He was an unruly little boy. Four-and-a-half and quite the handful.
His mom called him things like “brat” and “annoying” and constantly whined about his whining. She threatened spankings and time outs and all sorts of punishments.
She rolled her eyes and shook her head and told him to, “get away and leave me alone!”
As hard as it was to watch her treat him this way, I had compassion on her.
Her husband was deployed overseas, her family lived across the country, she had another spirited (also unruly) two-year-old boy, and she was in that mind-blowingly-tiring first trimester with her third child. She came to playgroup so that she could have a break – adult conversation while different toys kept her kids entertained.
But as much compassion I had for the young mom, I felt even more for her young son.
He was overtly defiant, rowdy, loud, whiney, and—admittedly—annoying. He was constantly misbehaving or being just. plain. rude.
It was so clear that he was trying to get her attention. Our attention. Anyone’s attention.
During a pause in my conversation with his mom I asked him if he’d like me to read him a story. He wasted no time running to find a book about trucks and settled in next to me. I read a few stories to him, asking him questions about the book, and being silly and animated as I read in different voices.
We read for five or six minutes.
And then, just like that, he got up and began to play calmly, politely, and independently.
All he needed was some positive attention and interaction.
I don’t point my finger at this young mom – she had a lot on her shoulders (and who knows what else she was dealing with behind the scenes). But I hoped that day she might glimpse another way of helping her child to behave well.
Years ago (while still in high school) I worked at a childcare center. We looked after 80+ kids, ages two-and-a-half through grade school. One summer I was given charge of the kindergarten class for a few months while the teacher was on summer break.
There were a few boys in the class that were always in the office (the center’s go-to place for time outs). They were constantly being difficult, always in trouble, and relentlessly annoying the staff and other children.
I decided to make these boys my class helpers.
I acknowledged them in front of the class, gave them special assignments (like helping me to serve snacks or pass out instruments at music time), and spent a little extra focus and time playing with them during our free play sessions.
It was rare that I had behavioral issues with them.
The lightbulb went off: as long as I was paying attention to them—really paying attention (before they got “in trouble”)—they paid attention to me.
Several years later I used the same technique when I was working with college-age students in one of our training schools where students live on campus.
Students were staying up late every night being normal 19- and 20-year-olds – laughing loudly, yelling and screeching as they competed on the pool table, and shouting across the campus to get one another’s attention. They were having a blast but being incredibly selfish and disruptive to the community at large.
We tried instructing them about what was “right”. We tried persuading them with convicting reasoning. We tried threatening them with lost privileges. None of our lectures or threats seemed to work for long before the atmosphere would pick up and they were all whooping and hollering again.
Remembering my rambunctious five-year-olds back at the childcare center, I decided I would put the loudest and rowdiest of the college students in charge of keeping the volume down among the others.
I pulled him aside, asked him to be my right-hand man, and then told the others that he was in charge of keeping things calm and peaceful after 10pm.
Worked like a charm.
You see it turns out that most of the time people just want to be noticed, respected, and given some room to shine. Sometimes the “discipline” that they need is to be given a task, to be entrusted with something, to be modeled respectful behavior, or just to be believed in.
(Did you know that to discipline doesn’t mean ‘to punish’? It literally means ‘to teach or cause to learn or understand’.)
Now I am in the middle of learning how to discipline (teach!) my own rowdy children, and by no means do I have it all figured out.
Some days I feel like I do a stellar job disciplining (teaching!!) my littles, other days I’m pulling my hair out and feeling like a miserable failure.
But this I do know – often when they are acting up and driving me insane, what they really need is more time, more connection, more affection, and more undivided attention from me.
Sometimes they just need me to stop all the multi-tasking and look in their eyes a little longer, listen to their hearts a little more intently, and believe in them a little more.
Sometimes all they need is me.
Dear friends, have you ever used this technique with rowdy or misbehaving kids? Has it been successful for you? Do you have other ways that you discipline rowdy children? Let’s share and learn from one another.