Let's put the cognitive processing (child and also parent) in the whole disciplinary issue under a somewhat different microscope. I'll just cut to the chase on the two questions here then I'll back up and flesh them out. These are two important questions I think you should ask yourself BEFORE you are in the throes of disciplining your mini-me (though you may ask them again in the heat of the moment if, like me,you sometimes give yourself a time out and go and watch the oven clock for 1 or 2 minutes as you catch your breath and remind yourself calmy of your answers to these two questions). Your answers can have a huge impact on how you are going to proceed. For the record, my son is now rapidly approaching 5.5 and it's been sometime since I needed to commune with the oven clock. Light...tunnel...you get the idea.
Question 1: Who's driving this relationship anyway? Answer: ESPECIALLY if your child is under 4 - YOU ARE!!! No really, you are.
Question 2: What are you really hoping to achieve by disciplining your child? Answer: Depends upon the parent.
Let's take 'em in order.
Q1: A parent who believes that their child is in control might have the following thought processes..."I hate it when he/she DOES THIS TO ME. He/She is just TRYING TO GET THE BETTER OF ME. The world does NOT evolve around him/her. I need to make that clear to him/her.". This sets up a huge challenge because the parent is now not only facing dealing with the incident that seems to warrant disciplinary action, but they are faced with the task of showing the child who is in control (that would be you).
Some parents will immediately acquiese, not so much as a means to obtain a different end in the larger scheme of things (an excellent suggestion in one of Bella's recent posts, see also next q), but because it's just easier, puts an end to episode right away and we can all get on with our lives. Effectively this parent HANDS THE CONTROL OVER to the child and the more you do this, the more you reinforce the idea that they, NOT YOU, are in charge. So, you were right anyway. Net result: you are helpless to change this and can only hope and pray it will pass. Maybe it will, maybe it won't.
Other parents may see this as the opportunity to set the record straight on who is actually in charge. Little so and so needs to be taught a lesson. So the parent asserts him- or her- self (sometimes even harshly). Read: I am wrestling control from you, you need to be taught that I am in control here, not you. The stern even harsh disciplinary action sets up resistance in the child (it's not very nice of you after all) and now the battle can go on indefinitely. My guess is that it will.
Interestingly, there is research on parent's sense of control in their relationship with their child/children that shows that parents who attribute control to the child, rather than to themselves, are more likely to use harsh measures, even abuse them (as in the second scenario, described above). In contrast, parents that view themselves as being in control are more likely to negotiate or reason with their children.
My point is that misattributing control to the child, rather than to yourself, will lead to a very different set of actions than if you go in thinking that you are in control in the first place. In the latter case you don't have anything to prove - you take it as given that you are in control. Now you are free to focus on the incident at issue and how to deal with it. You may now be more likely (even able), to see it from your child's point of view ("Darn it, can I just have a little control in this world of random rules imposed by parents all the time..."). So now you can give in but with a bigger plan in mind e.g. "I'll give in on this (not that worried about whether they put on the red or the blue socks, just put on some socks for heaven's sake!) and not make it into a huge battle. I'll give him or her a choice of actions or a time limit etc. but still use reasoning, explain why it has to be this way. OKAY, FINISH YOUR GLASS OF WATER QUICK AS A BUNNY, YOU NEED TO GET SOME SLEEP OTHERWISE YOU'LL BE TIRED AT PLAYDATE/PRESCHOOL/SWIMMING LESSONS etc. in the morning."
The reasoning approach probably describes most of you based on your comments, the other one may seem remote/extreme. But it's worth remembering who is in control in the heat of the moment. Might just help you gain some objectivity (hard to do in the heat of battle) and re-orient you to your larger goals here. Which leads me to question 2.
Q2: What are you trying to achieve here anyway? Here's the scene: End of a hectic day, you just picked up the little one (s) from daycare/preschool etc., gotta get some groceries and get home to throw something together in about an hour (why did you invite the neighbours over tonight of all nights anyway, what the heck were you thinking?). Little so and so is tired too, maybe needs a snack. So naturally after you run around simultaneously loading up the shopping cart, while "gently" removing small hands from unwanted items/shelves etc. and finally get into the huge line up, he or she throws the tantrum of a lifetime. Cue: disciplinary action from you.
What are you after here? Quick end to the episode - you are red with embarassment, everyone is looking disapprovingly at you and your child, this is a really uncomfortable public display for you and you are looking mighty incompetent. For the short-term change goal, you may be more inclined to give in ("here eat the candy or open the toy or whatever"), really assert yourself ("I am not going to tell you again to get up off the floor or else...one...two...") or drop everything and leave - your dinner plans now down the drain.
If on the other hand, you are invested in cultivating a good long-term relationship with your child, teaching them a set of acceptable coping skills for (hopefully) a healthy, well-adjusted adulthood (as in way down the road), the strategies you employ may be very different. Disapproving audience be damned, this was a bad time to come grocery shopping anyway, a recipe for disaster, but now we're already in the line-up, it's time to deal. "Please get up off the floor and stop screaming (with assistance as needed). Take a breath (while wiping snot and tears with tissue). It's hard to wait in a long line up isn't it? I bet you can't find something red/ the number 3, sing row your boat/whisper something, touch your toes, clap your hands...whatever...faster than/before me." My son (thank someone, somewhere) was not prone to regular temper tantrums, but he can be sticky in other ways. When patience or calming down was called for and he was just old enough (maybe even 2?) I'd say "It's hard to wait for our turn isn't it ? I know you can do this, I know you're gonna find a way to help me wait." Then quickly start some kind of game.
Of course, for both of these questions, your answers are going to depend somewhat upon the particular instance or transgression. But even so, revisiting these questions from time to time, sometimes in the heat of battle, really helped keep me focused on what really mattered.
Penny for your thoughts.