An image of a 4-year-old boy holding a sign confessing that he hits little girls was recently shown on the news. This was orchestrated by his father, no doubt frustrated and trying to punish and teach his son. Putting aside that a more effective message would be to not hit people, not just girls, the question here is whether this is an effective and appropriate method of teaching, and if so, what lessons are being taught.
First, the goal of discipline is to instruct, and the lessons it teaches should be the ones you intend. When humiliation, anger and fear are part of the discipline equation, unintended lessons are likely being taught. In addition, it is unclear whether a 4-year-old can fully grasp the concept of humiliation. Also, negative attention is sometimes better than no attention, so it may actually reinforce the behavior it intends to eliminate.
One of the most critical aspects of parenting is the appropriateness of expectations. When expectations are unrealistic to the age, capabilities and maturity of your child, it leads to painful feelings of frustration, disappointment and inadequacy, not to mention detrimental effects on the parent-child relationship.
The brains of 4-year-olds have not yet developed enough to make them capable of the kind of mood regulation and impulse control needed to master such behavior as not hitting, especially without close supervision and guidance. Therefore, patient guidance, supervision and teaching help shape their thinking and behavior as their brain develops. This eventually gets internalized and they can do it on their own successfully.
The parent’s message needs to be presented in a way the child can understand. This means it needs to not only be delivered in a way that is age and developmentally appropriate, but also in a manner that does not damage them, distort the message or prevent them from absorbing the information. When you trigger the primitive survival brain, which fear, humiliation and anger will instantly do, you have likely created an emotional state in your child in which they are not able to hear, and therefore absorb, what you are trying to teach them. Connection, understanding and empathy are the best conduits to creating a receptive child.
Children watch and absorb how their parents react to things and express their feelings. It is likely that when you intentionally humiliate or otherwise hurt your child, the behavior you are modeling is what your child will learn, not the message you intend to convey. In this case, they learn what you consider to be appropriate responses to anger, frustration or disappointment. You are teaching them the circumstances in which they can justify deliberately expressing their feelings in a way that is disrespectful and hurtful.
Young children’s behavior is their best way of communicating their feelings until they have the development to talk about and regulate their emotions. When parents are punitive, they are missing the feelings their children are expressing and the opportunity to help them develop ways to express these feelings more appropriately.
The term “teachable moment” comes to mind. When children act out it is just that, and it’s a great opportunity to guide your child. In missing that opportunity, you slow their growth at best, and, at worst, you may teach them it’s not safe to share difficult or unpleasant feelings.
Michelle Topal, MSW, LCSW, is the owner of and a therapist at Change for Living Counseling in Raleigh.