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How to Break Habits Without Breaking Hearts

July 22, 2014

You know that point of the day when you’ve done it ALL. DAY. LONG. and they talk back at the dinner table? Our natural instinct is 1) Dad’s home, he can deal with it. 2) I’ll deal with it later. 3) For the sake of dinner, we’ll let it go this time. 4) Threaten punishment so you feel like you addressed it but you and Junior both know you are too tired to follow through. 5) Go cry in the bathroom. or 6) Cry right there at the table.

Or maybe this only happens at my house…

A mom asked me recently for specifics about how I discipline. In the moment, Brynna was at camp (i.e.: not hanging from my free arm), the sun was shining, I had gotten a good night’s rest. I sweetly told her the importance of consistency and follow through, and I gave examples of ways to discipline. I encouraged her and smiled as I walked away. The other night at the dinner table, however, there was no smiling, and I’m sure the sun was out but I didn’t notice. I was soooo ready to be done. As we sat down to eat, Brynna complained that she didn’t want pasta. After we prayed (which I’m pretty sure she scowled through), she whined that I put something yucky on the corn.

*Pause. I NEED you to understand the eating issues my child poses and ways we’ve battled it for years, but we don’t have time. Let me just say that I didn’t want pasta but it’s one of 5 things she will eat, so we have a lot of variations of it. I was taking a bite of the most bland corn you’ve ever tasted because she doesn’t deal well with even the sight or smell of seasoning, AND SHE HAD THE NERVE TO COMPLAIN! (I’m sorry…am I yelling?)

I reprimanded her for complaining, and David talked to her about being grateful for the fact that she didn’t pay for or prepare the food she was SERVED. She looked right at me and said “Well, I TOLD you I don’t like corn.”

*Pause. You know someone almost died.

BreakHabitsSo this is why I’m telling you my sad story. Because it’s not sad. Because it’s real life. Kids misbehave and talk back (and slam doors and break things…) That doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom. It means you’re a mom, and kids have to LEARN appropriate behaviors. The instincts that come natural are NOT the ones that are going to result in a productive citizen one day. That’s also true for us. The instincts that come natural to us aren’t the best either. None of the options I mentioned above will teach a child better behavior. Dad stepping only tells her that Mom couldn’t handle it. Dealing with it later never happens and isn’t effective if it does. Letting it go is the same as approving. Threatening punishment you never follow through with not only encourages him to repeat the behavior but assures him he can do worse because there aren’t consequences. Crying happens. And it’s ok, but it has to happen later. Right then, in the moment of disobedience, what your child needs most is YOU.

So you’ve got to do what moms do. You have to take a breath and give a little bit more than you thought you had in you. You have to speak calmly when you want to yell and move when you want to sit still.

And that’s what I had to do at the dinner table. That’s how you break habits without breaking hearts (yours or theirs).

Here’s what I did:
I took Brynna by the arm and walked her to the dining room. I did that for a few reasons. 1) She knew the offense was serious enough that I was not just going to respond. (The moment you enter a back-and-forth argument with a 5 year old, you’ve lost.) 2) I obviously didn’t need to separate her from her dad, but had this been in front of ANYONE else, I would have taken her to another room, so I followed protocol. (By anyone, I mean ANYONE. Grandparents, friends, siblings…no one needs to be a distraction or interject, nor does a child need to be embarrassed in front of others.) 3) I ensured that when we returned we could start over.

I bent down to talk to her face-to-face. Can you imagine being reprimanded by someone 3 feet taller than you? Not only does a kid deserve your attention on her level, but it also creates intimacy that’s lost when you stand over them. So I squat. Always.

I asked if she understood what she did wrong. I always start with this question and sometimes it takes us 3 minutes just to establish the offense. Kids aren’t dumb. They’ll say the first thing they think will make the discomfort stop. But if she doesn’t know what she did wrong, we’re wasting our time. So I corrected until we were on the same page. She was not in trouble for disliking corn. She was not in trouble for sharing her feelings. She was in trouble for disrespect and ungratefulness.

I asked if she had chosen appropriate behavior. By making her say “no,” we established that HER actions brought us to discipline, not mine.

I asked what would have been a better response. We always talk through what would have been better. You’re allowed to be mad, sad, frustrated or tired. You aren’t allowed for those feelings to lead to wrong behavior. So we discussed better options for next time.

I told her there would be a consequence. If they aren’t in full swing, this is when the waterworks always start. Strong-willed kids are always trying to determine if they are the smartest ones in the room. So if she’s still going along with the routine, she’s holding out hope that this is just a conversation not punishment.

I gave the consequence. I took away a toy and told her that while we had planned to swim after dinner, she would be going to bed early. (Cue waling and gnashing of teeth.) Every offense can’t be punishable by time-out or spanking. If that’s the only consequence, it will lose its effectiveness.

I held her while she cried. I want her to know I will always hold her when she needs to cry – whether she caused the pain or not.

I told her I love her. Because I do. And nothing she can ever do will change that.

When she had composed herself, we walked together back to the table. I didn’t leave her to pull her emotions together on her own, nor did I force her back to the table before she was able to behave appropriately.

Punishment should always, ALWAYS teach a lesson. That lesson needs to be correcting but also affirming. She did something wrong; she needs to understand what it was and how not to repeat it. But she also needs to know that even when she makes a mistake in the future, because she will, I will be here. I will love her.

I will help her break habits. I won’t break her heart.

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