What method of discipline really works?

I have toddler twin boys. They are always hitting each other and their older brother, who is four. We have tried to sit down and talk to them about not hitting and using their words instead when they get mad at each other. We have used time outs and we have even tried spanking them. Is there a method of discipline that really works?

Question:

With three children, five and under, it can be exasperating for parents -- and exhausting for kids -- to have deal with all of the conflicts that typically arise in a day. Your children are still in the stage where it is far easier for them to see their own perspective than it is to see that of another person. While your boys are getting closer to the age when they can be expected to use words more than their fists, they have not arrived there yet.

You have mentioned several forms of discipline you have tried. We will look at each one and then offer suggestions for helping your children as they grow into socially capable people.

  • Spanking. While most parents have experienced the urge to spank children, and many have resorted to spanking their kids, there are problems with this form of discipline. Spanking may give children a clear message about the unacceptability of their behavior and sometimes stops the behavior in the short run. However, in the long run, it teaches children that it is all right to hit, and that it is all right to be hit. Even children are confused by the irony of the statement, "This spanking will teach you not to hit your brother."
  • Time-outs. Giving children a short time-out can give them the chance to reflect on their behavior, and also a clear message that a certain behavior won't be allowed. This can be an effective method of teaching. Time-outs can also give an angry, frustrated parent a chance to calm down and respond more rationally. It is suggested that a child be given a time out equal in minutes to her age (a four-minute time out for a four-year-old child). It is not recommended to use time-outs with children under the age of three.

    The problem with time-outs is that they take a child away from a valuable learning experience. A child who hits another child can begin to learn empathy from watching the other's child's response to being hurt, and if he stays around, he may also be able to participate in helping the other child feel better.

  • Talking with children. Talking with children offers rich opportunities for learning alternatives to hitting. It is often necessary to give children some specific suggestions about what they can say when they have strong feelings. Sometimes the suggestion, "Use your words," doesn't give children enough of an idea of what they could say. Here are some suggestions for how to begin:
    • Listen to children's feelings. Many times children who are hurting each other are feeling hurt themselves. If you can acknowledge their hurt, they are often more able to be gentle with their siblings. "It looks like you were really frustrated that Jeffy took your truck. I saw that you were busy playing with it."
    • Give children information about what happens when they hit people. Children don't immediately know that hitting hurts other people. If you show your child (without scolding) the other child's hurt, he can begin to learn something about empathy. "I want you to look at Jeffy. He's crying because it hurts when he gets hit." (If you do this in a scolding or punitive way, your child will focus on your anger, rather than on the feelings of the other child.)
    • Offer safe, alternative ways to express those feelings and communicate their ideas. "You can tell Jeffy that you still want your truck. You can tell him, 'I don't like it when you take my truck.'"
    • Help children come up with alternative solutions. What children usually want when they take toys from each other is a chance to play together. If you can offer them suggestions for other ways to play together, they may be able to let their conflict go. "It looks like Jeffy wants to play trucks with you. Can you find him a truck he could use?" Or, "Jeffy looks really interested in what you are doing with your truck. Could he help you make a road for the truck?"
  • Set limits and follow through. It is important that children know that hitting is unacceptable. If your child is unable to stop himself from hitting his brothers after you have offered alternative ways for him to express his feelings and communicate his ideas, you can offer him a final choice. "Can you be safe with Jeffy or shall I help you move to the other room to play away from Jeffy until you can be safe with him?"
  • Remember that it takes time, repetition and modeling. Children don't learn communication and problem-solving skills quickly. It takes time and repetition in many different circumstances before they really get it. If you stay focused on teaching your children these skills and gently model the ways you want them to interact, slowly they will begin to acquire the skills.
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