I bought my kids a play kitchen for Christmas and hid it in the garage for three months. I was so excited. It had a microwave, blender, kettle, toaster, an assortment of pots and pans, and enough plastic food to host a party. I imagined my kids pretending to cook, sorting the fruits and vegetables by color, and selling them to each other.
Apparently, their vision was a little different because one day, they dumped everything out of the bins and cabinets. Within a minute, they turned the entire play kitchen upside down. My two-year-old even ripped off the sink faucet and walked all over the countertop.
I snapped. "How dare you! I spent so much money on this and drove so far just to pick it up. I got it for you to enjoy, not to destroy. I might as well give it to someone who will take care of it!"
As I talked, I bagged everything up. I called my children wild animals that lacked respect and carried everything out. The boys sat on the kitchen floor with their backs against the fridge, stunned.
I called my mom with my heart still thumping and told her about the incident. She said, "You have to show them how to play with it appropriately. Give them a lesson."
I knew she was right, and although I didn't feel validated, I was relieved she didn't confirm my kids are feral. I thought about Dr. Shafali Tsabary, author of "The Conscious Parent", who is overtly against discipline because it's easily confused with punishment. She believes children don't need to suffer to learn.
In fact, encouragement and repeated building of skills are the best teachers. In her eyes, misbehavior shows a lack of mastery and practice is more warranted than punishment. By avoiding the use of threats, punishments, and time-outs, children learn how to be a cohesive member of the family without guilt or shame. Rather than typical discipline, Dr. Shafali advocates practice, rehearsals, and role-plays.
Once I calmed down, I carried everything back inside. I invited the kids into the play kitchen and said, "I'm sorry I lost my cool. Let's play together."
I put an apron on, stirred play food into a pot, and said, "With this kitchen, we play pretend. We can be chefs, bakers, or restaurant workers. We must treat it with care by not throwing things or climbing on it."
The boys put on their chef hats, and got busy, putting bread in the toaster.
Since then I've been mindful of how I respond to my children's misbehavior. Choosing practice over punishment has proven to be not only effective but pleasant.
Here are four other benefits of disciplining with practice:
My four-year-old wanted his turn on the swing out back, but his two-year-old brother didn't want to get out. Javin, the four-year-old, pushed and pulled him in an attempt to get his turn. At the sound of the squeals, I felt like yelling at them. But I mustered some composure and said, "You may not push and pull your brother. I know he doesn't want to take turns and you're trying to solve the problem on your own, but you must do it in a different way. Do you have any other ideas?"
He said he could ask him, and then tried. Asher still didn't budge.
I explained, "Sometimes you will need to ask for our help. I can get him out for you."
He agreed, but before we moved on, I insisted we practice. He started the scene from the beginning, approaching his reluctant brother, but rather than get physical, he told me he needed help. I gave him kudos. He didn't only have his turn, but he had his dignity and knowledge of how to handle the situation in the future.
A few weeks ago both of the boys were in the bath, making a big mess. I snapped, "Turn the water off – it's getting everywhere!"
Javin retorted, "I know that!"
I didn't like his tone, but rather than ridicule him, I said, "Let's practice how to respond when I ask you to stop doing something."
I asked him to turn the water off, and he said, "Okay, Mommy."
By teaching him to respond kinder, I learned to request kinder. After all, how can one respond pleasantly to a jarring demand? If I want my child to be receptive, I must create an environment of openness and understanding, not defensiveness. Through this practice, we both became more respectful.
Every day, while Asher naps, Javin gets TV time and I write. It works well for all parties involved, except on the days Javin relentlessly calls my name from the living room. One afternoon, when I'd already visited him twice, he called me again, and I snapped, "What?! What do you need now that you can't get yourself?"
He told me he wanted water, and if I was in my usual programming I would have stomped over to the filter quickly and coldly, but being mindful of what he needed to learn, I changed my reaction. I took a breath to calm down, and said, "You are now old enough to get yourself water. Let's practice doing it together."
We entered the kitchen, he got a cup and brought a chair over to the filter to fill it up. The lesson didn't only save him from my lecture, it made him proud to do something independently.
Javin doesn't like getting wet, so when he ran through a puddle in the backyard he immediately stripped down and kicked off his shorts right before company was about to arrive. My blood started to heat and I wanted to freak out, but I didn't.
I asked myself, what's the real issue? Why am I really annoyed? I stopped him from getting naked and leaving his clothes behind, and said, "Whenever you take off your clothes, they must go in the hamper in the laundry room. We must also put new clothes on because people are coming over."
With my new focus, I'm being more diligent about keeping routines, and we all reap the benefits of knowing what's expected of us.
Sometimes encouragement and the repeated building of skills isn't enough. For instance, my two-year-old has a tendency to push other children. I used to wonder how to handle these situations properly without punishment, but now I simply pick him up, hold his hands, and say, "I won't let you push (or hit, or throw blocks, or whatever it is that isn't allowed)."
I set him down when he's ready, but repeat as needed. Avoiding punishment isn't about being permissive. In fact, it requires clear and firm boundaries.
With this approach, I'm more in tune with my children. The process of deciphering the motivation behind their behavior has made me calmer, more present, and understanding. Our relationships feel closer, not only with each other but with ourselves.