Matching parenting strategies to a child’s cognitive development is a key part in effective parenting. As a society we have already moved away from parenting tactics that relied on power-and-control, which achieve short-term dominance at considerable long-term harm to the child’s emotional development and to the parent-child bond. What we are replacing these with is a better balance of structure and nurture, with an eye toward helping a child learn to solve the challenges they encounter, adjust to appropriate limits to their growing sense of agency, and improve their psycho-social skills in an age-appropriate manner.
Here are four effective parenting strategies that I frequently introduce to my clients. Depending upon your child’s age and the issues at hand, you may find them helpful:
- Distraction and Redirection (first three to four years of life):
If your child’s hands are in the food or they are holding a permanent marker, for example, try shifting their focus to something preferable such as a toy. The brain’s cognitive development in early childhood is primarily experiential, focused on the attainment of needs and guided by their emotions. As much as they appear to grasp logic and the idea of good and bad, they are really just copying us — to attempt to get what they need — without any deeper understanding.
In years two and three, in particular, anticipate that a child will test their ability to manipulate their environment; set firm, easy to follow limits and directions. Give more information, shift focus, help with emotions, and model good behavior; your child is watching everything you do.
And do not spank, research confirms it leads to more aggressive behavior later.
- Time-Outs (introduce between age three and five year of life):
A time-out is simply a strategy for calming down when over-excited or frustrated.
Here is how an effective time-out can be introduced: calmly suggest that this would be a good time to put the (game/problem) down, then ask your child where they would like to go to calm down.
Be willing to be playful and positive. “I can see that we’re getting pretty excited with this game. Let’s take a short jello break (where the child becomes, like the jello, loose and wiggly).”
A general recommendation for the time-out’s duration is one minute for each year of life (yes, that means parents need 30 to 45 minutes!) but be flexible. Five to ten minutes is usually more than sufficient.
In later childhood, time-outs learned in these early years will naturally transform into more conscious self-control. Praise a child who recognizes how to take a break or speak up when things get too intense or emotional. Your child will internalize this positive reinforcement, helping them attain even greater emotional maturity.
The time-out is a popular parenting strategy but one that is often incorrectly applied; time-outs are not intended to be punishment. Do not say Ægo to your room!” or shame or scold your child. If you need to address and change a child’s choice of behaviors, take the time to have a sit-down conversation. It is slower, but in the long run more effective.
- Grandma’s Rule (for ages five and up):
Between four and five years of age, a child’s verbal storytelling ability will expand beyond narrative ‘chunks’ to telling stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This signals a cognitive capacity to learn self-discipline through delayed need gratification.
Still, it is not easy at first to resist the urge to play. Two simple words, “When… then…” can help end an impasse when a child is avoiding a responsibility like homework or an agreed-upon chore.
First, calmly step in to stop what they are doing and get their attention.
Next, remind them “Remember, when… (eg. you have put your dishes away, finished your homework, etc.), then…(you can play your game, go outside, etc.).”
For this to be effective, make sure that the pleasure they derive from the second part (then…) is greater than the weight of the chore or homework (when…). For younger children, therefore, it may be necessary to break homework down to smaller time periods and offer play breaks more frequently.
- Consequences (for ages six and up, particularly valuable with teenagers):
The use of natural (allowing events to follow actions naturally) and logical consequences (what is required to solve problems that the child has created) is the singular most important way children learn and become more responsible. You can introduce logical consequences by asking the child what they think they need to do to fix the problem. With younger children, offer several suggestions and allow them to choose.
Children at any age can learn from peers who don’t like their aggressive behavior and distance from them socially. As much as it might pain us to see this happening, our role in helping them understand that natural consequence is very important. And introducing the logical consequence as an invitation to solve the problem they have created — by apologizing and promising not to repeat the behavior, for instance — can also be empowering.
Remember to always offer encouragement along with consequences; with adolescents, for instance, we can affirm that while we might not always agree with their choices, we have confidence in them to make the right choices for themselves as long as they take responsibility for fixing the problems their mistakes might generate.
And, of course we do not let children experience consequences that might be life threatening or morally threatening.
The use of consequences is a topic that we could discuss at length. Here are two good books that I can suggest to help you with this particular strategy:
Children: the Challenge, by Rudolph Dreikurs — for parenting children
How to Deal with Your Acting Up Teenager, by Robert and Jean Bayard — concerning adolescents
I hope you find these strategies helpful. And with any parenting strategy keep in mind three principles: Be generous with understanding and encouragement. Self-esteem is a cornerstone of child development. Second, unless the situation is life-threatening or morally-threatening, don’t rescue. Respect your child’s ability to learn and grow from mistakes. No person learns to walk without falling down first. Finally, it’s okay to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Simply apologize and start over. Not only are you modeling honesty, but it helps avoid unnecessary power struggles.