Effective parenting can be challenging…but it can be done. One key to success is being consistent in your discipline and limit setting. Positive discipline and limit setting looks different for each family. Your child’s needs may not be the same as your friend’s child. Developmentally, the needs of a two year old will differ from that of a five year old.
What is universal is the fact that consistency in your expectations, reactions and limits helps your child feel safe. I liken consistent parenting to swaddling. You start out giving your child a close, secure environment. As children begin to be able to regulate themselves, parents slowly let one arm out and then another. The concept is the same with discipline.
Grown-ups who are consistent from the beginning of a child’s life, teach that child cause and effect. This predictability also helps children bond with their caregivers. A baby cries and their parent brings a bottle. The child learns that the parent will meet their needs and they become attached.
For toddlers, routine schedules and consistent reactions teach them what to expect and helps them begin to internalize rules. Repetition throughout the years helps a child to master these ideas. If jumping in the bathtub is met with “please sit safely in the tub” or “not safe,” the child learns that jumping in the tub is not okay. With toddlers we often hear “self-talk” during which they’ll say to themselves or a baby doll, “sit safely in the tub” and “not safe.” The child knows just what to do because they know what is expected of them. Being able to meet someone’s expectations feels good, no matter what your age is.
When a parent reacts inconsistently, children often feel insecure, anxious, and are more likely to test limits. One day, screaming for a lollipop gets the child a lollipop. Another time the grown-up is angry and doesn’t give them the lollipop. What is going to happen the next time? The child hasn’t learned anything other than the fact that grown-ups can be confusing! They may test limits by whining, insisting, bargaining or having a temper tantrum to get what they want. That’s not fun for anyone!
Consistent discipline and limit setting does not mean that you should never change your schedule or your reactions. Once parents have established consistent routines, reactions and expectations, spontaneity can lead to wonderful experiences. These changes help children become more flexible, an important skill. Schedules change, play dates get cancelled, and sometimes there is no juice left. Consistency creates a level of trust between children and their caregivers through which they can manage these changes, and the emotions that come along with them.
Children whose parents have rules and expectations that are the same from one time to the next feel an incredible sense of security. This is true for children of all ages. Young children love to feel competent. Knowing right and wrong, safe and not safe, okay and not okay, adds to their sense of capability and builds self esteem. Your children learn these ideas through your consistent discipline and limit setting. You can do it!
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