Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Discipline Before the Age of Reason

I recently read an article by the Popchaks on Catholic Exchange encouraging parents to parent with a Catholic worldview of self-donative love. He challenged parents to decide if their parenting looked different from that of people of other faiths with different worldviews.  I'm not a theologian by any means but I do believe that the Catholic view of sin and forgiveness and free will is different from that of say Evangelical Protestants.  I have been mulling that thought over and over in the mind and I keep coming back to the idea of the age of reason. So, I'm going to run with it and post my thoughts on discipline and parenting before the age of reason.   These are just my thoughts and what works for us.  I can't say how anyone else should parent and I'm definitely not a parenting expert by any means.  The only experience I have is with my own kids and how I was raised and it is quite possible that my kids are all relatively easy and generally tend to be fairly obedient and highly motivated by a desire to please us and God. At least so far.   Even the child that I thought was the most strong-willed (my second) has calmed down a lot and is now generally a very happy and obedient child.

The Catholic Church teaches that children reach the age of reason around seven years of age.  What does this mean?  The age of reason or age of discretion is meant to be the age at which a person becomes morally responsible.   It is the age at which most Catholic children receive their first Confession and First Holy Communion.   Of course some children reach it earlier, some later and some individuals with severe special needs may not reach it at all, but most kids start to have more of an awareness of sin around that age. 

Most parents know what the means when it comes attendance at Mass (it becomes an obligation) and reception of the Sacraments. 

But what does it mean when it comes to discipline?  Does it mean anything?

How do we discipline with the idea of the age of reason in mind?  After all, if discipline is about teaching right from wrong and the church teaches that children aren't morally responsible until they reach the age of reason, shouldn't that affect our discipline? Should our discipline for older children look different than that for younger ones?

If our children don't reach the age of reason until about age 7, does this basically mean that they can't sin until about that age?  I believe it does. I don't believe that our Church would allow little children to live in sin without giving them the grace of the Sacrament of Confession.  This doesn't mean that we don't expect good behavior from our younger children and that we don't teach them right from wrong.  We certainly do, and we have an obligation to do so, but we also need to keep in mind that young children are not morally responsible for their actions.

I may call my one-year old bad for scribbling in library books...but she's not being bad..not really.  We homeschool for crying out loud, so she's just imitating what she sees everyone else doing (lots of writing and drawing).  

A three-year old who hits his baby sister is not morally responsible for his actions.  We still need to teach him it's wrong..but he's not really capable of sin yet, not really.

A four-year old who lies doesn't have a real understanding that it's wrong and sinful.   Not that we can just let the lie go without addressing it, but we need to realize that she doesn't have a firm grasp of lying and that it's wrong. 

A five-year old who won't stay in bed may drive us to drink, but they aren't doing it on purpose and aren't necessarily being bad.  They may be exasperating, but they aren't really sinning. 

So, what does this all mean for how we discipline young children?  

Many years ago when my oldest was only two years of age she went through a hitting and grabbing phase...at playgroup, at La Leche League meetings, anyplace we were around other toddlers.  I was mortified and humiliated.   I even avoided playgroup for a time.  And, I observed how the other moms handled hitting with their young toddlers (three and under).  Some spanked for it.  Some (most) used time-out.   Some would leave the playgroup as a consequence for hitting.  None of the those options really sat right with me.  I had already decided that I wasn't going to spank...just didn't feel right to me.  Time-out didn't seem to work with other kids...they kept right on hitting/grabbing toys and I wasn't sure that my 2-year old really had the comprehension for that.  In fact, she was diagnosed with global developmental delay as a child, so when she was two, in many ways, developmentally she was only about one (by about age 6 or so, she was all caught up developmentally).  And, leaving seemed like the worst option, because 1) it would be punishing ME more than her,  I actually attended playgroup more for ME (for the social interaction with other moms) and 2) I definitely didn't think she had the comprehension (remember she was delayed) to connect leaving with her previous action...especially since leaving always takes a few minutes (gathering up coats and diaper bags,  saying our good-bye's, etc.).

What I ended up doing was just keeping a close eye on her and quickly intervening if she grabbed toys or hit.   If the grabbed toys, I returned the toy to the previous holder of it and if she hit, I just gently grabbed her hand to prevent her from hitting and said "no hitting, be gentle"  So, while we taught her not to hit, we didn't really punish her for it. 

Eventually she got it and stopped hitting or grabbing toys.  In fact when she was a bit older (around 5 or 6) and I would tell people about how she used to hit, they were so surprised because she was always very sweet and happy and easy to get along with.  And she still is at age 11 (almost 12).  Not punishing her for hitting at age 2 did not turn into a violent, aggressive kid when she was older.  In fact, once she got past the hitting phase (by 3 1/2 which was more like 2 1/2 developmentally for her) she never really did it again. 

So how do we discipline young children?  Well in all things, we strive for gentleness and patience.  We fail on this every singe day and I still yell way too frequently but the goal is patience and gentleness while still teaching important lessons.  I try to avoid punishment of young children who don't know better.  By punishment I mean a parent imposed consequence that is totally unrelated to the "crime".  We do use logical consequences.  Our day has a natural rhythm and routine...for example every night before bed everyone is allowed to watch a show on Netflix.  However, before they can do that they need to clean the whole house...all toys and books picked up, floors swept/etc.  If it takes them too long to clean, they won't have time to watch or will have less time to watch before bed.  If they can't take care of an item or use it safely, it gets taken away.   If they can't get along with their siblings, they get separated.   If they don't pick up their toys or books, they can't do the next thing, whatever that thing may be reading stories or watching a show or eating a snack or going outside.

We also make use of routines and doing something the same way EVERY single time, and that seems to make a big difference.  For example, they get immediately buckled into their carseat as soon as we get into the car.  And, we NEVER buy anything in the store just because they ask for it, so they learn just not to ask.  They don't fight getting dressed because they are always dressed...we don't let them run around naked. It just makes things easier, if they are used to always wearing clothes, they don't fight wearing clothes. 

For the most part our young kids listen to verbal direction very well...and if they don't, we will make them do what we ask.  Not make as in punish or coerce them into doing it, but make as in physically make them do it.  As I was writing this, I saw our little 15-month old start to climb on a crate of books underneath the bookshelf across the room.  I said to her "No, no baby, no climbing the books, get down,"   And, she paused, she looked at me....I looked at her.  We had about a 30 second stare-off before she got down and ran over to me.   And, that was it.  If she hadn't gotten down, then I would have gotten up and physically lifted her down (making her get down), and told her again "no climbing the books" and that would have been it.    Because when kids are little, you can do that.   If they run in the street, they get physically picked up and taken out of the street and told "no."  If they fight getting into the car seat, well they get wrangled into it anyway.  If they resist leaving the park, they get picked up and gently carried out anyway.  If they throw food on the ground, they get told "no throwing food, give it to me " and I give them a plate to put the unwanted food on.   No further punishment needed.   Believe it or not, this works and they learn what is expected of them. When they're little, you can do that and by the time they are too big for that, they are old enough to listen to reason or logic and don't do those behaviors any more. It is all about teaching them what we expect of them while still realizing that they don't yet have the cognitive abilities to be morally responsible for their actions.

If our young children temper tantrum, we hold and comfort them through it.  After all, I have a hard enough time controlling my temper sometimes (which is why I yell way too much), so it's seems rather unreasonable to expect a 3-year old to have perfect control of her emotions, when I'm in my mid-30's and still don't.   In my experience with my kids, separating them when they scream and cry (into "time-out") just makes them scream and cry louder, while holding and them and comforting them through the tantrum ends it much quicker.

If a 4-year old gets out of bed or refuses to stay in bed,  we lie down with or stay with them for a few minutes to help them relax and fall asleep.  Because sometimes it's hard to fall asleep alone and sometimes they're scared of the dark and that's okay when they're four, because you know what....they outgrow it.  And, it actually takes less time (usually less than 15 minutes) to just lie with a young child and help them fall asleep than it does to repeatedly put them back into their room.  Plus, by three and four all my kids were done napping, so by nighttime they were TIRED and fell asleep within minutes.

We also try to look for other causes of misbehavior (tiredness, hunger, loneliness, not getting enough attention) and address those.  My 5-year old son has a tendency to act out sometimes when he is feeling neglected.  I know this.  He unfortunately tends to get lost in the shuffle, because I give the toddler a lot of attention and time (because she needs it).  I give the older girls more attention and time, because we are homeschooling and well...sixth grade trumps kindergarten when it comes doing work.  So, usually taking the time to do school with him and read him a story makes a big difference in his behavior and he does less "pestering, attention-seeking" behavior after that.  Building that connection seems to be key and in some ways it mimics what the church does in Confession.  When I go to Confession, 100% of the time, the penance involves prayer...it is meant to bring me back to God. I can't remember ever actually being given a real "punishment" in Confession...just lots of prayers and occasionally good deeds that are meant to bring me closer to God and to others.  So, we try to discipline and parent always striving to build that connection and repair any broken connections.

This is how we do things (or at least strive to do things...we fail, frequently).  I'm not saying it's the ONLY way to do things or even necessarily the RIGHT way to do things, but it is the way that feels most right to us and is part of our general parenting practices (co-sleeping, breastfeeding into the toddler years, not doing "cry-it out").  I'm not sure if those parenting practices make it "easier", but it is "easier" for me, because it comes most naturally to me.

{Linking up with Mama Moments Monday (on Tuesday)}

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  1. Amelia, bless you. This is pretty much exactly our model of parenting (on a good day). I was toying with the idea of a post like this (maybe someday soon) but in the meantime, thank you for the breath of fresh air.

    Sin is the deciding factor in our parenting philosophy. God made children the way they are developmentally for a reason. While 2 year olds may not be my favorite, I have to believe that God has a bigger picture of what he/she needs at that age, and trying to force the two-ness out of him/her just doesn't seem to be it. Meeting the needs of any age child (hunger, sleep, compassion, empathy) almost invariably changes the dynamic for the better.

    Phewsh, I could go on and on, but instead I'm just going to say thank you for writing this!

    1. Ha! Unrelated, but did you know the ad at the bottom of your page is for Mormon.org! Is there something you want to tell us? Wink wink.

    2. LOL....guess I need to figure out filters!

  2. Thank you for commenting on my blog. I am not Catholic, though I do have many Catholic friends, but I love reading the perspective of people from different faiths, beliefs, or denominations than our family practices. It's a very interesting post and has some good information no matter your beliefs.

  3. I love this post Amelia. Even though our parenting philosophy does differ in points, I really think we're both meaning what we say, and in our house THAT has been the thing that makes all the difference. And I love your focus on the age of reason. I feel like before then we're just trying to "train" our kids to do or not do things, but after the age of reason they are able to understand and make judgements for themselves.

  4. I love this soooo much. Wish someone had given me this advice or example years ago.

  5. We do a lot of the same things, even though we have a few different methods. Our oldest is only 3 now, but I definitely view this period as "training." How do things change once they do reach the age of reason?

    1. Well the main difference once they are older is that they have the ability to reason and logic and understand sin and I think they are able to be more "responsible" for their actions. Plus they can go to Confession (once they make their first Confression) and we make a point of trying to go (as a family) once a month because I do believe that the habit of frequent confession is one of the most important habits we can teach our children.

  6. Great post! My 18 year old son was a hitter and hair puller at 2, once at storytime, a mom commented that he was really high maintenance and I had my hands full. We didn't spank and rarely used timeout. We mostly talked incessantly about it whenever we were going to be around other kids. "You're going to be nice to your friends, you're going to be gentle..." Within a year his sister was born, and we moved to a new place (the same area we still live in). By the time he was three I'd heard from more than one mom that I was so "lucky" that he was so "easy"! To this day I still get a lot of comments like that!

  7. Any suggestions about how to get a teen to get up using gentle methods? My son's sleep cycle is very out of whack. He is like a log. Also, what do you do about older children's tantrums? My eight yearn old gets disappointed or frustrated and then goes into a tantrum. I usually just wait it out. Sometimes I go in my room and lock the door. He can go on for 30-45 minutes. It is definitely connected to my relationship with hm so sometimes I get in the car and drive for ten minutes while he stays home with his dad.

    1. Well, I don't have any teens yet, abnd even my preteen is an early riser so I've never dealt with teens not getting up, but I think I would just put the ball into their courrt. Give them an alarm clock and make them in charge of getting themself up, and if they don't they have to suffer the consequences (ie. late for school or if homeschooled not finishing their work early, or missing activites or whatever).

      As far as older kids tantrums go...well honestly I don't think I"ve ever really dealt with that, so it's hard to say what I would do. I have had older kids cry over things...but I wouldn't really call it tantrum. Depending on the situation, we might leave them alone to work it out themselves in their room, or (usually) we go in and talk to the, give them a hug and try to find out the "real" reason for the crying and emphasize with them. But, again I wouldn't really call it tantrum... That sounds really difficult to deal with. I think I might also try giving him some "tools" to deal with his anger. Maybe when he is calm, talk about some strategies he can do when he is angry instead of screaming/crying...things he can do calm himself down, I've heard of some parents giving kids a pillow to punch or teaching them to run around outside really hard to work off the anger/rage. MIght we worth a try? Anyway, I hope this at least soemwhat helpfu. I don't really have any experience with either of those two situations, but those are the first ideas that come to mind.


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