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Do I Have to Be a (Bad) Dad Just Like Mine?


Mark never thought he had anything in common with his dad - until his son was a toddler. Then he found himself saying the same things he’d heard his dad say to him: “I’m sorry I have to spank you. This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you!”

Where did that line come from? Mark asked himself in disbelief. He was a nonviolent man. He wouldn’t even kill a spider.

The learned behavior of discipline

Mark learned that if we parent on automatic pilot, we tend to repeat whatever form of discipline, or lack of it, that we experienced as children. To break that cycle, we have to make a conscious choice to change how we react to our children’s behavior. You can help yourself make that conscious choice by asking yourself these questions: Was your dad the easy parent who would let you get away with anything (a permissive parent)? Did your dad rely on punishment, including yelling and spanking, when you didn't give him what he wanted (an authoritarian parent)? Do you want to adopt one of these styles, or do you want to explore other options?

Making decisions about the style of discipline you want to use not only sets the direction for the way you and your child resolve problems, but it also helps you understand your own values and what you want your child to learn from you about decision-making and personal responsibility. By considering the consequences to your child of each style (as well as how each fits your own values), you can decide what works for you and your family.

Why your dad’s way might not have been the best way

Current research shows that strict parenting teaches children to blindly obey and fails to give them experience in the decision-making skills so important in today's world. Children who are controlled with punishment learn that if the punisher isn't around, they can do anything they like. If spanking is a part of the punishment package, then they learn that the spanking parent can inflict pain (and the fear of it) because he is bigger and stronger - and that people inflict pain not just for misbehavior, but also when they are displeased with the way someone acted. When kids see that it’s permissible for adults to hit children, they assume that it must be permissible for children to hit adults and other children.

On the other hand, children who are allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, fail to develop a strong inner sense of discipline. This type of permissive parenting, in which no rules or problem-solving skills are taught, results in children who also lack a feeling of connection to their family and an ability to make appropriate choices for themselves. What’s more, they can become highly anxious, because the adults around them tend to explode sporadically when the kids get out of control. The children aren't ever sure what causes these adult explosions; they just learn to expect them to come without warning.

Discipline that fits your child

So what's a dad to do? There's a middle ground between punishment and permissiveness in which children are taught the behaviors that are in their best interest as they grow and develop, and on a level they can understand. This means you need to think about how your toddler views her world and what her priorities are.

A child's early years are all about physical, emotional and intellectual learning. Toddlers are intensely curious, inventive, eager and independent, and at the same time can be obstinate, inhibited and clinging. As you respond to your child, try to honor her developmental stage.

As the father of a toddler, you can help her learn what you want her to learn by being observant, patient and consistent. You need to catch your child “being good” and praise the good behavior more than criticizing her - she’ll respond to the positive. You must be able to wait patiently as your toddler completes what she wanted to do before she starts doing what you asked.

The behaviors you teach must be within your toddler's ability. Just as you couldn't expect your infant to walk and talk before she was ready, you can't expect your toddler to share, wait patiently, take turns and give in when he doesn’t get his way. You’ll need to be tolerant of your child's inborn temperament, too. For example, some children are naturally more intense or distractible than others; you may need to teach them special coping strategies that you can learn by consulting professionals or other resources.

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