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Discipline For Small Children

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Sometimes Things Don't Work the Same for "Beyonders."



We are not exactly elderly, but then, no one says, “I am elderly.”  We say, “I am  older.” As in, “I am an older foster parent. Older than what?  Older than the twenty-something parents of pre-school age kids. You see, we normally foster teens. We are well equipped to do that, having raised teens of our own. Okay, we once had preschoolers as well but that was a long time ago…before we were older.

Why are we well equipped to foster teens? Well, for one thing, we’re stuck in that mode. We raised our own family and when our youngest biological daughter married ( at nineteen) we took in another youngster, also a teen. We became foster parents and most of our children have been teens. We adopted three more children, only one of whom was not a teen, but he is an exception. We know the excuses, we foresee the ploys, we know what gets to teens the most in discipline. But little kids don’t live on our planet.

So, recently when  ( in a state of absolute insanity) we took four and five year old siblings, I went online to do some research. I found some really good sites, and garnered some valuable information. But I DO have a few issues with some of the suggestions.

The first site I visited was  “101 Positive Discipline Techniques” by Elizabeth O. Cooper, which is a promotional site giving a few of the ideas and hoping fervently that once you see the wisdom in her teachings you will buy her book. Still, there are some good points made in the information on the website.



Ms. Cooper states that spanking is a short-term fix that, in the end ( get it? In the end?) is an antithesis to what we are trying to accomplish. It usually stops what is going on but it teaches the child to be sneaky or makes him want to retaliate. I spanked my own kids, but the world they .lived in was different than the place most foster kids come from. They knew they were loved, they felt valued and the spankings never injured anything but their pride. Kids who wind up in the system have figured out that there are lots of things more important to their families than them: alcohol, drugs, money, sex, or maybe just the fact that their parents are still children themselves and most children are inherently selfish. I can understand that spanking is not what these kids need.


But, here is the scenario: you ( an older parent/ foster parent) are attending an awards ceremony for an older child and you have brought the children. They may not be cared for by anyone (other than another family member) who is not licensed for foster care or day care. The kids refuse to be quiet, they wiggle away from you and squirm down the seat row over the feet of other attendees, they hit and spit. What to do? What to do?

Obviously, the first option is to remove them from the room ( which is what they wanted to begin with  and disappoints the child who is getting the award. )Removing them also does not teach the premise that there are places where you must be quiet and at least confine your movements to your own seat. BUT it does offer some respite to the other parents who hope to catch a glimpse of their children ( over the bobbing head of the four year old) getting their awards.

Ms. Cooper offers the “When…Then/ Abuse it, Lose it” option. When you are quiet, I will consider taking you out after this program for ice cream. This doesn’t work on kids who have no concept of deferred compensation. It also isn’t a good choice if you have no plan of honoring it. (I am an OLDER foster parent. When this is over I am going home to my recliner.) But I have used it on my teens. ( Can I go shoot hoops with Max?  Certainly, as soon as your room is clean and your homework is done.)  The other part…the abuse it lose it, also works on teens. (If you don’t come in by your new, later curfew we will have to revert to the old one of five minutes past the last bite of dessert.) Still the younger child may be reached this way. ( If you throw that

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new battery operated toy down the stairs one more time, I am putting it in time out for the rest of the day.)  This, according to the website, teaches the child to be accountable, responsible and obedient.  It’s possible, but in my experience it also gives them incentive to think up another way to destroy the $30 toy.

Another option offered us is one called “Incompatible Alternative Principle” which means offering the child an alternative behavior that he cannot do while misbehaving. This is a method which does work effectively on little children. “Why don’t we try to count the kids who are on the stage right now, but let’s do it VERY quietly. “  or “Here is a paper and pen. Why don’t you draw a picture of the people on the stage?” Remembering my own experience with this method, let me add that this only works for a short time. Be prepared ahead of time with PLENTY of options.


The “Make a Big Deal Principle” in which we really go overboard congratulating them on correct behavior works on all ages. It is especially important to make eye contact with the child and let him respond to you so that he knows you “see” him. This option suggests ignoring inappropriate behavior to the point of looking away from the child when he misbehaves. This is NOT a popular method in public. And, the website does say that if the behavior is dangerous or destructive we have to intervene in the least reinforcing way possible. Many foster kids want attention, no matter what kind it is, and even punishment is gratifying. The problem with implementing this particular intervention at the awards ceremony is that we older foster parents who are prone to lecture ( Come on, admit it. YOUR lectures are probably memorable) soon become the problem to the people in the next seat and not the on-again-off-again antics of the child.  

Another method mentioned is the “Talk About Them Positively To Others” option. I use this one a .lot. It works best if the child is present when you are “bragging him up” to others, but do it enough and it will get back to him.


“Take a Break” or “Time Out” is a method used by most people. (Why don’t you sit here andthink about what you could have done differently?”) This does NOT work with small children who have no idea what they might have done differently unless you tell them, and then it will probably not be retained longer than the time it takes for you to draw in that deep smug breath of satisfaction at your wisdom. What time out DOES DO for small children is break the cycle of their behavior.

One of the most important suggestions on the website, in my opinion is the “Pay Attention” principle.  Keep your eyes open to what is going on around you and anticipate what might happen with the child. Remove the child from the situation, if necessary, and give him options. THIS one works in the ceremony scenario.  You notice that a particularly long-winded coach is about to take the podium, you notice that the five-year-old has taken off his shoe and is poised to chuck it at the man in front of you who is trying to videotape the entire program. IMMEDIATELY you lean down to the child and whisper “You have two choices here. Either put that shoe back on your foot and be quiet, or we can go out to the car, where I will buckle you into  your car seat and the car will be dark, and the BOOGEYMAN who lives in the back of the car  will eat your foot off so you don’t need the shoe.”

You gasp at the inappropriate nature of my suggestion? Hey, I’m an older foster parent and it worked for MY kids.


(Just kidding, but if someone has creative ideas about discipline of small children which do not infringe on DSS guidelines,  give me a shout either through the guestbook here, or at my Facebook page  “It Takes One To Know One.”)




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