I was a young mom with a 2-year old and a 4-year old, so I eagerly attended a seminar on "How to Discipline Your Child." I looked forward to getting some good tips.
"I've been married 30 years and have raised five children," the teacher began, "and in all that time I never once raised my voice." The other young moms and I looked at each other, deflated. We had come looking for help and were instead given this unreachable standard of perfection.
The fact is, disciplining a child can be challenging, and all of us have times we wish we were doing it better. I've learned, however, that the more we know about a child's age and developmental stage, the better we can tailor our discipline to fit him. This customized approach to discipline helps parents feel more confident and helps discipline do what it's meant to do: shape a child's character.
Here are five key stages in your child's development, with principles that will help you develop effective discipline strategies at each stage.
You've put your baby to bed, but she keeps crying and crying. You wonder, Should I go in? Hold her? Turn on the light? Let her cry? Who hasn't wrestled with these questions in the middle of the night?
The Struggle Your child is only a few weeks old and already you're faced with one of the fundamental questions of discipline: In satisfying my child's needs, am I allowing my child to control me? It's a tough question, particularly in Christian circles where the answer can change from church to church.
The Goal Your most important goal at this developmental stage is to help your child learn she is loved and can trust other human beings. Trust is a foundational element of a child's overall social and spiritual development. If she learns that she can trust you, it will be much easier for her to trust others and, most important, God.
I used to work in a Christian agency that provided foster care. Over the eight years there, I met many children who had been removed from their homes as toddlers because their parents were neglectful. During this key developmental stage, from birth to 18 months, these children cried, and no one came. They wet themselves, and nobody bothered to change their diapers. As a result, many of these kids suffered from attachment disorders and a profound impairment of their ability to trust and relate to people.
The Strategy At birth, every child is dependent, fears separation from her mother, and demands immediate satisfaction of her needs. She needs protection from hunger, cold, wetness, danger. She needs warm affection, cuddling, cooing, rocking, and holding. My number-one concern at this stage should be meeting these needs.
Parents will take different positions on how long to let a child cry, or how to guide the behavior of a 14-month-old. But whatever position you take, your approach to discipline should be based on this foundation: God created this stage in your child's development, and it is appropriate, normal, and healthy for her to have needs and to depend on her parents to meet those needs with consistency and love.
(18 months—3 years)
One day my friend Anne heard her 2-year-old son, Sammy, singing "Jesus Loves Me." But instead of the usual words, Sammy was singing, "No no no no, no no no…" When she told me, we both laughed, but a toddler's constant "No!" usually isn't funny.
The Struggle Dealing with stubborn refusals is the biggest discipline challenge parents face at this stage. How can you handle your 2-year-old always saying "No!"?
The Goal At this stage my discipline goal is to help my toddler develop self-control. While he is still primarily self-centered, he is discovering that other people have needs, too. He'll need to develop patience and self-control as he learns to wait his turn, share toys, and play with other children. And as he becomes more aware of others, he will also become more aware of God as a real part of his life.
The Strategy At this stage, every child feels a big internal conflict. He wants to do what you want him to do and he wants to please you. But he also wants to do things his own way.
And why wouldn't he? A toddler's rapidly developing motor skills and language allow him to do new things, like push a toy fire truck or climb on the couch. It's a thrill to do something by himself, to master a new skill.
Your child's growing desire for independence means that tantrums are not always an expression of disobedience. For example, when your child doesn't want you to put his coat on, his no is not necessarily his way of saying, "I am directly defying your authority as my parent." He might simply be saying, "I want to do it myself." You can let him try to put on his coat by himself, or you can say, "Let's do it together," and work with him. Either way, you're giving him the chance to develop the essential skills he needs to become more independent.
Obviously, in other situations you can't let him do what he wants. He may be endangering himself or hurting another child. In those cases, redirect your child to another activity and explain what you're doing. This will help him begin to learn how his behavior is connected to consequences.
At this age, the word no turns into why: "Why does that man have a red nose?" (He's a clown.) "Why is the man in a chair with wheels?" (That's called a wheelchair, which people use when they can't walk.) Your child has become a world explorer; she is intensely curious. One expert calls this stage a time of "wide-eyed openness."
The Struggle All that wonderment can make this a tough stage. Your preschooler may begin to challenge even the simplest request, just to see what happens. If you've established consequences for telling a lie or hitting her brother, she might break the rule intentionally to see if you'll follow through. This kind of testing can be exasperating.
Parents of preschoolers also ask the independence questions: "How much can I expect my child to do? Should I ask him to dress himself? Should she be picking up her room?"
The Goal Preschoolers are open to new experiences and absorb whatever you throw at them. That makes this a great time to start talking about your family's faith and values. Use these conversations to establish values-based rules for your child that help develop godly character.
The Strategy Preschoolers are explorers, so it's hard to get them to stick with much of anything. If you ask your child to pick up her toys, she may put one or two things away, then become enthralled looking at a loose thread on the carpet or a bug in the corner. She's not intentionally disobeying, she's just curious.
What preschoolers need most from their parents is clear expectation, consistency, and endless patience. As they assimulate all that they're learning, they need you to guide and encourage them.
When your child tests the limits, gently remind her of your expectations and the consequences of misbehavior. Be consistent with your discipline, and eventually she'll learn that nothing has changed since yesterday.
Parents of elementary-age kids wonder, "Should I make Emily practice piano?" "What should I do if Colin keeps getting ready too late for school or soccer practice?" "Should I give an allowance or pay for chores they do around the house?"
The Struggle All of those questions really come down to this: How much internal motivation should you expect from your child? It's easy to get tired of reminding your child to bring home permission slips, so keeping your cool during this stage is a major challenge for many parents.
The Goal Most elementary-age children want to be involved in activities, especially physical ones. They like doing things with kids their own age and gender. They can take on increasing responsibilities, which helps them learn more about following through on a task, keeping their word, and being trustworthy. It's important to praise them for being someone other people can count on.
The Strategy Kids this age are big on rewards. They want something in return for their efforts. Helping a child take on more responsibility involves finding out what motivates him.
My view on motivation is that everybody, at every age, needs a combination of external and internal motivation. Therefore, it's not realistic to expect my kids to be fully motivated internally. External rewards will be powerful, which is why programs like Scouts and Awana give badges or stickers.
When my son was in fourth grade, he repeatedly left his clarinet at school. My husband, Kevin, said, "Let's make him pay a fine of a dollar each time he forgets it." I said, "Let's help him feel like a success for remembering, not just a failure for forgetting." Kevin agreed, so we set up a system where Andrew would earn 25 cents each time he remembered to bring home his clarinet, and would be fined a dollar each time he forgot it. In two weeks, the problem turned around.
Some parents say, "I don't want to have to pay my child to do the right thing." But you don't have to use money. Your child might be motivated by added privileges or more time with friends. As he gets older, your child will need less external motivation to do the right thing.
Both of my children are in this stage, so I daily face discipline questions: How late should I let Anne stay out? Should I allow Andrew to see that new movie? At the heart of this stage is the question of how much I trust my children to make wise decisions.
The Struggle My children, and all other adolescents, are figuring out who they are. To do that, they need to loosen their ties to their parents. That's hard, and I don't always like it, but it's natural and normal. At the same time, they are still children and need guidance from their parents. They don't always like that.
Teenagers are in a time of rapid growth, sexual awareness, rapidly changing moods, unpredictable behavior, and experimentation. That can make us wary of trusting them to make good choices. These changes can also make it hard to keep communication open between parent and child.
The Goal In the midst of your adolescent's life experiments, you still need to guide and discipline, but in a way that gives her increasing independence and trust. Trust is a huge issue for teens, but they need to understand that trust, freedom, and responsibility are a package deal.
As your teen matures, your goal should be to gradually increase her level of responsibility and, as she gains your trust, reward her with gradual increases in freedom. This cycle prepares her for life after high school, when she will be expected to show up on time, complete assignments, or pay rent without any reminders from you.
Helping your child take more responsibility for herself will also affect her faith. Part of growing up as a Christian is owning your family's faith, not just following along. As you encourage your child to grow more independent in other areas, she'll find ways to make your faith her own as well.
The Strategy The best approach to discipline at this stage is to make the rules and consequences as clear as you can—ahead of time. Then allow your child to decide whether she wants to follow the rules or accept the consequences for breaking them.
When Andrew got his driver's license, my husband and I worked out a "driving contract." We talked with Andrew about the issues we thought were important and asked for his suggestions about rules for using the car. We wrote everything down, and all three of us signed this contract. It states, for example, that if Andrew is issued a ticket for the way he's driving, he will pay for the ticket. If the ticket pushes up our insurance premium, he will pay for the increase. The consequences are clear and stated ahead of time.
If your teenager continues to break the rules in spite of clear and implemented consequences, consider seeking the help of a Christian counselor. Family counseling can help identify the reasons for your child's continuing misbehavior.
Knowing your child's stage can eliminate much of the guesswork from developing an effective discipline strategy. Pay attention to how your child is developing and what makes him happy or frustrated. The reward for age-appropriate discipline is not just a better-behaved child, but also a child who will grow into a confident, capable adult.
Karen Miller, LCSW, is a psychotherapist at Meier New Life Clinic in Wheaton, Illinois. Kevin Miller is executive editor of PreachingToday.com. They are the parents of two teenagers.
By Karen Miller, LCSW with Kevin A. Miller