Q: My oldest just turned 4. A switch seems to have been flipped on his birthday, and he no longer listens. If it were 1985, I'd probably spank him (or threaten to spank him), but that isn't what we do. What can I do? Sometimes it is a safety issue (staying close in parking lots), and sometimes it is just something that bugs me (dragging his toes while walking).
A: You are not alone in feeling lost when it comes to disciplining your child. For time eternal, parents disciplined their children as they saw fit. Spankings, beatings, whippings and much worse were par for the course not only for parents but also for any adults who had a child in their care. In many cultures, a swat on the bottom of a child who had stepped out of line was often enough. It served as a "no" with an exclamation point. The child would hear the "no" and feel the smack and remember to not touch the fire again. Behavioralism 101.
And although there may be some rationale to a dispassionate swat, what parents and caregivers didn't understand was what was happening to the child's brain, especially when the small spank turned into a beating or whipping. Accumulated fear and trauma change the way a child's brain works, and intuitive parents and wise community members knew this before neuroscience confirmed it. While still stern, intuitive parents have used consistent, loving and compassionate discipline as long as other parents have been spanking, and now the science is clearly on the side of not spanking. Spanking can lead to greater rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and to a cycle of more abuse throughout generations of families.
For many parents, it's in their blood to smack and spank. Maybe they were parented with violence. Maybe their parenting community is one that encourages corporal punishment. It is hard to know what to do when a major tool (spanking) leaves the toolbox. How does one handle a sassy 4-year-old?
Four-year-olds can be extraordinarily hard. They are emotional, willful, opinionated, narcissistic and living in the moment. And that's on a good day. Depending on the temperament of your son, he may be more reactive than others. He could also be more intense or more routine-oriented. Every child is an individual, but no one skips the developmental chaos of the preschool years. The brain (and body) growth is intense, wonderful and challenging and calls all parents to step up as their most mature selves.
Here are some simple ideas for when your 4-year-old doesn't listen:
— Know that you are being called to step up, not come down on him. It is tempting to show your son who's boss, but that will not lead to a better relationship. You need to know the difference between healthy boundaries and harsh discipline. Any positive-parenting book will help you with this, but I really like those by Rebecca Eanes and Laura Markham. These authors can give you some language that you can make your own while you parent your son.
— Become clear and unapologetic in your boundaries. It doesn't matter if your son isn't listening in the parking lot; he cannot run away. You can make it a game or as positive as you can, but the reality is that he has to stay with you, one way or another. When it comes to boundaries in your home, decide what you are really willing to go to the mat for. It is easy to find yourself in a chronic power struggle with a 4-year-old, so decide what really matters. And trust me on this: The fewer rules, the better. That doesn't mean you let everything go; it simply means that you should be saying six enthusiastic "yeses" for every "no." I know this may sound impossible, but when you practice starting sentences this way — "Yes, you can go to the park, and first we will pick up toys together!" — you will notice subtle and important shifts in your tone and connection.
— Understand that tantrums are his job and that staying loving and firm is yours. Accepting this stage as normal and not a sign of "being bad" isn't always easy, but it's worth it. Your son simply doesn't have enough maturity to manipulate you in the way that you think he is. Accepting that his behavior is a reflection of his growing independence also helps us ride out the ugly storms of this age with more kindness. To help you understand the neuroscience behind some of the behavior you are witnessing, I highly recommend Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's books, which provide practical tips that you can start using right away. I also love the classic developmental books by Louise Bates Ames. She wrote a small book for every age of child, and they are clear and helpful.
— Focus more on connecting with your son the worse his "no's" become. It sounds counterintuitive, but 4-year-olds need unconditional love no matter how frustrating their behavior is, and playing, laughing, being silly and simply enjoying your son is a balm for these hard times. Plan daily special time (or as often as you can) to help give this connection some structure. Search online for "special time," and the Internet will provide you with plenty of easy ideas.
— Finally, get away from your lovely son. Little kids can wear you out both physically and emotionally. You need to take care of yourself, even if it is five minutes a day. Please tap into anything that brings you joy, and make it a scheduled event in your day.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.