prevention is more effective than punishment

While doing some research online I came across this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:

When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?

I think there's some wisdom in this for parents. It's not uncommon for us to notice the telltale signs that our child is about to act out -- the arm slowly rising, the fist clenching, the tight-lipped frown or furrowed brow, the verbal and manual attempts to clear a space around himself that often precede a bite -- and yet instead of stepping in to help by restraining him from committing the injurious behavior, we expect the child to stop himself upon our request or reminder.

And when he almost inevitably fails to do so, we search for just the right consequence to teach him the lesson that We don't hurt each other.

What many parents don't realize is that when a child is in overwhelm - tired, hungry, overstimulated, frustrated, etc - his brain typically does not do a good job of inhibiting his body from acting on impulse. He needs our adult brains and bodies to take the burden of self-control off of his immature nervous system by stepping in to prevent him from doing harm.

We won't have to intervene physically forever. Our children mature with each passing day, and their brains become more skilled at inhibition. As we provide external restraint, we help to wire in the internal restraint that will serve them well someday. But it takes a LOT longer than we think/wish/hope for this wiring to become consistent and reliable.

Some studies suggest that our children will need us to be an external source of preventative intervention well into their teen years, especially when they are under emotional strain. Teens who can think fairly rationally and restrain their impulses under the best of conditions can still come unglued under duress.

For example, new teen drivers in my state cannot carry teenage passengers for six months after acquiring their driver's license, and then only one passenger at a time for another six months. We try to minimize distractions to set them up for success.

The younger the child, the more often we will probably need to step in to prevent him or her from doing harm. Of course sometimes its fine to let kids learn from experience -- i.e. when they forget their gloves their hands get cold -- but we don't do them any favors when we let them inflict harm to themselves, us, or others.

So we stay close when our toddlers are playing together; near enough to step in when we see the signs of impending aggression. We gently catch the hand that is poised to smack a playmate, and we say lightly and warmly, "I gotcha. I am here. I will help keep everyone safe." We read the aggression as a sign that something needs to change in the situation - it's time to end the playdate or blow bubbles or have a snack.

It is much more effective and educational to prevent a child from doing harm than to punish or impose a consequence after the fact.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit www.karenalonge.com

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