In approximately a month, I will become a mother for the first time. As my tummy swells to the point of no return, it's not pondering the round-the-clock feeding and hourly diaper changes that scares me. Crying and sleep deprivation might be hard, but I'll tell you what really freaks me out when I think about it: the day my sweet bundle of baby love begins to develop a will of his or her own. Eventually, this kid is going to learn how to say "no" a hundred times a day, have tantrums in public, and generally test every single boundary Daddy and I have set. We don't want to be "pushover" parents and let our child run willy-nilly, but we don't want to be tyrants either. Is there a way to raise our child to be both free and responsible? How can we discipline our child without spanking, threats, or bribery?
Becky A. Bailey, renowned childhood education specialist, addresses these questions in her new book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation. First, Bailey asks parents to recognize that the old forms of discipline based on fear and punishment are not conducive to a happy, harmonious home. In fact, such outmoded forms of discipline can affect a child's self-esteem in a negative way that lasts a lifetime. Bailey explains that when it comes to learning how to behave in the world, punishing a child focuses attention on what a child has done wrong rather than how he or she can do it right. Parents must realize that children "misbehave" because they haven't learned the appropriate behavior. In order to teach unruly children, parents must adopt an attitude of what she calls "loving guidance."
Such awareness wasn't so prevalent when our parents were raising us, but times have undeniably changed. We cannot ignore the ways our own behavior is reflected in our children's; therefore, it is of the utmost importance that parents stay in control of their own emotions and actions. If we holler and throw a fit when our spouse doesn't do want we want, we can expect our child to display the same behavior when he or she is denied access to his or her own desires. In essence, our children are our mirrors -- their behavior reflects our own. "If you want your children to change, you must begin by becoming a wonderfully loving adult," Bailey writes. "You must rely on love, not fear, to motivate yourself and your children."
Oh, sure, easy to say, not so easy to implement. Trying to stop a tornado with a broom seems more realistic than staying calm in the face of a two-year-old holding his breath and turning blue because he can't have a piece of candy at the grocery store. Though our first impulse might be to yell, take away privileges,or even spank, Bailey suggests we must develop seven basic skills of discipline that teach our children values, such as integrity, respect and cooperation.
However, she points out that we cannot teach skills that we do not possess. The first step in raising disciplined children requires being disciplined ourselves, taking responsibility for our own anger and frustration instead of blaming it on the child. "No one can make you angry without your permission," Bailey points out. When we claim and accept our feelings, we don't have to lose our composure -- we can stay calm, even when our child is misbehaving."
But how? Bailey asks parents to stop searching for that "magic pill" that keeps a child's behavior in check and commit to changing their own perceptions, one experience at a time. The fact is, it takes patience, practice, and persistence to develop positive communication with a child. If we can view each instance of misbehavior as an opportunity to teach, the appropriate behavior can be achieved by maintaining a positive intent. Bailey provides concrete exercises and suggestions to change a parent's attitude in this way, but the real work is up to the reader.
Easy to Love acknowledges that raising a child requires the very best of us. Bailey knows it's not easy, but relying on positive reinforcements rather than punishment has the ultimate reward: a healthy, balanced, responsible child. Her teachings ring true and have assuaged the fears of this mother-to-be. I only hope my husband and I remember to put them into practice when our two-year-old is turning blue in the grocery store.
Jessica Leigh Lebos