The scene was right out of a movie – the little child was rolling on the floor howling her guts out crying “I want that toy now”. The poor mother caught in the midst was pleading with the inconsolable child to get up, all the while silently praying for the earth to split open and take her in at that very moment, away from the judging, blaming, sympathizing eyes of everyone around her. This and many similar misadventures with kids raise some profound questions that parents around the world have asked themselves, their parents, experts, gurus, peers, other well meaning adults and even self- styled god men – Is it important to discipline a child in the early years. If yes, then what is the right age to begin disciplining? And how does one do it?
In order to respond to the first part of the question, one needs to understand the fundamentals of child development and growth. Children are born with a natural ability to learn and ask for what they want. Their emotional impulses are very strong. It is through caring adults and the environments that they learn self-awareness and self-control. Child Development experts group self-regulation and mental processes that enable us to plan and manage our feeling better under a term call “Executive Function”. Effective development of the executive function skills largely determines how well a child executes plans and accomplishes goals, socializes with others and has self-regulation in times of temptation. Easily, later in life, it is these skills that set a successful and well bred individual apart from the crowd. In this context, disciplining is like setting railings on a bridge – knowing that there are railings on either side, one can drive by on the bridge assuredly even on a dark night, as against driving by slowly, tentatively and fearfully in the knowledge that there are no railings to arrest a fall in the event of a misstep. Consequently, disciplining a child helps foster security, confidence and happiness within a child. In fact, young children seek order, familiarity of routine and some level of control from an adult so that they are not burdened with having to deal with chaos or decision making. This does not mean that disciplining raises children who cannot make their own decisions or deal with chaos or are overly submissive. On the contrary, research proves that children raised in discipline are more sociable, flexible, they learn to plan and execute better and prove to be more successful individuals. So, in disciplining, parents are doing their important bit to help their children develop and strengthen a critical aspect of their character.
Given that disciple is so important in shaping a child’s character, the sooner parents’ begin the process the better, but definitely not as soon as the baby pops outs. Go ahead, be the ever doting, loving and caring parents you always imagined yourself to be, till such time your baby is 4 months old. Thereafter, apply what the popular quote “catch them young” suggests. This is because even babies that young need to learn to not do certain things in order to keep them from getting into harm’s way, getting into the habit of staying within limits and restoring some semblance of sanity to an otherwise crazy world of the parents. However, parents need to be mindful of two critical things in this process – one, the difference between needs and wants of a child and two; there cannot be blanket expectations from children of all age groups and sizes. This is where the concept of age appropriate disciplining and its related tactics come into play.
Starting 4 months upto 7 months, children need to be taught little things like not to pull your hair, or not to expect to be carried around all the time or to learn to fall asleep on their own. The tactics to do so could vary from redirecting their attention with a toy or a rattle, to making funny faces or sounds to distract them. Particularly in case of helping the child sleep on her own, disappearing for short bursts to appear again shortly is a good approach. This ensures that the baby does not excessively distressed yet gets the signal that the caregiver is not available all the time.
Children in the 8 months to a year range are in the stage of rapidly learning about themselves and the world around them. At this age they will inevitably get themselves in situations that are a parent’s worst nightmare. Trying to discipline them by constantly using the word ‘no’ may make them feel that the world is out of bound for them and dissuade them from exploring Consequently, the best strategy to discourage them from getting into potentially harmful situations or creating a mess, is to keep away the temptations, secure most spaces and designate areas for the child to create a mess within. This allows the child the freedom to explore while staying within the limits of the designated area or an item of play. At certain times, ignoring a child’s actions also works as a disciplining tool; the logic being that without a reaction to an action, the child’s interest in that action will fade out.
The age of tantrums, screaming, throwing things dawns once the child goes beyond the one year milestone. This is the age when children learn to speak and are increasingly inquisitive about everything around them. However, their extreme curiosity to explore coupled with their limited physical and language capabilities sometimes leads to frustration among them. Disciplining children at this age calls for parents to help children to verbalize their frustration, then empathize with them and offer solutions. At certain times, saying a firm ‘no’ may be warranted, but reserved as the last resort so as not to render the word completely useless with overuse.
Then, enter the age of the ‘terrible twos’. This is when children begin to develop the all important executive function skills and the solid foundation of discipline really needs to be laid now. A discussion on the how parents need to disciple children hereafter is a subject in its own right and needs be dealt with in detail separately.
However, whatever the age, the way a child is disciplined has a huge bearing on the end result. There’s a thin line between disciplining and punishing, the two make opposite ends of the behavior management spectrum and parents need to tread this path cautiously. While disciplining is the art of teaching a child self control through positive means, punishing is a form of venting, controlling or forcing the child to comply, it is grossly negative, and may result in the child becoming resistant to change, retaliatory, even attempting to hide mistakes out of fear. This completely defeats the purpose of disciplining. So, beyond doubt, positive disciplining is the way to go. Remember, disciplining is a long process, but when it’s done well, the outcome is for the world to see and you to savor.
About The Author:
The writer is a new mother enjoying her time away from work while indulging in creative pursuits like blogging. She’s a management graduate and a post graduate in Mathematics who’s been a part of the corporate set-up for more than a decade. She is also an active member of the Intellitots extended family.