One of the most important things to know about discipline, and one of the easiest to forget, is that in all things, you serve as a model for your child. Your interaction with your baby constantly teaches her two things: specific behavior, and how the world works.
For example, when you slap your toddler’s hand, you teach him to slap when he’s angry or needs to stop someone, and he learns that physically hurting can solve problems. When you shame her with words like, “No no! Naughty girl!”, you teach her to use those words, and that shaming others is appropriate. When you snap at your child, she learns to speak snappily. When you lose your temper in frustration, your toddler absorbs the lesson. Your toddler uses all his interactions with you to store information about the world that he will use as he grows.
When you give your child information (“The sofa gets dirty when we climb on it”), positively phrased requests (“Keep the water inside the bowl, please”), describe how you feel (“I don’t like to be pulled”), and use gentle follow through (“I can’t let you yell at the store, so we need to go now”), that’s what you teach your child to do. When you express frustration appropriately, and then move on, your toddler sees the model for working through those feeling. She will use these skills more easily with you, her friends and siblings as she grows.
Learn to observe yourself as you talk to your toddler. If you feel really brave, tape record yourself for a morning and see how you sound. Think about what you are modeling for your child. When he’s talking more to you later, you will be glad you did. Even when you don’t see him imitating your actions right away, he is storing actions and ideas about how to interact with others. Most of us have had the experience of saying something just the way our own parents did, without even meaning to.
It is a blessing and a curse that we are our children’s teachers all the time, whether we want to be or not. The biggest payoff to disciplining and relating thoughtfully comes when your toddler grows into an older child, because the way you talk to her now sets the stage for the way she talks to you, and others, later. I’ve been amazed at how powerful it is when my daughter can constructively express a problem to me–well worth the effort I put into being constructive with her.
by Justine Saffir