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Home » 3. The Toddler, The Editor's Desk

The Age of Gentle Discipline

Submitted by on Saturday, November 8 2008One Comment

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Ensuring safe sleep and striving for balance are among the trickiest of Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting to follow, but probably the most challenging in many parents’ minds is practicing positive discipline.

For one reason, many parents are trying to change past parenting behaviors, including spanking and using sarcasm.

For another reason, a parent is never completely sure that how he’s disciplining is “working,” especially when the child is young. Toddlers just have a knack of pushing the limits.

What is the Right Age to Begin Disciplining?

Another challenge many first-time parents encounter is deciding when their child is old enough to begin teaching him not to touch something, rather than just moving it to a higher shelf.

Unfortunately, the advice found in books, magazines, and Internet articles do little to pinpoint this so-called ideal age. Some sources, such as http://kidsheath.org, say crawling babies are old enough to hear “no.” Other sources, such as www.drphil.com, say 18 months is the right age to introduce verbal instruction.

Talking to parents can be helpful, but confusing, too: Tom, a single father of three teens, told me he waited until his children were three or four before setting limits; Crystal, a married and pregnant said she began saying “no” to her toddler at nine months old.

That’s why Attachment Parenting International recommends parents to go to an Attachment Parenting (AP) source, such as an API Leader or an AP-friendly professional, for advice. AP sources are less likely to pinpoint a specific age to begin disicpline; rather they explain how practicing AP since birth gives babies, and their parents, a gradual transition to setting limits.

AP Naturally Leads to Gentle Discipline

In the article “Ten Ways Attachment Parenting Makes Discipline Easier” on www.askdrsears.com, strengthening the parent-child bond is the natural precursor to less stressful discipline because the parent and child know each other so well that they’re able to easily communicate their feelings to each other. So, the parent can be proactive in helping her child redirect behavior and the child knows what behavior the parent wants from him. Through AP, children learn to trust their parents and, from there, to care for his parents. This, in turn, makes the child want to please his parent.

Alfie Kohn, in his book Unconditional Parenting, agrees: “…the kids who do what they’re told are likely to be those whose parents don’t rely on power and instead have developed a warm and secure relationship with them. They have parents who treat them with respect, minimize the use of control, and make a point of offering reasons and explanation for what they ask.”

Interesting, considering many parents’ natural inclination is to use power, such as spanking or timeouts, yelling, and threats. It’s difficult, at first, to reason that to get respect from their children, parents must first give respect through a close personal relationship – instead of by force.

The parent who has a strong connection with her child will gradually begin to discipline as the child grows: As the baby begins biting while breastfeeding, the mother changes her technique to discourage biting; as the baby learns to crawl, the parent baby-proofs the home; as the baby grows into a toddler and begins to have tantrums, the parent learns how to head off these tantrums or how to resolve feelings of frustration in the child. Through AP, the parent gets to know her child as well as she knows her spouse or a dear friend, and to anticipate feelings and reactions from her child to various situations.

The difference between a parent-child relationship and an adult-adult relationship is that limits must be set with the parent-child relationship, which is why it’s even more important for parents to be sure to get to know their child on a deep, personal level.

The True Essence of a Discipline Program

Through discipline, parents are striving to pass down their morals and values, trying to help their child develop self-control, and hoping to give their child skills to succeed in life. According to the article “What is Discipline?” on AskDrSears.com, “discipline is based on building the right relationship with a child more than using the right techniques.”

Happiness in life depends heavily on an adult’s emotional health and to establish and maintain close, loving relationships. As suggested by Robert Karen, PhD, in his book Becoming Attached, the parent-child connection is the child’s first model of what is normal in relationships and therefore the foundation of emotional health development in that child. All parent-child interactions, especially those related to teaching and discipline, work to shape the child’s perspective on future relationships.

The Challenge of Coming to AP Later

But, what if you’re a parent who didn’t AP right from birth? Perhaps, you’re just learning about AP and the Eight Principles of Parenting. You don’t have that security of a bond with your child. Does this lack of a strong parent-child connection change the perspective on discipline?

Certainly at first.

Parents can attempt to discipline without having a secure bond, but for discipline to be effective, the parent-child connection created through AP is essential. So, if a parent doesn’t turn to AP until his child is three years old, the reality is that there are likely to be many challenging moments as the parent and the child re-learn patterns of interacting with one another but the good news is that it’s not too late to develop a strong emotional bond. The wonderful thing about AP is that working to create and strengthen the bond between parent and child can begin at any age.

Limits must be set with the parent-child relationship, which is why it’s even more important for parents to be sure to get to know their child on a deep, personal level.

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