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Before I can get into the details of early discipline, we have to establish a common ground for what the word actually means. I like the definition given by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., in their book “The Whole Brain Child.” They say:
Knowing this, you might be less shocked to learn that I began “disciplining” my son when he was 4 months old! Maybe this still surprising to you. Let me show you what it looked like.
I use a technique from Love and Logic called the Uh-Oh Song. I will detail all the steps below, but first, I’ll explain how I used it with my baby.
I started feeding my son solids when he was 4 months old. If you are a parent, you know that mealtimes present many opportunities for discipline. My son liked to grab the dirty bib and try to shove it into his mouth. He would get food all over himself! I got some good laughs out of this, but I also knew that it wasn’t a habit I wanted him to develop. Enter the uh-oh song. Any time he grabbed the bib I would say, “uh-oh!” and gently hold his hands down by his side for a few seconds. I would smile and say something like, “Keep your hands down,” then let go of his hands. During some meals, I would do this many times. Three months later, he started putting his hands down by himself after I said, “Uh-oh!”
When I began this process, I knew my son wouldn’t understand what I was doing. But I wasn’t worried about it because that wasn’t the point – yet. The purpose of starting this process at such a young age was mostly for me to get in the habit. Now, at 7 months old, he is beginning to understand what I’m doing. I’ve been able to use this technique to prevent him from grabbing a dirty diaper while I was changing him and to stop him from pulling books off of a shelf. After hearing uh-oh, he will stop long enough for me to get to him or move an object farther away.
The Uh-Oh Song has a few major advantages. First, it works before kids understand words. (Actions speak louder than words!) Second, it can be used in a variety of situations. Kids learn that “uh-oh” means stop! This gives me a little more peace of mind when we are near busy streets, a hot stove, or any other potentially dangerous situation. Also, this technique gives parents practice with following through without giving warnings.
When you use this technique, always be ready to take action. Don’t assume that your child knows what you want them to do, and don’t assume that they will obey. The only way your child will learn what “uh-oh” means is if you take action right away, every time. When my son reaches out to touch the outlet, I say, “uh-oh!” and immediately move him away. Sometimes he pulls his hand back on his own. Then I watch him for a minute longer, because usually he will try again. If he does, I repeat, “uh-oh!” and move him away. There are times when he stops completely after just hearing uh-oh, but I always make sure I’m ready to take action, just in case.
Give it a try and see how it works for you! Remember that using a new technique takes time to be effective. Be very consistent for at least two weeks* and see what happens! (When you are first starting this technique, keep the vending machine metaphor in mind.)
*If you are working with a very young child, it will take much longer, like it did with my baby. Like I said though, getting in the habit is important!
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