This morning, our mother's group had a discussion on "Creative Discipline: Getting Kids to Mind without Losing Your Mind." I loved discussing this topic with other bright, creative, and loving moms and I realized as I did so that I have learned a lot more about this subject over the years than I'd realized.
Since I have a tendency to try to bite off more than I can chew, I thought I'd share what I've learned in small pieces and focus on just one or two parenting principles at a time, starting with this one:
Parenting Principle #1: There's a difference between principles and practices (and why you shouldn't be a technique snob).
In disciplining, I think it's important to distinguish between discipline principles and discipline practices. A principle is a truth or a standard (children need to understand that their choices have consequences), while a practice is a way of applying the principle (time-outs, logical consequences, etc.). Too many parenting books, in my opinion, focus too much on practices and not enough on principles. If you only learn "THE WAY" they are promoting in their book, then everything will go perfectly. Without their tried-and-true amazing technique, you're lost! While certainly some practices or techniques work better than others and we can all stand to improve in our methods, I think focusing on following to the letter some so-called expert's advice can distract us from the overall picture and goal of discipline.
For example, many books are hyper-critical of the exact words parents use in their teaching of their children. It's important to use "I" statements and communicate more clearly, they say. Change your wording and your child's behavior will magically improve! But too often lost in the whiz-bang presentation of their ideas are the more important principles that should underlie all your communication. For example, one of the first parenting principles I will discuss is "Discipline should be built on the foundation of a loving relationship." Without love and trust between a parent and child, no "I" statements in the world can improve behavior long-term.
Getting hung up on a certain practice of parenting can limit the long-term growth of your family. It's like the difference between understanding the principles of nutrition and using them to plan your menus versus simply copying a recipe. Good cooks know many recipes and are willing to try new ones, all with the overall goal of creating a healthy family. In contrast, someone with little understanding of nutrition or cooking might still be able to follow a recipe and turn out a passable dish, but there could be problems along the way. Your double-fudge brownies might turn out to taste amazing, for example, but if you start making them every day, it's going to be a disaster for your family's long-term health. Even if you discover a more healthy basic recipe -- say, a great casserole -- your family is still going to hate having it served at every meal.
In the same way, the techniques you use to discipline your children should vary. Go ahead and read the parenting books and try the techniques. Share those "recipes" with others. But don't get so hung up on method that you become a snob about it. Sometimes, I see pointless and mean-spirited conversations on the internet about why this method or that one is THE BEST and why everyone who doesn't use it is just evil or clueless or a child abuser or whatever (never let your kid cry it out vs. teaching a child to sleep independently, pacifier vs. thumbsucking, baby-wearing vs. putting a baby down, etc.). I cringe when I read these conversations because sometimes it's like debating whether you should serve meatloaf and potatoes for dinner or a chicken and broccoli casserole. Neither are bad or wrong, they're just different ways of applying the overall principles of nutrition. Your family may happen to love broccoli. It may be your favorite dish and you may grow it organically in your back garden and eat it three times a month and assume that if everyone were just as smart as you, they'd do the same. But all your arguments in the world for why your recipe is best might just not be convincing to a family who doesn't like the taste of broccoli. That's why they've chosen different meals for their table. (And yes, I know the analogy here breaks down for those who eschew meat at their table -- but that's another debate I refuse to engage in here).
Except in extreme cases, I like to assume that parents are doing their very best to teach and rear their children and if they choose a different method for doing so, then I try to assume they are doing it because they feel it's best for them. While I might pass along my favorite recipes and share my reasons for using and liking them, I'm not offended if people don't choose to use them.
So while parenting principles are always true, their application, or the practices we use to implement them, will change based on a parent or child's temperament, maturity, the situation, family dynamics and culture. So while I will discuss both principles and practices in this series, please understand that when I give examples of ways the principles could be enacted, these are simply suggestions and ideas. Your family may decide to use other methods and they might work better for you. And hey, if they do, please, share the recipe!