My six-year-old daughter today announced that she had a made a rule and that Daddy wasn’t following it. He was “supposed to” wait inside for her before going outside to play with our other children. She had just finished her breakfast but wasn’t yet changed out of her pajamas and needed to brush her teeth and comb her hair, morning tasks the other children had already finished. Daddy had told her that she could come outside when she was done and that they would delay going on a walk until she came. But she was angry because he wasn’t doing as she wanted and she ran to me to tell me so, in hopes that I would back her up.

What would you do?

Some parents would say that in no uncertain terms should this little girl be getting her way, or talking with disrespect toward her father, or tattling on Daddy to the other parent. That she was being manipulative and should be punished.

What did I do?

I remembered that this bossy behavior is typical for this age group. This is normal child development. But I agree that her request was too much like a demand and not respectful of everyone else in the family. So, I first asked her to tell me what a rule is. She didn’t know. I told her that a rule is something that Mommy or Daddy says, something that needs to be done in order for a person or family to be safe and healthy. I asked her if she was a Mommy or Daddy. She said no. And then I explained that it’s OK for her to want to seek a compromise, to want to negotiate, but that she had to talk to Daddy about it and then she would have to honor him if he said no. The power struggle was over. Having been listened to and her feelings validated, coupled with our history of mutual respect and caring, she could weather Daddy’s “no” in trust, rather than fear, that she wouldn’t be left out of the fun.

This type of discipline is a lot different from the control- and punishment-based version I grew up with or that I was first inclined to use as a young parent. But it teaches what I want my children to learn – not control, not fear, but flexibility and respect and empathy.

This type of discipline does not come easily to most parents. I think it probably does to those parents who were raised the same, but quite simply, there weren’t many in the older generations who were raised that way. The parenting trend at the time was to view children less deserving of respect than adults. There was little affection, one-on-one attention, parent-child play, and just plain interaction beyond correction. Some so-called experts claim that children at that time were happier than children today. They fail to see, though, that those supposedly happier children grew into today’s generation of adults struggling with mental health issues, ranging from depression and anxiety and shopping addictions to bipolar disorder and antisocial personality disorders. Certainly, there are a lot of different factors that go into mental health – from individual temperament and stress tolerance and genetic susceptibility to learned coping skills to amount and types of life stress – but all of these hinge upon the oft-forgotten influence of a secure or insecure parent-child attachment.

And parents can’t always tell whether a child is happy or not. Depending on a parent’s own temperament and other mental well-being factors, a child’s way of being can be viewed negatively or positively. A parent who is outgoing and gregarious might worry about a child who is naturally quiet, when an introverted parent could easily relate to a shy child. Or a low-key parent might wonder about a child’s hyperactivity when an on-the-go parent might relate to an equally energetic child’s feeling of boredom.

Much of childrearing today revolves around behavior modification: how we get our children to do what we want them to do, or to stop doing what they’re doing. And there are many parenting techniques, such as affection and play and one-on-one attention, that are backed by research to be most positive, productive, and effective in raising happy, healthy children. But parenting in the everyday is far from a scientific venture. Parenting our children is an art form. Nothing is cut and dry, black or white. Very few situations have an absolute right or wrong answer. Nearly every point of learning, any activity or event that requires the parent to make a decision as to how to teach a child, is covered in multiple shades of gray.

There is a pervasive myth that discipline only happens during times of conflict between a parent and a child – and that discipline is synonymous with using timeout or consequences or bribing or spanking. Actually, no. Discipline is synonymous with raising our children. Every moment, literally EVERY moment, that our children are in our home is a moment of discipline. Every action we take, every inaction we take, every choice we make regarding our children, is teaching our children something. Parents don’t have to be issuing consequences to be teaching their children.

If I was to punish my six year old for talking disrespectfully, would I teach her that speaking that way is wrong? I suppose, but I would also be teaching her that punishment and control tactics are appropriate conflict resolution tools. By without being disrespectful myself toward her, I am not only preserving our secure attachment bond but I am teaching her the overarching value of respect and that conflict can be resolved through loving, positive means. Win-win.

By Rita Brhel

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