Make Parenthood More Positive: Understand Child Development
Parenthood can be the toughest, most important and, ideally, the most satisfying job in the world. It can be challenging at times when both parents are involved, and that challenge increases when single parents – and, increasingly, grandparents – have to do it alone, often while working full time outside the home.
“I see so many people struggling with how to manage their kids’ behavior,” says Melissa A. Kalt, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin Assistant Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine/Pediatrics. “Some kids do seem to push their parents’ buttons all day long. They seem ‘hyper’ and demanding, and parents might lash out with strict warnings if they won’t stop.
“Friends, relatives, patients – many of them seem stressed out, burned out, frustrated – and so do their kids. Yet other parents are good at setting boundaries and there’s no way their kids would misbehave consistently.”
What’s their secret? Often it comes down to taking time to understand normal childhood development, treating discipline as a teaching and learning opportunity and setting boundaries with realistic consequences if they aren’t observed, she says.
Understanding Developmental Stages
If parents take time to learn about normal childhood development, it can help them regain some harmony in their relationship with their children, Dr. Kalt says. Many books are available on the topic, but an easy way to get started is with the Child Development website prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The site lists developmental milestones for eight stages of child development, from infancy through adolescence, plus tips for parents at each growth stage.
“It’s so important to understand your child’s developmental age and to anticipate and plan for what his or her next developmental age will be like,” Dr. Kalt says. She and her husband, for example, periodically set goals – academic, physical and behavioral – they can help their child attain.
Academic goals might include helping the child count to 20, learning to write his or her name, or learning multiplication tables. Physical goals could include helping the child ride a bike without training wheels or climb down the stairs safely. Social and behavioral goals could involve showing kids how to manage anger, how to take personal responsibility, or how to be a good friend. “As with a lot of things, people are often more successful if they have a plan and set goals,” Dr. Kalt explains.
“I think some parents get frustrated because they have unrealistic expectations of what their children are capable of doing at a certain age. I’ve seen parents take their 6-year-old out to play catch, and then get annoyed when the child can’t catch the ball or throw it back very well. But that’s normal for a 6-year-old. Most kids are not physically able to catch and throw at that age.”
She’s seen parents get aggravated when their child takes part in a team sport, but doesn’t fully understand the rules or the concept of playing certain positions on the team. “Suddenly, all the kids start chasing after the ball at the same time, instead of playing their positions. Well, that might be normal for their age group,” she says.
“Parents have to step back, be realistic, and rethink why they enroll their children in team sports. The goal isn’t just to win a game, it’s also to learn to participate, have fun and get some exercise.”
Discipline, Not Punishment
Instead of regarding discipline as punishment, view it as a teachable moment, she advises parents.
“Try to put a positive spin on it. Instead of saying, ‘Don’t slam the door,’ tell them ‘Close the door quietly, please.’ If a child tries to open cupboards and climb inside, don’t yell at them or push them away; it’s natural for them to want to explore,” Dr. Kalt says. A better way is to get a ‘kid lock’ for the cupboard, especially if anything potentially hazardous is stored there.
Infants can start misbehaving around their first birthday, Dr. Kalt says. “They might begin to hit or scratch older siblings or pets. Well, that’s fairly normal for 1- and 2-year-olds to explore new things and begin asserting themselves.”
But, she suggests, instead of raising your voice or snatching the baby’s hand away, teach him or her a positive way to behave. With her youngest child, who’s going through such a phase, she and his older siblings take his hand and guide him in what she calls “gentle fingers,” showing him how to nicely stroke his sister or brother, or pet a dog or cat. “Then praise your child, reward him for his good behavior. Kids, even babies, are great people-pleasers. They love to make others happy.”
At around age 2, kids start going through the “mine, mine” period, when they believe every object belongs to them alone, and they defend what they think is their property. Instead of reprimanding the toddler, parents should demonstrate how sharing works, she says, and when their toddler catches on, praise them for that good behavior.
“Discipline should be about learning the consequences of their behavior, and giving them opportunities to put what they’ve learned into practice.” she says. “But be realistic. When a child hears his parents say, ‘If you don’t sit there quietly, you can’t go out for the next month,’ they’ll know you don’t really mean it.”
But do set boundaries and tell them the consequences if they don’t comply. Make your expectations clear. “My school-age kids understand that if they’re not ready to leave for school by 7:15 every morning, they will lose their after-school TV time that day. It doesn’t matter much what the consequences are, so long as they’re enforceable,” she says.
“Give your children choices, even very young children. Let them choose among healthy snacks, let them pick out which T-shirt to wear. And let them know the consequences if they don’t respect the rules you set.” She’s firm about one other rule:
“Always discipline children with dignity,” she says. “That means not reprimanding them publicly or embarrassing them in front of their friends. It’s demeaning.”