The Surprising First Step in Effective Child Discipline

The value of giving pure positive attention to children

Posted Feb 11, 2016

One very hot summer day I was outside with my then two-year-old son.   To me, it seemed like a perfect day to fill up the kiddie pool and let him splash around, so that is exactly what I did.  My son, however, was much more interested in sitting on the front step of the house, blowing soap bubbles and watching them float away.  For a while I tried to join in, but it didn’t take long before I felt bored and hot.

 “Ready to jump into the pool now?” I asked hopefully.

“Bubbles!” he replied.

I tried again five minutes later to no avail.  Finally the thoughts hit me: Why exactly is it so important for my son that he go into the pool? Whose agenda really mattered at this point in time?  He wasn’t in danger.  He wasn’t even disruptive.  The issue was just that he was enjoying an activity at a time that I was ready to move on.

In this rather minor moment, it started to become clear how I (with the best of intentions, of course) could turn a wonderful opportunity to just be with my child into a tiny little power struggle in which I felt the need to steer a boat that wasn’t going off course.

Years later, as a child psychiatrist, I now try to help lot of families who have kids who don’t seem to want to follow the rules or comply with adult requests.  Some of them meet criteria for Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), a term which many find over-encompassing and extreme.  I don’t particularly care too much about what it’s called, but try to offer some help regardless.  Very often we recommend a series of sessions that fall under the umbrella of Parent Behavioral Training.  This approach has been criticized lately on many levels from those who worry that praising kids for good behavior causes them to be needy, or from those that contend that time-outs are some form of child abuse, but the truth is that these kinds of techniques have been shown through many research studies to be effective at reducing defiant behavior and improving the parent-child relationship.

When parents agree to try these protocols, many are hungry to get right to the nuts and bolts of what they consider to be at the heart of good discipline, namely how to impose consequences and punishments like time-out effectively.  There may indeed be things to learn there, but many programs such as the Helping the Non-Compliant Child series that we use, start out surprisingly in a very different place.  Rather than mastering time-outs, what parents are taught first to do is how to truly attend to your child without questions, subtle steering maneuvers, or distractions. 

The idea, which varies a bit from program to program, is to set aside some time each day when you can play with your child on their terms.  They decide on the activity and what happens (within reason obviously) during the play, and your job as the parent is to show them that you are enthusiastically participating by offering “attends” statements that are akin to what a play-by-play announcer might do at a sports event.  If your daughter takes some play dough and flattens it out, you might say, “You flattened out the play dough!” but not “Hey that looks like a yummy pancake. Can I have some?” or “Let’s roll it into a snake now.”  In these precious minutes, they set the stage, call the shots and you are the eager follower, noticing all of it.

It sounds easy and perhaps inert but for many parents and kids it is neither.  Learning how to attend to your child will probably not be a miracle cure for all oppositional behavior, but it really can be a critical step in forging a new pathway in parent-child interactions with far fewer screaming matches and privilege removals.

As for my son, he never did get into that infernal pool. 

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.