Do you feel like you are constantly placing a kid in time out or taking away some privilege, just to see the child doing the exact same thing 5 minutes later?
It’s frustrating when you try to discipline a child—to teach the child how he is supposed to act in these situations—and yet 5 minutes later, when faced with that same situation, the child has already forgotten the lesson that you tried so hard to teach.
When parents come to me with complaints like these, I ask parents a few simple questions.
Before you gave the consequence, what did you say to the child?
After you gave the consequence, what did you say to the child?
When you saw the child repeating the same behavior, what did you say to the child?
The reason for asking these questions is to help the parent to recap the actual lesson that was being relayed to the children. Sometimes, by answering these questions, the parents learn that the consequence may have been imposed on the child too quickly. They learn that they didn’t help the child to know that he was doing something wrong before the consequence occurred, that they didn’t clarify for the child what he did wrong after he got the consequence, and so therefore he wasn’t prepared for the next situation.
In my blog post, Creating Your Discipline Plan I explain exactly how to let kids know of your expectations before the behavior even occurs, provide the consequence if the behavior does occur, and then follow up with kids on why they received the consequence. Following this technique can help to minimize confusion for kids and to help them to know how they are supposed to act, now and in the future.
But some parents find it too difficult to preventatively talk about the rules. With careers, housework and other children in the house, sitting down and creating a rules list or worrying about all of the rules to appropriately administer a time out seems too time consuming.
These parents are looking for something that they can do in the moment to teach the child that the behavior is wrong and do something that will help the child learn that this behavior is a problem both now and in the future. For these parents—or other parents who are looking for a new discipline technique—I recommend the following 4 step process, adapted from a therapeutic parent training program by Garry Landreth.
Step 1: Set the Limit
This takes place when the undesirable behavior has already occurred. Instead of instantly placing the child in a time out or taking away a toy, make sure that the child knows what your expectation is for him.
To state the limit, identify the undesirable behavior and explain (with as few words as possible) that it is unacceptable.
- Your brother is not for hitting.
- Crayons are not to be used on the walls.
- The sand is not for throwing.
Step 2: Offer an Alternative
Immediately after setting the limit, offer an alternative option for the child’s behavior. The behavior may be a problem only because of where the child is directing the behavior or how the child is using something. Offer an alternative way that this behavior could be used more appropriately.
- Your brother is not for hitting, but you can hit the pillows.
- Crayons are not to be used on the walls but you can use them on this paper.
- The sand is not for throwing, but you can play with it if you can keep it inside the box.
Step 3: Repeat
A child needs the opportunity to be reminded that the behavior is wrong before consequences are offered. Children’s attention spans run about 1 minute per year of age. So, if you’ve told a two-year-old to stop throwing the sand, chances are that she will hear your direction and follow it for a few minutes, but because her attention span is so short, she will likely throw the sand again because she’s forgotten that you’ve even given her this direction.
Because their attention spans are so short, kids deserve a little wiggle room before receiving their consequence. Repeat the limits that you have set for the child 3 separate times before offering a consequence.
This means that if a behavior is happening at lunch time, during the lunch time setting the parent should provide 3 limit setting statements before even thinking about providing a consequence. It does not, however, mean that a parent can offer a limit at breakfast, lunch and supper and then offer the consequence before bedtime. This is way too long of a time for the child to remember. If it’s been more than 30 minutes since you last gave a limit setting statements, it’s best to start all over again.
If you’ve given 3 limit setting statements to address the same behavior and you’ve offered an acceptable alternative each time, then it’s time to move on to the final step, which is actually providing the consequence.
Step 4: Provide a Consequence
If the child has chosen to ignore your 3 limit setting statements that have offered acceptable alternatives to the behavior, then you are justified in coming up with a consequence to discipline the behavior.
The statement that you will use to threaten a consequence will act as the last reminder or warning for their behavior. It says to the child, if you continue this behavior, then you will receive a consequence.
Say to the child, “If you choose to __________ (undesirable behavior), then you choose to ___________ (consequence).”
The consequence that you choose should be as closely related to the negative behavior as possible. For example, if the child is hitting his brother, it would sound something like this: “If you choose to hit your brother, then you choose to take a time out.” This consequence is consistent with what will likely happen in school or other parts of life if he chooses to hit.
But if the child uses the crayons on the wall, the consequence would sound something like this: “If you choose to draw on the wall with the crayons then you choose to stop playing with the crayons today.” And the same would go with the sand: “If you choose to throw the sand, then you choose to stop playing with the sand today.”
If you are having a hard time selecting the right consequences to provide, one of my previous blogs, 5 Natural Consequences for Behaviors has more information about how to select natural consequences that fit with the behavior. Creating Your Discipline Plan also has some information on how to select the right consequence for the child’s age.
Remember that providing this statement acts as the last warning to the behavior. You don’t instantly provide the consequence to the child because that takes away the child’s ability to make the choice about whether to do what he has been asked or to suffer the consequences that come with defying the directions that have been given to him.
It still may take children awhile to really catch on to using the appropriate alternatives instead of the undesired behaviors. However, by approaching the situation in this way, you have done your duty to let the child know that the behavior was wrong, repeatedly offer alternatives to that wrong behavior and finally offer an opportunity for the child to make a choice that will prevent him from having to receive the consequence.