.


Bill Brown said...

Yes, I've been promising a post on this subject several times. My wife and I don't follow a PD approach, but we haven't turned what works for us into any sort of coherent theory or theories. I think that that would be necessary for it to be a generalizable (and non-subjective) blog entry.

Rational Jenn said...

Hi Bill! I'm glad you clarified your statement, because I couldn't tell either if it was meant to be sarcastic or not. I'm glad it wasn't!

I think that your comment hit on something important that might be confusing to those who are new to PD, and that is the idea that a discipline method that specifically rejects parent-imposed punishment must therefore be overly-permissive. I don't know whether that is your impression or not, but I think perhaps someone reading this might have that idea about PD.

I'm in complete agreement with Kelly's comment, which explains this potential confusion excellently. PD is neither overly controlling nor overly permissive. And I will endeavor to expand on this confusion in future posts (as a person who was formerly confused about this myself, I do understand!).

Incidentally, I am interested in hearing objections to PD. I don't want anyone to think that objections are unwelcome here. I don't mind reexamining my premises, and challenges to the things I've been writing about are of course a great opportunity to check premises. Because I realize PD is different from the way many of us were raised or have thought about parenting issues--it requires a paradigm shift for most of us.

Bill Brown said...

I think that PD is overly permissive. I got that impression directly from your PD entries as well as others at other blogs. Your and Kelly's assertions to the contrary were not persuasive. An explanation is warranted but I can't spare the time right now.

I think that, at the level you, I, and others here are operating, the parental decisions are completely optional. By that I mean that we are all applying an above-average amount of thought and conscientiousness to our parenting and I think that any of our kids will likely turn into productive, rational adults.

Arisce said...

I wish I had found this 6 and a half months ago. But better late then never!