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There aren’t many topics in the parenting space where the research is clear, but spanking is one of them. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed its position that spanking isn’t effective discipline, and physical punishment in general may lead to increased aggression in children. Though rates of spanking have declined over the past few decades, the vast majority of Americans still spank (or feel pressured to spank) their little kids.
We have an essay this week from Zuzana Boehmová about how her family thinks she’s acting like a “snotty, New Age-y” hippie because she doesn’t spank her children. This piece illustrates poignantly how hard it is to not lash out at a toddler who has driven you to the brink of your patience (and sanity) — particularly if you were spanked as a child, and it’s a default reaction in your lizard brain. As Boehmová put it in her essay, “I often feel myself at a loss when dealing with my own kids. When they upset me, I draw a blank on how best to react to their tantrums, frustrations or straight-up naughty behavior.”
Because many parents feel this way, we asked two pediatricians whose bylines you’ll see in NYT Parenting in the coming months — Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; and Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine — for advice on how to discipline toddlers effectively, and calm yourself down when you’re at the end of your rope. Here are their best tips.
Stay consistent. If multiple caretakers watch your children, said Dr. Heard-Garris, have everyone enforce the same behavioral standards. “Discussing stable, consistent rules are the first step before you talk about the actual approaches to discipline,” she said. If Grandma has different rules than Dad, your 3-year-old might get confused (or, in my experience, use the knowledge of different standards to undermine the entire system).
Use positive reinforcement. When your children behave appropriately, Dr. Carroll said to praise them for that goodness instead of just punishing them for what’s bad. “It’s more important to reward good behavior than to come down on negative,” Dr. Carroll said.
Try timeouts. Both pediatricians said that effective discipline is nuanced: Not every tactic will work for every child. But both mentioned that timeouts work for many families. The standard rule is a minute for every year. So if your 2-year-old won’t stop jumping on the couch, she should go to her room for two minutes. Call out her negative behavior as you’re disciplining her in real time, so she understands why she’s being punished. “You didn’t stop jumping on the couch, so you are going to your room for a timeout,” for example. If she misbehaves in school and you’re giving her a timeout five hours later, Dr. Heard-Garris said, that won’t work.
If she acts out outside your home, name the problem and remove her from the situation. “If you don’t stop pulling cans off the shelf, we’re leaving the store,” and then leave. (However, Dr. Carroll said the one place all bets are off is on airplanes, that lawless nightmare in the sky.)
If timeouts don’t work … there are alternatives. If a tantrum is over a toy or a specific object, take the object away and then ignore the meltdown. You can also try redirecting behavior. “You can’t jump on the couch, kid, but you can jump on the floor.” For children age 5 and up, maybe even try role-playing, suggested Dr. Heard-Garris. Ask your child, “If you had another chance, how would you ask for what you want in a better way?”
Take a timeout for yourself, too. If your child has pushed you to the point where you feel you can’t respond without spanking or yelling, take some space. “Depending on a kid’s temperament, you may be at the brink every day,” said Dr. Heard-Garris.
Tap another caretaker in, if possible, suggested Dr. Carroll. Tell them, “You have to handle this, I’m going to lose it.” And leave the scene until you calm down.
If you’re alone, still aim to take the same break. “I try to have the parents name their own feelings,” said Dr. Heard-Garris, which can ultimately help your kids do the same. You can say something like, “Mommy is really frustrated right now because of X, Y and Z. I want to take two minutes. I need that space.” Or, try calling a friend or family member to talk you down in that moment, so that you can get distance from those feelings of rage. “You just need that gap of space to calm down before you’re able to interact again,” said Dr. Heard-Garris.
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Want More on Positive Reinforcement, Tantrums on Planes and Toddler Meltdowns?
In the Times last year, Stephen Marche talked to Dr. Alan Kazdin, a clinical psychologist and director of the Yale Parenting Center, about Kazdin’s “A.B.C. method” of positive reinforcement. This method involves explicitly telling your child how you want them to behave in a given moment (Antecedent), modeling good behavior for them (Behaviors) and noting approval when the child has done what you wanted (Consequence).
Though you can’t remove a wailing child from an airplane, the Times travel section has helpful tips for managing your kid’s midair meltdown; and Smarter Living has 32 suggestions for dealing with crying babies on planes.
This Reddit thread of parents sharing their toddlers’ worst tantrums is a delight, and should make you feel better about your own public disasters. If you want to share your tricks for fixing a kid’s tantrum for possible publication as a Tiny Victory, email us here.
Parenting can be a grind. So let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
For my 1-year-old to stop squirming about at bed time, I employ snoring. Fake, semi-loud, dramatic, cartoonish snoring. He’s so mesmerized by this performance that he settles down and eventually drifts off to sleep himself. Occasionally, I have to fend off a chubby finger or two trying to explore my flaring nostrils.
—Saadia Hussain, Ontario.
If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, find us on Instagram @NYTparenting and use the hashtag #tinyvictories; or email us. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style.
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