Rethinking Discipline as “Heart Training”

Handling disrespectful behavior in public.

I have mentioned numerous times my love for the “On Becoming” series. Babywise was my initial guide and now Childwise has become one of my new favorite books of child development inspiration.

Recently I have been thinking about discipline. Childwise refers to discipline as “heart training” and I love that image. The book says, “Discipline is a process of training that encourages consistent behavior. It keeps children on track, and sometimes puts them back on track.”

Particularly with summer disrupting our regular routine, I find “heart training” to be even more difficult this time of year. Kids, like all people, crave structure and routine and often summer brings about much more change. From camp this week to seeing grandparents next week to staying up later given the long summer days, parenting has felt more challenging.

Finding the balance is key. For high control parents like myself, being the “laid back easy breezy” mom is just not something that comes naturally to me. Will it be the end of the world if my kids go to bed at 8 instead of 7? No. But part of what keeps them mostly on the right track is adhering to our schedule. I can’t keep high expectations for my kids if they are not given the proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise that I know they need to be successful. And yes, french fries definitely count as a serving of vegetables.

As much as I try to give Keener and Grace the tools and language to stay on the right track, they (Keener) often need reminders to get back on track. To help keep them on, I will do the following:

  • Preview the new situation. Keener and Grace. We are going over to a friend’s house that you have never been to before. I’m not sure where things are in that house but we will make sure to find everything we need such as a bathroom if you need to go.
  • Name my expectations. When we are there, I expect you to use your manners. I expect you to say ‘please’ if you would like something and ‘thank you’ if someone gives you something. If we are eating, I expect you to clear your plate when you are finished eating. If you are not sure where you should put it, you can say, ‘Where should I put my plate?’ When we leave, I should hear you say, ‘Thank you for having us and for sharing your toys.’ Do you want to practice that now?
  • Come prepared. No matter where we are going, I try to always bring a few toys with me. That way, I can expect them to stay busy with the toys and not destroy someone else’s home — which would likely happen if I didn’t bring their own built in entertainment. One of my go to toys right now is the Boogie Board Writing Tablet. We were given this one as a gift and take it everywhere we go with us. You can make up endless games, use objects like silverware to draw on it, and so far appears to be difficult to break. You can get other brands of drawing tablets for as little as $11 such as this one.

The above strategies  have definitely helped keep them on track. However, once they are off track, I know it is my job to help get them back on. But how?

I wish I had a magical answer that was a quick fix. However, I have a piece of advice from Childwise that has been incredibly helpful. If you are in public and your child does not follow your directions regarding being respectful, simply say, “I’m sorry, we are working on this.” Don’t make excuses, don’t use that moment to try and get your child back on track, and don’t say anything else. This enables both your child and the person you are likely now embarrassed to be around to know what is going on.

Of course, if your child is not being safe, stop the behavior right away. I have found the above strategy to be better for behaviors related to respect: refusing to tell someone ‘thank you for having us,’ refusing to clear his plate from the table, not helping to clean up toys, etc. I will make it clear to Keener that I am disappointed with his choice. However, I can’t MAKE him say ‘thank you’ nor do I want to make an excuse as to why he isn’t doing it himself. Acknowledging, “I’m sorry, we are working on this” does neither but addresses the current situation.

Having gone down the road of trying to teach, correct, and get my child back on track in that moment — and then failing— I see why saying this phrase is an effective solution for that moment. I then find another moment, out of the public spotlight, to teach him the lacking skill he needs and work through any consequences that are appropriate. (More on this to come!) By staying focused on the “heart training,” I am able to better control my own emotions when he doesn’t comply and remember that my goal is to teach him the skills he needs to get back on the right track.


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