love-and-affectionAs a daycare provider, I am constantly asked about discipline strategies. For me, discipline is about consistency, setting boundaries and using experiences as learning opportunities – for my children and for myself. Of course, working with a group of un-related children is MUCH easier than dealing with my own children. As a mother to four I have made plenty of mistakes. There is no perfect way to parent and there are no real rules. You simply put together your own strategy from the “wisdom” of others. Here is what works in my daycare most the time and what I try (really hard) to make work with my own kids.

Make your expectations clear: Before you go to the grocery store, to a friend’s party, to a restaurant, to drop your child off at daycare, or before even sitting down to play a family game, you need to remind your children of your expectations/rules and sometimes it is helpful to explain why you have this rule. For instance, in my daycare before we have water play outside I always ask the children to repeat the two main rules, which are no running (because they might slip and get hurt) and no splashing in the face (because no one likes water in the eyes). I have the children repeat the rules to me so I know they heard me and so they cannot claim “not to know” when they break the rule and find themselves in trouble. I know it seems overkill to repeat the rules EVERY time, but young children can’t always remember. They actually need these reminders. I know from experience that I HAVE to tell my son not to jump on other people’s furniture EVERY time we visit a friend.

Be consistent and immediate: When your child breaks a rule be consistent and implement the consequences immediately. Waiting until later to “talk” about it means nothing to a young child. In my daycare, if a child does the very thing I said we should not do, like splashing another child in the face, then he or she has to sit out from the water play for a couple of minutes and I ask if he or she understands why. I try to choose an immediate and common sense consequence. I would never say, “you don’t get to participate in our next fun activity in an hour because of what you just did.” That would not make a point or deal with what just happened. It also tells the child that your rule wasn’t that important in the first place. And if you are like me, it leaves the possibility open that you will forget to implement the consequence.

Don’t be afraid to be the bad guy: No one likes to be the bad guy. We all want to be the fun-loving parent that gets to dispense hugs and treats. No one wants to be the one to set the limits and implement the punishments. But, this is part of the gig. We love our children and do not like to see them upset, but we cannot allow their emotions or our discomfort parenting in front of others dictate our consistency as parents. This is not teaching them anything other than how to “get out” of facing any real consequences. If you are at your friend’s house and your child intentionally throws food on the floor, you have to act the way you would at your own house. You cannot parent differently just because you have an audience. If you would normally make them clean it up and then apologize, then this is what you need to do (regardless if your friend offers to pick it up for your child). In my daycare, my own children always choose the moment another parent is present to test the limits and ask for sweets or stand on a table. They are testing whether I am going to parent differently because there is an audience. There have been times I have had to excuse myself to deal with my child. It is not always fun and is never convenient, but parenting cannot take a back seat to anything.

Acknowledge the good things: Sometimes, with all the rules and expectations it is easy to forget the simplest way to teach your child to behave – positive reinforcement. If your child plays well by him or herself for a short time, make a point of acknowledging this behavior. If your child uses manners without being prompted, let them know you noticed. If you see your child sharing, or cleaning up, or sitting calmly at the table, or anything that perhaps he or she occasional struggles with make sure you notice the good moments. We cannot only call attention to negative behaviors because sometimes this has the opposite effect. I am not saying you have to throw a party or give treats every time you notice something positive. I am just saying maybe you can simply acknowledge it with words or a hug. This works wonders in my daycare and with my children.

Understand your child’s triggers: Children, like all human beings, get cranky and frustrated at times. Everyone has triggers. The difference between an adult and a child is that usually the adult understands that their crankiness is an emotional response to something. A child just feels and cannot connect the dots. This is why we have to try to understand their triggers for them. Does your child act out when he or she is hungry, tired, jealous, sick, frustrated or unable to communicate? Did your child skip yesterday’s nap or wake up earlier than normal? Is a parent out of town for work? Was a new sibling recently born? Have you been working on a project and spending more time on the computer than normal? Any small change to their world can and will reflect in their emotions and behavior. Once you try to understand, then perhaps this will help determine your response. I am not saying you should alter your discipline strategy, what I am saying is if you understand why your child just threw his or her food on the floor, perhaps you can address it while he or she is cleaning it up instead of simply shaking your head and allowing yourself to get frustrated.

Stop giving so many choices: In my daycare, if I am handing out cupcakes and there are two colors I always chant, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset” with the children. Otherwise, they all start calling out which one they want and we all know how that ends up. When I am handing out puzzles, we chant it again as a group and I follow it up with “you can switch and share the puzzles when you are done with the one I give you.” They understand what it means and no one pushes back because I am consistent in this rule. I limit their choices to preempt hurt feelings and avoid arguments. Limiting choices also works beyond a group setting. It is fine to ask your child to choose between two things, but you are opening yourself up for many battles if you allow your child free reign to choose everything. For instance, if you are serving chicken for dinner this is what you are serving. You are not a short order cook and changing the chicken for a hot dog or sandwich should not be an option, but you can offer a sauce option to put on top of the chicken. If your child asks for a snack, offer two choices but do not ask what he or she “wants” because this open-ended question may put you in the position to have to say no, which will turn into a fight. As your child gets older, you can offer more choices, but a two-year-old should not be allowed to choose whether or not to wear a coat or leave home without shoes. These are battles waged as a result of too many choices too soon.

Stick to your core values when choosing your battles: Even though I believe in being consistent and setting clear boundaries, there are times I choose my battles. You have to know when to be flexible and when it’s okay to give-in. For instance, if my family is on vacation, I may not be so hardline about bedtime, watching movies or extra dessert, but I still insist on brushing teeth and using manners. I understand where to draw the line because I know my core values. Everyone has different values and that is fine. There is no wrong way. Just don’t allow what you deem most important as a parent to fall to the wayside just because you are on vacation or it is inconvenient at the moment. You are your child’s most influential teacher and will only learn the important stuff from you.

Show affection: This may not seem like a discipline strategy, but it actually may be the best advice I can give any parent. You have to let your children know you love them through words and actions, whether you hug, kiss or snuggle in bed. Your children have to know they are loved and safe even if they misbehave. Your love should not be linked only to their good behaviors. It should be given unconditionally on good and bad days. You may be reading this thinking “of course I love my children.” But, sometimes even good parents make the mistake of assuming their children understand this like an adult. Just as they need constant reminders of the rules and expectations, they also need constant reminders that they are loved NO MATTER WHAT. In my daycare, you would be amazed how a day of unruliness, misbehavior and frustration (mine and theirs) can turn around by me simply sitting on the floor and asking, “who needs a hug?” I know hugging in schools is discouraged, but in my daycare it is part of my core values. I hug and show that I care for all the children who are with me each day – no matter what. And it makes all the difference.

Breathe and forgive: You need to take deep restorative breaths to calm and center yourself frequently. Parenting is hard, but you will get through it day by day. Just breathe and forgive yourself and your children because no one is perfect. There is no such thing as perfect parents or perfect children. We are all flawed and that is okay.

Nicole Dash is a writer, blogger and child care business owner who lives in Annandale, VA with her husband and four children. Nicole writes about family, life, parenting and caring for children on her heartfelt blog Tiny Steps Mommy. She also enjoys connecting with her growing community of friends on the Tiny Steps Mommy Facebook page.