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Positive Discipline From Day One

Posted Apr 21 2009 11:47pm
In my previous parenting posts, I use Ryan and Morgan as my examples, since they've been around a while now and I have lots of great stories and parenting experiences with them.

But this time, I thought I'd talk about the baby for a while, partly because he's super cute and squeezable, but also because we do use PD with him, too! (This post brought to you by the Electrical Cord Chewing Button Pushing Peopleguy--Sean.)

A brand new baby doesn't really need guidance from his parents, but he does need responsiveness. When his parents take care of his basic needs in a prompt way, the baby learns to trust those big people and begins to gain a sense that those big people seem to value him a lot. The primary focus of those early days is (besides sleep) building a connection with the baby. This is also known as "attachment parenting" and for more information about this, go to the website of Dr. Sears, who has coauthored (with his wife) many books on the subject.

But after those first couple of sleepless months pass by, the baby becomes more aware of things and interactive. Not coincidentally, you, the parent, begin to emerge from the new baby fog--just a bit!--and become more aware and interactive. :o)

But the baby isn't really conceptual--the baby can't really misbehave--so what is the purpose of discipline at this stage?


Good for Mom and Dad

Babyhood is the perfect time for parents to begin sharpening some of the parenting tools in their toolbox. Of course, if you have more than a minute or two between all of the new baby tasks like changing diapers and feeding and various cleaning activities, now is a great time to read some books about Positive Discipline.

But it's also a great time to practice. Practice saying the things you're going to be repeating thousands of times in the not-too-distant future. Practice which words you're going to say and practice how you're going to say them.

So when you find baby somewhere he's not supposed to be (who expected him to roll over so quickly?), such as in front of the the cat food or a trapped in a particularly electrical-cord-ridden corner of the room, you can say "Oops! Electrical cords are not for eating. Come with me!" as you remove him.

Now the baby will not understand a word. That's okay. He may not even have noticed that you moved him from the cords. To him, the experience is: I was lying somewhere, then that nice lady who smells yummy scooped me up and made some noises, and now I'm somewhere else. (That's if he could even articulate the experience, which, you know, he can't.)

Of course you'd remove him from situations you deem to be potentially dangerous. And the baby may or may not notice or care. But why not use the time to try out what you're going to say when he's a little bit older? Because before you know it, he will begin to understand.

Practice words and phrases:

  • That's not for touching.
  • You want to hold something; here's a bear.
  • Pulling hair is ouchy! Let me help you do a gentle pat.

Practice distraction:

  • Look! Up in the sky! It's a ceiling fan!
  • You want to touch that. Let's go in the kitchen now.
  • Let's go see what Daddy's doing.

Practice tone-of-voice (which of course I can't really describe in writing, but I really do practice different ways of saying things, so that I am firm but kind in the real situation):

  • Ouch! That hurts!
  • Cords aren't for pulling.
  • That's not for eating.
  • I know you don't want a diaper change. I'll help you hold still and it will be over quickly.

Good for Baby

Obviously, Baby won't really get what you're saying and doing until he is older--in my completely non-scientific experience, around 6 months or so. And even then, he won't understand the words--but he will pick up on your tone of voice. And once he gets some sense of Object Permanence--the idea that things don't disappear just because you can't see them--he will definitely begin to understand what you're doing (removing the object or him) and even start to be upset by it.

But if you're already in the habit of saying the right things in the way you want to say them, then the first time the baby whips your glasses off of your face and nearly drops them in the toilet, you will have some words at your disposal that you can use despite your surprise and dismay. That saves the baby from a shocking sense of "Who is this freaking yelling person who has replaced my Mommy?" if you can somehow put him gently on the floor and say "My glasses are not for touching!" instead of "Nnooooo! Blllaaarrrgg!" (Please. Learn from my mistakes. :o) )

The baby will also begin to pick up on the fact that you mean what you say and will reinforce it in a kind and gentle manner. Kids like consistency and need Mom and Dad to provide that for them. It's unsettling not to be able to predict things--babies and kids are comforted by routines and consistency.


Good for Older Siblings


If you have older kids, there's an immediate benefit to practicing PD with the new baby. The Big Kids get to see that you will help the baby follow the house rules: "Ryan wants to play by himself right now; let's go play over here." or "Ouch! Pulling hair hurts and Morgan doesn't like that! I'll help you stop."

Besides the sense of justice that comes from being able to see that you will be fair and not always default in favor of the baby (which is hard not to do!), the Big Kids will begin to view the baby as a real member of the family, an actual person with legitimate wants and desires. And, you are modeling words and action for them to use with the baby. Ryan helps Sean give the cat "gentle pats" (kind of!) and Morgan will say comforting things to him when he's sad like "You're sad Mommy moved away, but see? She's right over there in the kitchen!"


Strategies for Baby "Misbehaviors"


A baby is becoming self-directed--especially once he can sit up on his own and move around some (rolling, crawling, etc.). He's going to do things you don't want him to--not because he's trying to irritate you or hurt himself. He doesn't even have a sense of that yet. He is merely curious about the world and is trying to learn about it, touching everything and probably tasting everything, too.

This is a good time to practice the PD idea: Assume Positive Intent. If you practice this now, it will be easier to do when the child is older and really does do something on purpose to annoy you. (See 4 and 7 year old Casey Kids for examples).

Nobody would think that a crawling baby is trying to disconnect your computer and wireless router on purpose. He sees flashing lights and neat-o buttons and he wants to know what they are, which means touching and/or tasting. If you're Sean, that also means picking up a stick and beating things to see what they do. Maybe a scream or a gurgle will do something. What if I stick it in my eye?

By the way--I LOVE the stage that Sean is in right now. He is so curious and adventurous--a little Scientist Explorer Peopleguy. Even though I've been interrupted 5 times in the writing of just this paragraph by that curiosity, I just love it.

So, what can you do when he is ripping cords out of the wall and attempting to strangle himself with them?

  • Physically remove baby from the No-No.
  • Say "Not for touching." or "No." or "Stop." in a gentle voice. (I don't say something every time.)
  • Rearrange some furniture--take valuables upstairs, or block off the zone. The makeshift barricade I have near my computer desk is NOT holding anymore, so we'll have to move on to a different idea.
  • Distract, distract, distract. Give him another toy, move him to another area, make a funny face. The main advantage you have as a parent at this stage is the fact that Baby is so interested in EVERYTHING that his attention is (relatively) easily focused on something different. Also, babies in general are not known for their excellent memories.
  • Give the baby an appropriate substitute. If he wants to chew something, remove the cat food or Daddy's iPhone and give him a teething ring or soft toy instead. Pulling up grass is a better outlet for when you get the urge to rip something up by its roots (as opposed to hair). Etc.
  • Be prepared to do this a million times until he finds another dangerous thing to obsess over or until he leaves home for college. (In the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.)

I do not recommend:
  • Shouting or yelling at baby. It will scare him and he'll get the same idea--"Mom won't let me over in this corner."--through your action of physically removing him.
  • Hitting baby--smacking his hands, etc. Again, he'll get scared and focus on the hurt--why hurt or scare him when he gets what he needs--redirection--without physical or mental pain?

Babyproofing

I'm not sure if this really a PD idea, but it's certainly a value I hold--give the baby as much freedom as absolutely possible. Create a safe zone in which he can play and explore--and make that zone big.

Having older kids has resulted in some logistical challenges along these lines. As parents know, the older the kid, the more pieces their toys, and the smaller the pieces. It's a Danger Trifecta: lots of small pieces are not only a hassle to clean up and keep track of, it's also a Major Choking Hazard!

We've worked around some of these issues by creating Big Kid Zones, where one can play with LEGO relative freedom. Our playroom also has doors, which has been helpful, although Sean has reached an age where it's no longer feasible to keep him out of there. I've also enlisted the help of the older kids: they can identify Sean-safe toys, and will sound a red alert (literally) if they see him with anything in his mouth. Given all of the birthdays recently celebrated around here, hearing Ryan or Morgan shout "Floor cake!" is common. Sean does love some leftover floor cake. (And I'm confident at this point that he is not allergic to eggs, dairy, or wheat. Although it was definitely NOT my preference for us to have figured it out in that particular manner.)

And even though we let him have as much freedom as we can, we still make judicious use of baby gates (to keep him out of the kitchen and from being underfoot while I'm cooking, for example) and outlet covers. But it's funny--Sean is surviving and thriving in a much more dangerous environment than Ryan did at the same age! Ah, the joys and perils of being a Third! Even so--we still redirect him and guide him all the time. But for both of our sakes, I try to minimize it.

What are some other ideas for guiding young babies and toddlers? I'm sure there are things I've forgotten about toddlerhood, which will re-surprise me in just a few more months here. Ideas?
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