As a child therapist, it has not been uncommon for me to find adults who are extremely frustrated with their continuous, seemingly pointless efforts to discipline children. I have had parents in my office who have literally wept because they have become exhausted from constantly saying, “No,” “Stop it,” and “Don't touch that.” It always fascinates me to see the look on their faces when I say that there is a simple technique that, if done correctly, can allow you to stop feeling this way.
“Steven the Barbarian”
I will never forget the first day I met Steven. I had just started a new job working in a local clinic for children with severe behavioral problems. As Steven approached me for the first time, I remember thinking how sweet and innocent he looked. Then, without any warning, precious little Steven hit me dead center, right below the belt. This vicious attack marked the beginning of several long months of personal torture. However, during this time, I saw the other staff members doing something to Steven that caused him to go from a “barbarian” to a well behaved child.
The very thing that was done to Steven is now what I tell frustrated adults to do with their children. I like to call this discipline system: the Steps Technique. Steps are ideal for children, ages 3-13, and works best during times when your child deliberately displays behaviors which are inappropriate. Furthermore, Steps are great for those everyday situations in which your children start nagging or harassing you, or when you have to continually remind them to do something you've requested.
The steps technique involves 4 simple stages and begins with the adult asking the child to please enter into the first step.
Step One: In this step, the child must sit on the floor with his or her arms and legs crossed. He or she is not to talk with anyone or play with anything. The child needs to remain in step one for about one minute for each year of life (for example, three minutes for three-year-olds). However, if he or she cannot sit in step one correctly, stop the timer and put the child into next stage.
Step Two: Here, the child remains seated on the floor like in step one but faces the wall. The same rules for step one apply in each stage. If the child behaves correctly in this step, then he or she is returned to step one to finish out the remaining time. However, if the child cannot sit correctly in this step, he or she is then moved into the third step.
Step Three: This step is actually a “time-out.” Place your child in a boring place, typically a place where he or she cannot do anything other than to think about why he or she is in steps. Again, the same rules and amount of time apply. When the child behaves correctly in “time-out”, he or she is placed back into step one to finish out the remaining time.
Step four: If your child refuses to behave in “time-out,” then step four can be things like spanking, grounding, or certain privileges taken away. Basically, it's whatever you both personally agree is most appropriate for your children.
Why is the Steps Program so Important?
Helping parents establish their own steps program, I have seen several valuable reasons for its importance. First, the steps allow you to clearly label your child's poor behavior as unacceptable so that he or she understands exactly what is being corrected. Secondly, the steps involve no yelling or hitting, and requires time apart. This allows both the adult and the child time to calm down so that the situation does not escalate. Finally, it provides the child with a consistent form of discipline. Consistency is essential for teaching children the difference between right and wrong. Children usually learn to distrust inconsistent threats of punishment, causing them to test your discipline at every opportunity.
Balancing the Hard and Soft Sides of Love
In addition to the above mentioned reasons, I believe that the most important purpose for the steps is so that parents can balance the hard and soft sides of love. Dr. John Trent, in the Two Sides of Love, notes that it is crucial that parents learn to balance hard and soft sides of love every day if they want to communicate the deepest, most meaningful kind of love to their children. Like a rose that has beautiful, soft petals (softside) and sharp, strong thorns (hardside), the love for your children needs to have both. The softside love expresses qualities like compassion, sensitivity, patience, and understanding. Whereas the hardside of love is doing what's best for your children. It is the ability to be consistent, to correct, and to discipline, regardless of the cost.
If you want to love your children in a Christlike way, your love must contain both hard and soft sides. Remember that Jesus was always soft with people, yet hard on their problems. Likewise, the steps technique contains both a hard and a soft side. The hardside is when you have to put your children in the actual steps. After the time is up, do not allow your child to leave until you process the experience with him or her. This is when the softside takes place. As a parent, you can use this time to praise and console your child. Give your child as much affirmation as you can. Talk about what he or she did wrong, but reinforce and focus on the positives.
What to Expect During the First Two Weeks
If your child follows the typical pattern of most children, expect that they will test you the first week or so, especially if you have been inconsistent in the past. Your child may become quite angry and vocal, or may cry because his or her feelings have been hurt. If this type of behavior does not decrease by the third week, then it might be time to seek professional help.
Do not get discouraged, you are not harming your children. Instead, you are helping to teach them self-control, respect, and the ability to follow rules. Try to remember King Solomon's wise advice to parents, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15).
Smalley, Gary T., & Trent, John.The Two Sides of Love. Pomona, CA: Focus on the Family, 1990.
Swindoll, Charles, R. Growing Wise in the Family Life. Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1988.
Varni, James W., & Corwin, Donna G. Time-Out For Toddlers. New York: Berkley Books, 1991.