After those “terrible” twos, your child enters a period of rapid emotional and moral development. Between three and five, he rapidly transforms into an independent individual with his own thoughts, needs, and opinions. Right around the time of my daughter’s third birthday, I noticed that she began expressing opinions independent of mine. She had no fear in saying, “I don’t like you,” to a person, or in loudly expressing her dissatisfaction with her dinner.
Your preschooler’s budding independence can make her a hassle to discipline. On one hand, you need to encourage your preschooler’s new-found independence– up to and including her occasional tendencies toward malice. On the other hand, it’s your job to guide her toward solid moral development.
Your preschooler’s exact discipline needs are unique as his own fingerprint, and you alone know exactly how to handle his emerging big-kid behaviors. However, there are several basic discipline guidelines that facilitate positive discipline for most children of this age group.
1. Make consequences, not punishments.
In general, preschoolers respond best to logical consequences, not to arbitrary punishments. If your preschooler does something blatantly immoral or violent toward you– such as hitting or name-calling– your first reaction may be to scream or spank. But this form of punishment ultimately teaches your preschooler retaliation, not resolution. Instead, select a logical consequence. If your preschooler calls you “stupid,” say, “I don’t want to play with a child who says mean things to me.” Then put your child (or yourself) in time-out. The natural consequence of your child’s hurtful behavior is a loss of communication with his caregiver. To most children, this is far more effective than a fire-with-fire punishment.
2. Teach and communicate.
The word “discipline,” at its roots, means “teaching,” not “punishment.” In disciplining your preschooler, you work to teach her right from wrong. This may or may not necessarily involve punishment. Consistent, detailed communication is the cornerstone of positive discipline. Whenever your child does something hurtful or immoral, don’t take the easy way out by simply spanking her, putting her in time-out, or withholding a privilege. Instead, sit down and have an eye-to-eye discussion about why you disapprove of the behavior and how you felt when she engaged in it. If an additional consequence is necessary, it should take place within the context of a valid explanation.
3. Avoid violence.
Yes, it’s a challenge to control your temper when a preschooler is acting out of line. Every one of your instincts tells you to lash out with a swat on the thigh or a top-of-your-lungs yell. But this rarely accomplishes anything besides creating resentment and more anger in your child. While it is both acceptable and necessary to let your preschooler know when you are angry, it is never a good idea to physically or emotionally injure your child. A nonviolent response such as a time-out will give both you and your preschooler time to cool down.
4. Be genuine.
Nonviolent discipline doesn’t mean that you can never show your anger. Show your genuine emotions to your preschooler so that she understands the way her actions affect others. If she does something that seriously upsets you, cry. If she does something that absolutely infuriates you, announce, “I am very, very angry right now!” Your preschooler will learn morality and empathy more readily if she sees you express your own emotions. If you keep a completely even-keel tone and expression when your preschooler upsets you, she won’t fully recognize that her behavior is hurtful.
5. Validate your child’s emotions.
Your preschooler will lash out with bad behavior if she believes that no one understands her or empathizes with her. And, unless you consider her own needs and emotions when you discipline her, she is likely to resent and ignore your authority. When your preschooler colors on the walls, don’t just respond by confiscating the offending crayons. Instead, kneel beside her and explain, “I’m very angry that you colored on the walls.” Then ask, “Why did you color on the walls? Are you feeling bored? Did you do it because you’re angry about something? Did you forget that it’s against the rules?” Then, while making it clear that the behavior is unacceptable, work on a way to solve the underlying problem. Then work with your child to clean up the mess.
Related work by this contributor:
Exercises to Improve Self-Esteem in Children
Reality-Checking for Preschoolers
How to Talk to a Preschooler