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Beyond Time-Out

When it comes to handling misbehavior, most of us aren't as creative as we could be. We revert to familiar tactics when we're under stress and end up overusing a limited number of punishments-yelling, time-out, grounding, or threatening. But there's a host of other effective techniques to choose from that can help your child improve her behavior. By tailoring your response to the situation (and your child's age), you can also help her gain self-control without discouraging her or making her feel resentful. Of course, every situation is different and every child unique, so watch how yours reacts to these strategies and you'll discover the ones that work best.


The best way to discipline a baby under a year old combines baby-proofing with distraction. First, you have to make the house secure so that your child can safely explore his environment. But because no place is ever 100 percent babyproof, whenever your little one heads toward trouble-reaching for an electrical cord or the TV, pulling the dog's tail-simply get him involved in another activity. You can't expect your baby to understand rules and consequences, although you can say no as you remove him from the danger. Shouting "No!" however, will only frighten him, and hitting or shaking a baby should never be done. So constant supervision is needed at this stage. Distraction can also work with toddlers, and sometimes even preschoolers, who are easily overwhelmed if you say no-no too many times. Instead of reprimanding, try drawing your child away from something off-limits by saying, "Come look at this," or singing a silly song.


By ignoring small infractions, you can avoid giving kids the negative attention they're sometimes seeking when they misbehave. If you occasionally look the other way, you'll also be less likely to get stuck in endless criticism of such minor but annoying habits as whining, pouting, dawdling, swearing, and bickering with siblings. Sometimes, of course, this is easier said than done, especially when your child protests and tries to distract you from the real issue. If she starts to complain about going to bed, for instance, don't try to reason with her. Simply ignore the uproar. Resist the temptation to retort, "Don't talk to me like that!" and instead acknowledge her feelings in a matter-of-fact tone: "I know you don't want to stop what you are doing." Then, restate the limit: "It's eight o'clock, and I expect you to go to bed now." Turning a blind eye is most effective when you couple it with plenty of positive attention for a behavior you want to encourage. For example, you might compliment your child by saying, "I like to hear your normal voice," when she asks for something without whining. But be aware that ignoring her misbehavior may cause it to increase before it diminishes.


For toddlers and preschoolers, who are just learning how to behave appropriately, it's best to give a reminder about a rule before you enforce the penalty. In fact, a well-timed warning can avert trouble altogether, or at least stop it from continuing. If your son starts to splash in the bathtub, you might announce, "Remember the rule: Water stays in the tub. If you splash again, you'll have to get out." Warnings involve specific consequences that you must be prepared to impose if the behavior continues. They should be promises you intend to fulfill, even if they're inconvenient: "If you unbuckle your seat belt again, we're going back home." Statements like "That's it! I'm giving all your toys away!" or "You're really going to get it this time!" are either so exaggerated or so vague that they're meaningless, and children quickly learn to ignore them.


Many times, the only thing parents need to do to redirect their child's behavior is to give a proper scolding. Unfortunately, many parents don't know the difference between an effective scolding and a tirade that erodes self-esteem. Avoid shaming your child or making comments about her character, such as "What a slob you are." Instead, try a brief command to stop the undesirable behavior ("Stop biting"), then offer an explanation ("Biting hurts"). Reiterate the consequences of the misbehavior ("You know the rule. If you bite again, you'll have to go to your room"). Provide an acceptable alternative ("Use words to tell people when you are angry"). Be sure to end on a positive note, with a hug, smile, or compliment ("You're a great listener").


Allowing your child to learn from the natural consequences of his actions can be highly instructive, especially if he's older than 3 and has a more sophisticated grasp of cause and effect. A child soon learns that he gets cold on a chilly day if he doesn't wear his coat; gets hungry at mid afternoon if he refuses to eat lunch; or finds he's unable to go to the movies because he spent all his money on ice cream. These lessons are particularly useful, since they come from the emotionally neutral zone of circumstance rather than from you.


As adults, we know that if we get caught speeding on the highway we risk losing our driver's license, not our ski pass. So when it comes to disciplining your child, remember that consequences are more instructive when they are logically related to the offense. For example, if your daughter rides her bike out into the street, put it away for the rest of the day. If the kids throw their dirty laundry on the floor instead of in the hamper, don't wash it.


Withdrawing privileges can be a terrific deterrent. Temporarily taking away something a child values-a favorite toy or snack, permission to watch a video-teaches her that if she breaks a rule, she must pay for it with something she likes. A preschooler who acts up on a play date doesn't get to take her turn choosing a game or story. A school-age child who lies about not having homework doesn't get to play outside for two afternoons while she catches up on her assignments. It's a good idea to figure out beforehand the appropriate consequences for common infractions; that way you'll avoid penalizing your child excessively in a fit of temper.


When something your child has done causes another person to suffer-whether it's hurt feelings or property damage-it is up to you to require him to make amends, which could be anything from apologizing for a rude remark to helping repair a neighbor's window or replacing a friend's toy. Think of restitution as being like court-ordered community service: It teaches kids about the rights and feelings of others and about taking responsibility for their own harmful actions. Children should also compensate people when they have inconvenienced them in some way. If an older child repeatedly refuses to go to bed when he's supposed to, thus depriving you and your spouse of time to yourselves, you can require him to pay back the "bedtime owed." (You may want to let him decide which nights he'll go to bed earlier.)


Many parents complain that their children won't obey simple commands: "I have to tell him ten times to pick up his toys." "She makes me late in the morning because she won't get dressed." But if you just repeat instructions without taking any specific action, you are only teaching your child to ignore your requests. To curb such defiance, try the "one request only" principle. When you give a command, stand within three feet of your child, make eye contact, and state your intentions dearly: "I expect you to put your pajamas on now." If she doesn't begin to comply with your request within about ten seconds, take her by the hand and guide her until she completes the task, even if you have to do most of it yourself. The message is that you expect her to comply now, not when or if she feels like it. You also need to keep your cool. Don't talk, nag, or get emotional just make it clear that you expect her to do the job. This method works well with preschoolers, especially when they indulge in willful misbehavior, like getting out of bed after they've been tucked in. (just be prepared to walk them back to their room a dozen times or so the first night.)


This classic technique works well when you want something done and are willing to wait for it. Essentially, you place conditions on an activity your child wants to do by requiring that something else be done first: "When you're finished putting all your toys away, then you can watch television." "When you get dressed, you can go outside and play with your friends." This tactic focuses on a positive incentive for compliance, rather than on threats. Remember to say "when," which implies the job will get done, and not "if," which implies it may never get done at all.


By presuming your child is cooperative, the two of you can work together to resolve problems. Choose a time when you're both in a good mood and can talk without interruption. Then ask for your child's input regarding the issue at hand-whether it's homework, bedtime, or chores. Explain that you don't like to give daily reminders about, say, homework, and that you want to make the evenings happier for both of you. Make sure you solicit her ideas for finding a solution, including possible rewards for improving her behavior, as well as consequences for breaking the rules. Whenever possible, use one or more of her suggestions. Then clearly state the new expectation and your reason for it. This strategy is especially helpful when resolving sibling disputes. School-age kids can help set the ground rules for fair fighting (no hitting, name-calling, or destroying property) and suggest consequences for infractions.


All of these techniques work well in various situations, but one of the best ways to interrupt a young child's misbehavior is to remove him from the activity for a little while and make him sit or stand in a quiet place. This form of brief social isolation-known as a time-out-quickly helps a frustrated or angry child cope with his feelings and regain self-control. It's most effective when it is used sparingly and confined to problem behaviors that infringe upon the rights of others, such as biting, kicking, hair pulling, hitting, or name-calling. A time-out works best when you enforce it immediately even if you're away from home. Remove the child from the activity as soon as you observe him behaving inappropriately and take him to a private place. A good rule of thumb for the length of a time-out is one minute for each year of age. Leaving a child for longer periods is counterproductive; young children forget why they are there and become resentful, which just provokes more misbehavior. Use a timer, which is impersonal, to monitor the minutes. Treat the time-out not as a punishment, but as a compassionate means of helping your child control his impulses. No matter which techniques you use, assume that your child wants to behave in a manner she can be proud of, that she wants to please you and feel that she belongs. And remember: Your aim is to get your child to develop self-discipline, and that goal is best achieved when you use methods that foster her self-esteem.

Contributing editor MARIANNE NEIFERT, M.D., is a pediatrician affiliated with Columbia PresbyterianISt. Luke's Medical Center, in Denver.
PARENTING February 1998