Imagine following a strange sound across your house only to discover your 4 year-old has tossed one of your books into the washing machine. There it is, soaking wet, banging against the drum – ruined! You are shocked and upset. What were they thinking?
As far as you can tell, she was just curious about the washing machine. But, it also crosses your mind that she may have plunged the book to its death in retaliation to an early tiff you had. The trouble is… you’re not really sure.
What is a parent to do when they don’t know if it is an accident or a stunt that requires disciplinary action? It would feel wrong to punish a child for an innocent mistake wouldn't it?
The parenting paradigm that I teach is based on Adlerian Psychology. It argues against the use of punishments, which rely on fear to control a child’s behavior Instead, the “democratic”, “ backbone” or “authoritarian” approach as it is some times referred to, focuses on an education approach to discipline. In fact that is the root word “disciple” which means “to teach”. Discipline without punishments is about educating the child about how life works, their freedom to make choices for themselves in society, but also (and equally important) holding them responsible for the choices they do make.
Whether the book was thrown in the washer as an accident, an experiment or a ploy to upset mom, the child is still accountable for their actions and needs to learn about the outcomes from making that particular choice.
Share with the child that even when accidents happen, things need to be replaced. You can explain that from your perspective, you didn’t leave your book in the wrong place or anything, but now you have no book and it needs to be replaced. Ask if she has any ideas. How can this situation be rectified? Who does she think should pay for the new book?
Be sure to ask with true curiosity, so the child actually reflects on your question. If you are angry and accusatory, your child will likely stop thinking and start defending their position instead. Help them stay open by being calm and patient.
Ask them what they think should happen if the tables were turned, and you accidentally stepped on one of their toys and broke it?
Work together to strike up some arrangement together that makes sense to both of you. Be creative, there is no one right perfect answer here. For example, with small children who have little or no money, you may ask the child to make a financial gesture of some kind. Perhaps they want to see if they have any money in their piggy bank.
I made my preschooler pay for the full amount of an aquarium ornament that she broke while shopping. She was about 4, but at that time, was getting a small allowance. The arrangement we came up with together was to hold back half her weekly allowance until it was paid off. We kept track of the debt reduction each week by posting a ledger on the family bulletin board. Maybe it sounds cold hearted, but at the age of 4, money holds little true value (they are not Jonesing to go shopping at Aritzia yet), but symbolically it represents a lot. She didn’t really miss that half of her allowance too much, but she sure did know she was clearing her debt and making good on her responsibilities. She felt really proud of herself when she made her last payment and was debt free with a clear conscience. From that time forward, she has been very careful with breakables, and all her responsibilities come to think of it! Co-incidence? I think not.
About the Author:
Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada’s most notable parenting experts. She is the resident expert on The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News Channel and CBC’s The World This Weekend. Alyson is an “Ask an Expert” Columnist for Today’s Parent Magazine, and sits on the Health Advisory Board for Chatelaine Magazine. Alyson is the best selling author of “Breaking The Good Mom Myth” and “Honey, I Wrecked The Kids” and her latest, “Ain’t MIsbehavin”. She is an international speaker including the inaugural TEDxKids in Brussels and offers free parenting tips at www.alysonschafer.com.