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Sun, 2007-Oct-21

Baby Discipline

My daughter is now 19 months old, and well along the path of discipline and good behaviour. I'm sure it won't last past her second birthday, but for the moment she is polite and well-behaved to an angelic degree. My, and my wife's approach to discipline seems to be paying off so far.

0-6 Months

We received a great deal of advice on how to deal with a child in the first six months of their life. Some of this ranged from controlled crying to the occasional good smack. What we ended up doing was much more mundane. I believe that my daughter never had a devious thought up until somewhere around the six month mark. I don't believe she ever tried to manipulate me or my wife during that time.

Up to six months a child isn't very mobile. She doesn't get to do a lot except eat, sleep, and smile. We never let her cry. I believe that at that age every cry is genuine and most need attending to. Genuine cries include:

Hungry, windy, burping, and certain kinds of uncomfortable are easy to deal with. You just attend to your child as quickly as you can. Always let them know you are there and they can be confident in your care. There are obviously times where you do need to put your child in uncomfortable situations. For those I always held my daughter's hand, rubbed her back, spoke soothingly, etc. Your baby can sense your own disquiet and respond in kind. The important thing is to stay calm, and let that calm make its natural way to your child.

The "I'm tired" one also turned out to be surprisingly simple with my daughter: Maintain a routine from birth. For us, it was: Wake up, play/cuddles, nappy, feed, sleep. Repeat the cycle as often as necessary. At birth this is around a three hour cycle. At her present age we have adjusted some of the elements, and now it is about four hours at the start of day plus another cycle for the rest of the day. So long as you have a basic rhythm in place, the exact timing will work itself out between you and your child. Our first was sleeping through the night within weeks of being brought home from hospital. I'm not so naive as claim this will happen again for our second child.

Probably the most important thing we got right in this time was putting her to bed while she was still awake. While this can be difficult for the first few days, she learned to fall asleep herself. This is a skill whose importance is difficult to understate.

Six months and up

Since six months we have been following the same basic strategy: Be attentive and responsive to your child. This is reasonably easy, as she is presently an only child. I can see how this will be difficult later on. We do smack her occasionally on the hand at present when she knows she has done or is doing something naughty. I'm not sure if this has actually been effective at all.

Being attentive and responsive does not mean giving in to her demands, only her needs. I feel it is important as a parent to distinguish between wanting a happy baby and one that is never unhappy. How are you training your child if you pander to every fat crocodile tear? I prefer to train my child to live with the disappointment and move on. You will often have heard me say over the last twelve months: "It's ok to be upset, but when you are finished crying we'll (still do what we were going to do)".

We started to set firm limits on her behaviour around the time she started crawling: She isn't allowed to wander into the kitchen or bathroom. Our approach to enforcing these boundaries has been to use to least amount of physical force necessary to prevent her transgression. For this to work it is helpful to anticipate, rather than respond to them. It is also absolutely essential that any rule with perfect consistency: Don't send your child mixed messages, or any rule becomes a game.

If she looks like she is going to go somewhere she isn't supposed to, I'll gently touch her chest or shoulder from that direction. That's her cue not to proceed. If she doesn't respond to the cue, I'll go verbal: "(full name), we don't go in the kitchen. Do we? (full name)!". If that doesn't work I'll physically restrain her while repeating the warning.

Over time she seems to have realised that we are serious about such things, and even when she was very young she only took a few days to take to these kinds of limits. As her physical capabilities have increased we have added new boundaries, almost all relating in some way to her safety.

When it comes to the real high-wire acts I have taken a slightly different approach. When she is heading into danger I'll say firmly, "Careful.". Rather than trying to enforce the discipline myself I'll try to ensure there is a basic level of safety (nothing she is doing yet will actually kill her), and then let her have more leash than will keep her unhurt.

"Careful. Don't fall down." (falls down) "See, I told you not to fall down. I told you to be careful.". I don't have to dish out punishment in these cases. Nature manages just fine. To round things out, I also use careful when she is heading into other naughty territory. The message I'm trying to send is "I'm responsible and invested in your safety and well-being. When I warn you of a danger, it is because I see something you don't". So far she has been responding very well to this.

Her language skills are advanced at this stage, and one thing my wife has been insisting on is proper manners. You will often hear "More, please" and more recently "More, please, (something she wants)". I think manners are important, not because you can't survive in society with imperfect manners, but because they are a system of rules that if broken don't necessarily put you behind bars for the next 30 years. I feel that it is important for a child to experience the application of this kind of rule system, however arbitrary, in order to prepare them for later life and the systems of rules they will encounter along the way.

Conclusion

I think the main thing in establishing a happy, secure environment for your child is to be embedded in her world and aware of how she is perceiving it. Only then can you help her chart a course through childhood, set appropriate limits, and help her find her place in society. It is important to be able to distinguish between a genuine cry and a tantrum. It is important to be able to foresee danger and conflict. It is important to be ready to help her make the right decision in a difficult situation, just by touching her shoulder at the appropriate time.

How we proceed through the terrible twos is the next challenge, but I hope that the basic points will continue to work: Start with love and care, be aware of what's going on in her world, foresee conflicts and dangers as early as possible, and take the minimum necessary steps to steer her around or through them while also letting her discover her own approach. I hope that as a parent I can live up to this standard.

Benjamin