If you want your children to develop a strong moral ground, teach them with kindness – Part 4

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It seems harsh to use punishment with a young child who has so few strategies for resolving conflict. She doesn’t have the language skills or emotional control to calmly explain her point of view, let alone negotiate. She also doesn’t have the skills to talk herself through an upsetting situation. If she is placed in a naughty chair instead of being offered support, she is only likely to rage in isolation, disconnected from adults, in a manner that seems far more likely to breed later deviance. What she would learn from this is that avoiding punishment is more important than having a voice.

This approach would also fail because it would not guide her toward an understanding of the reasons behind the rules. To use an earlier example, picture a sobbing toddler whose glass of water has been taken away because he’s just poured it on the carpet. A combination of letting him pour water on the ground outside, and having him help clean up the mess on the carpet with a towel, would be far more likely to teach the relatively unimportant lesson about where to pour water than would punishing him. This approach might also give him insight into the adult perspective, illustrate respect for his autonomy and curiosity, and add to his understanding of the world–in this case, of the specific places a cup can be freely dumped, and where it can’t. These formative experiences offer ‘toddlers hands-on, age-appropriate lessons in socially acceptable behavior.

A growing body of literature demonstrates that such positive, constructive ways of shaping behavior can have long-term implications. In many studies, mothers of socially advanced children were more likely to make references to feelings and morality. Because toddlers learn through concrete examples, they come to understand the emotions of others by hearing those emotions described in the same language they hear when experiencing their own feelings. If a parent empathizes with a toddler who has accidentally knocked over a tower she’s built by saying, “You worked really hard on that tower and must be disappointed,” the toddler will be far more likely to make the connection when the parent advises her not to knock down another child’s tower because that child would be disappointed. Likewise, it is not enough to teach toddlers that they must not throw sand because they will be punished–we want them to be cautious with sand because, otherwise, another human being could be injured.

Most of our rules begin with firm values about right versus wrong, and these values are more likely to be absorbed by our toddlers when we describe them in the context of real-world examples. Not surprisingly, the mothers of socially advanced children were less likely to punish, a pattern that can effectively shift the focus from what will happen to a child when he or she misbehaves, to discovering the value-driven reasons behind prohibitions. These mothers emphasized kindness, empathy, and sensitivity over absolute obedience to authority; as a result, their children internalized those values.

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Along the same lines, studies consistently show that even the context of discipline is critical to moral development, and indicate that parental warmth and attachment security advance the development of a conscience.

Well-attached children might be more likely to embrace familial values, or perhaps these children use their relationship with the parent as a model for other relationships. Either way, these studies confirm what many parents have known intuitively for years: Loving and respecting a child are the most critical components of any disciplinary framework.

Just moments ago, my exhausted daughter threw herself shrieking on the floor in a fit of exasperation. She’d wanted to climb onto the hot stove to explore the cupboards above, and was too overwhelmed by disappointment at not being allowed to do so to respond to my offer to hold her up to the cupboard, to my explanation of the dangers, or to my attempts to label her frustration.

Instead, I took her to the rocking chair. Within moments, her fingers entwined in my hair, she had fallen asleep to the comfort and rhythms of nursing and rocking. Love flowed through us, despite our recent conflict. As I leaned over her and breathed in the sweet, exhilarating fragrance of her skin, a realization came over me.

If a chair is to be used as part of toddler discipline, I advocate not the naughty chair but the rocking chair. In a rocking chair, the foundation of discipline can be formed by developing a warm, nurturing relationship with your child. The chair offers a toddler an oasis from the stress of becoming an independent human being. It is also a calming place for building peace and unity after conflict, a neutral place for offering guidance and direction. A naughty chair might be able to shape behavior, but I’m convinced that a rocking chair can shape the soul.

I’ll remember that the next time Julia and I need to cross a street.

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