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Practical ideas for positive discipline

In the last article, we learnt that spanking or physically hurting children in any way is illegal in terms of South Africa’s Constitution, upheld by the Constitutional Court in a September 2019 ruling. We discussed how research shows that physical punishment is damaging to children and how much better positive discipline works. Here are some practical ideas for positive discipline among young children.

Young children do need boundaries and do need to learn appropriate ways to behave in their families and communities. We do know that even very young children can test the patience of their parents, but getting angry doesn’t help! Parents need to focus on controlling themselves and their reactions. In the heat of the moment it helps to take a deep breath, count to 10 and calm yourself, and think before you say or do anything.

Young children do experience very strong emotions, which they don’t understand and can frighten them. Mums and Dads need to help their child understand their emotion by naming it, putting forward a possible cause and then helping them find positive ways of expressing it.

So, for example, if your daughter bites or hits another child in anger, stop her, get her to look in your face and tell her you understand she is very angry, but hitting or biting another child hurts that child and is not allowed. When she’s old enough encourage her to say sorry to the other child. If she continues, remove her from the situation but never leave her on her own. She needs your calming presence. It certainly doesn’t help to threaten or shame your child by saying such things as “You naughty boy or “You bad girl”. Discuss the behaviour, but always reassure your child that you never stop loving him or her.

It helps if parents try to understand the reason behind their child’s behaviour. Generally young children want to please, be accepted and want positive attention. So difficult or uncooperative behaviour may be saying to the parent, “You’re not giving me enough attention so I’ll behave badly, because I know then I’ll get your attention.”

The next time your child behaves in a way that’s not acceptable, stop and ask yourself, “Why? What’s really going on here?” and try to address the underlying reason.

Children do need boundaries, clear expectations and to know what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, in a way that is appropriate to their age and stage of development. It’s especially important for parents to set out safety rules clearly, to prevent their young children hurting themselves and then to stick to those rules consistently.

Clearly laying out expectations and boundaries helps children feel safe, secure and gives them a sense of confidence.

A good tip is for a parent to set down the expected behaviour and then give the child some choice in how or when to cooperate. For example, “Sibongile, your toys need to be picked up and put away. Do you want to do that now or after supper?”

Giving children choices and enabling them to take decisions over areas of their lives such as what to wear, what to play, or what to eat within healthy food choices, helps them to become independent, develop confidence and take responsibility.

Thinking ahead, anticipating your child’s reaction and re-directing his behaviour also works. Where possible, prevent confrontation by finding something else for the child to do, or turning the activity into a game. For example, “Jabulani, it’s time to go and bath now. Shall we hop to the bath or skip?

There’s a lovely saying that reinforces the principle: “Water the grass, not the weeds!” Pay attention to the behaviour you want to see more of, and be sure to remark on and encourage your young child’s effort, persistence in trying to master something or way of finding a solution to a problem, rather than just praising an achievement.

Babies can’t be naughty. When they cry that’s their way of telling you something is wrong: that they’re hungry, wet, in pain, uncomfortable, tired or just need you close for comfort. If your baby cries, he needs you!

As your baby grows and develops into a toddler, and as her language and understanding develops, help her to understand her strong feelings by naming them. As you are calm and consistent in your expectations of your toddler, so they will learn to cooperate with you. Remember to accept that making mistakes and having accidents is part of growing up and part of learning.

So using positive discipline fosters the development of self-esteem and self-confidence in your children, and this is done through the way you as the parent behave: being calm, patient and consistent with your young child; setting clear expectations and offering your child choices within boundaries; helping him to name and understand his strong feelings and how to respond appropriately; re-directing her behaviour before it becomes a confrontation and most importantly, spending regular, focused, quality time with him or her, so that your child can experience your undivided attention.

Quality time spent with each and every child, regularly and often, is the best possible investment you can make in your child’s life and development!

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