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Dr. Mica Gonzalez

Dr. Mica Gonzalez

Strike While the Iron Is Cold: The Art of Disciplining Your Young Child

Parents often find discipline to be one of the most troubling parts of child-rearing. For most, it evokes uncomfortable or even painful memories of being disciplined when they were young. These old thoughts and feelings usually pop up at the worst moments, for example, when your child reaches maximum cry volume in line at the grocery store. It feels nearly impossible to get control of the situation, much less teach your kid how to behave better.

So how do you fix the problem?

There are many good ways to approach this near-universal dilemma. For now, we’re going to zero in on one technique that I call Striking While the Iron Is Cold. The basic idea, inspired by psychoanalyst Fred Pine, is that we deliver the discipline (i.e., the lesson) when things have cooled off, not in the heat of the moment.

Let’s return to our wailing, spazzing child in the checkout line and see how this technique might take form.

Vanessa and Marco

Marco, now 3 years-old, throws himself to the ground because mom, Vanessa, refuses to let him get the candy that he so desperately wants. She repeats that he can’t have any candy today and tells him to stand up. No stranger to conflict, Marco puts it in second gear as he screams and starts kicking wildly, grazing mom’s leg once.

Vanessa feels a rush of anger flow up her neck and face. She very briefly catches the eye of the man standing behind her in line and sees the judgment on his face. She is embarrassed but she knows her son; once he gets to the kicking phase he’s going to need at least 10 minutes to get calm. Reasoning with him now isn’t going to work. Still, she’s determined to check some boxes on her to-do list, so she picks Marco up as he tests the structural limits of the nearby glass doors with his impressive vocal chords. She speeds through checkout and sits with her son in the car until the outburst has passed. Then she reminds him why he can’t have candy today. Marco is still sour-faced but accepts mother’s proposed solution of chomping some grapes before moving on to the next item on Vanessa’s list.

How do we understand what happened with Vanessa and her emotional boy? Surely, some would say she was too lenient in not giving him some form of punishment for the tantrum. Perhaps others would say she could have been more sensitive and taken him out of line to give him immediate attention. But both perspectives may fail to recognize the skills imparted to Marco by Vanessa’s striking while the iron was cold. Here are just a few possible benefits of Vanessa’s intervention:

  1. Frustration tolerance. Vanessa did not want Marco to have candy and she was able to follow-through with the limit that she set. Although Marco’s response to her limit-setting was disconcerting, tantrums are common at this age, and Vanessa gave her son a chance to practice waiting. Many repetitions like this can actually help a child learn other ways to get their wants and needs met besides exploding.
  2. Self-regulation. 10 minutes can feel like an eternity for a parent to endure her child’s tantrum, but Vanessa’s thoughtful support of Marco (i.e., sitting with him) helps him learn to calm himself over time. This is what prepares him to begin thinking about alternatives to tantrums.
  3. Problem-solving. Psychologist Lele Diamond describes the goals of disciplining a child as the development of self-regulation and problem-solving skills. Helping children through an emotional moment and proposing alternative solutions at the right time can strengthen their ability to take similar action as they get older and integrate the parent’s counsel as a part of their self-concept.

We can probably shorten this strategy into one sentence:  When your young child is off his rocker, chill out until he’s calm enough to listen and learn from your correction.

“When your young child is off his rocker, chill out until he’s calm enough to listen and learn from your correction.”

Now, striking while the iron is cold, like any other technique, is not a panacea and may not work for every child-parent pair. But it can be a useful addition to your parenting toolbox. One of the best antidotes to stressful parenting experiences is feeling that you have options. I hope this one feels like a good option for you.

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