Decide what's really important to you. Safety, of course, should be your first concern. But how important is politeness at this age? What about cleanliness? Friendliness? Paying attention? Don't try to focus on too many things at once or you'll constantly be correcting your child and you'll both be miserable. Remember that you have plenty of time to help your child master new social skills.
Let's say you want your 4-year-old to go to bed without kicking up a fuss. If you define your goals in terms as that general and absolute, compliance will be difficult to measure and difficult to achieve. Instead, make your goal more specific and realistic. You should be satisfied, for example, if five days out of the week she gets under the covers in less than 15 minutes after you tell her it's bedtime. Don't expect perfection, either from her or from yourself.
When you do correct your child, keep your words simple so that they're understood. Sarcasm and mockery don't work with young children; kids this age simply don't get it. Instead, focus on one thing at a time. For example, "Please don't talk with your mouth full of food. First swallow, then talk."
Ideally, a logical connection should exist between an act and the reward or punishment that follows. For example, a preschooler who teases a cat will most likely get scratched -- a good reminder not to do it again. The punishment is small, immediate and strongly associated with the cat, which makes the lesson easier to remember.
Similarly, if your 5-year-old can't find a toy that he's supposed to keep in his toy chest, don't rush out to buy a replacement. If you do, the lesson you're teaching is that forgetfulness doesn't have consequences. Better to let him live without the toy for a while. Just remember that no matter what, you can expect preschoolers and early school-age children to lose things and to be forgetful. That's a matter of brain development. But the lesson is still important.
Show your child alternative behaviors to the ones you want to change. For example, if she's yelling and you want her to stop, demonstrate to your child how she can speak quietly and still get people's attention. One of the reasons spanking a child is ineffective as a punishment over the long term is that it doesn't teach the child what she should be doing.
Sometimes it's hard not to equate the two, but try to keep in mind that they're different. Discipline has to do with teaching. Ask yourself if your own behaviors are teaching your child the types of things you want her to learn. Setting a good example is one of the most effective discipline techniques of all.
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