“Don’t make me count to three!”
This sentence has a problem.
What’s the problem? It’s a warning that there are going to be three more warnings before a consequence will come. I mean, maybe a consequence will come. There might also be more warnings.
And here’s what this sentence teaches your kid: You have to follow my directions after I tell you five times. Or once I get really mad. Or maybe never. And I’m guessing that’s not what you want. I’m guessing you want to teach your child that you mean what you say and you want them to respond promptly to your directions. The first time.
Let me let you in on a little secret: You don’t need warnings. You don’t need threats or countdowns. All you need is a simple, didactic response and a little faith that your little one truly wants to do the right thing.
There are four possible parent responses that help guide your child towards expected behavior: direction, redirections, reminders, and logical consequences.
A direction is brand new. Ideally, you’ve gone over expectations ahead of time with your child, but there are always going to be moments where something new comes up. Don’t call across the room. Walk over to your child, take their hand or place a hand on them, look at them, and speak. “This shelf is off limits. The things on it are breakable.”
A redirection explicitly lets the child know that they need to stop something that isn’t allowed or start something they’re expected to be doing. Redirection can include offering an alternative, such as, “you may throw the pebbles into the water,” for a child chucking rocks at his sister, or “you may climb up the ladder, but the slide is for going down.” These wise parents see their kids’ natural desires and create safe ways for them to express them.
A reminder is well, a reminder. It can be expressed in about two words. “Gentle touch.” “Sit down.” A kid needs to already be familiar with the language of the reminder, which means you’ve already broken it down for them in detail and maybe even practiced. A reminder is not new information.
A logical consequence is parent-imposed, but it is not a punishment. This is a common misconception. You don’t have to be mad and your kid doesn’t even have to be sad. A logical consequence is directly related to the behavior and stops it or prevents it from continuing. If you’re trying to cook and your toddler keeps dangerously climbing up onto the table, you strap him into the high chair until you’re done. He wasn’t able to handle the freedom of movement without a high level of supervision that you couldn’t give while cooking, so in the high chair and done. He might love it, and that’s fine. He might protest and that’s fine too. That’s where he needs to be while you finish cooking.
This is not a system.
I repeat: THIS IS NOT A SYSTEM. I am NOT telling you to first direct, then redirect, then remind, and then finally administer a logical consequence. In other words, do not tell your child, “I’ll remind you once, but if you don’t listen, you’ll need to get out of the pool.” You’ve just given a threat. Many times a logical consequence will be your first response. “I have a headache from listening to you two argue in the back seat, so I need to go lie down. I don’t have the energy to take you anywhere else.” Other times a reminder makes the most sense. “Don’t forget you’ll need a clean room before you can go over to Jeremy’s.”
Let’s say your kid is splashing others in the pool. You, the responsible adult, need to make an assessment of the situation. Maybe you forgot to go over pool expectations, and it’s time for you to go over, get your child’s full attention, and tell them point blank that splashing is not allowed. Maybe the splashing is out of control and kids are crying. It might be time to get out.
As the parent, it’s your job to feel out the moment and decide then and there whether your child needs a direction, a redirection, a reminder, or a logical consequence. Try to base that decision on what you believe will play out most seamlessly. What feels fair to you? Just don’t equate fairness with giving chances.
Some parents get tripped up because they’re concerned about consistency. Bear in mind that a steady expectation of first-time obedience is really more dependable for your child than a system of chances or a countdown. If you allow something twice before you intervene, you’ve just allowed it. That’s contrary to the claim that you do not allow it. Your kid isn’t practicing obedience, he’s practicing disobedience. And haven’t you seen those kids standing motionless as their parents’ countdown from 10 down to 2 and then rushing to get it done by 1? It’s a game! And it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
There are also parents who like to lean on systems. It’s easier and helps them keep their cool in frustrating moments. This is understandable, especially if you’re just getting started with improving your discipline approach. So, if you must utilize a system, I have two pieces of advice for you. First off, keep it to yourself. Don’t sit down with your kid and tell them there’s a new thing where after you’ve given them a direction, you’ll remind them once, and then such as such will happen. Just start doing that.
My second piece of advice is to try to move beyond relying on your system. It’s truly wonderful that you’re working to improve, but bear in mind that following a fixed order takes away from the complexity of connection and communication between you and your child. There’s a continuum between manipulation and relationship, and our goal is to move along it toward the right. Once you get more comfortable, try and let go. You’ll eventually find yourself talking to your child more like a parent and less like a frustrated middle school PE teacher. And of course that’s what you want!