A wise friend set me on a worthwhile path to discipline many years ago, and I will always be grateful for his counsel. ''If you learn nothing else about raising your children,'' he told me, ''learn to be consistent. Don't ever issue a warning or make a promise if you are too tired or distracted to follow through on it. But when you do tell the children to hang up their coats or stop throwing oranges out the window, be sure that they obey.''
His advice was perfect for an inexperienced mother like me. And I discovered that it worked wonders, bringing order and a sense of contentment into our household. Our preschoolers seemed much happier when guidelines and limits were firm and reliable. Understanding what was expected of them gave them a sense of security; knowing that Mom would not let them hurt themselves or others helped them cope in situations that might have gotten out of hand. Realizing that what was true yesterday would also be true tomorrow allowed them to develop comfortably in a predictable environment.
My first ''be consistent'' task was to learn to stop for a moment and think, rather than plunge too hastily into a situation and regret it later. Did I have the energy to follow through on the request that the children pick up their toys? If not, better to say nothing than allow them to ignore my instructions. If they didn't behave on an outing, what was my alternative? Was I prepared to act on it?
This ''pausing'' technique helped me determine what was worth making an issue over, and what was not all that important. I found that I was giving the children fewer instructions, but when I did speak, they listened.
''My mom only gives one warning,'' our four-year-old once told a playmate. ''If you throw sand again, she'll send you home.'' The visitor, not used to such treatment, tossed another handful, and I promptly dismissed him from our yard. I'll never forget the look of satisfaction on my son's face. Good old reliable Mom had come through again.
Besides being consistent about behavior, I also had to decide what form of punishment should be used when rules were broken. Few parents can stagger through the preschool years without administering an occasional spanking, and I was no exception. But I looked for more constructive ways of dealing with unruly tots.
Since our preschool set usually enjoyed one another's company, isolation seemed a natural penalty for someone who disturbed the peace. But not in his bedroom - too many interesting distractions there! Instead, I would place the small offender in a hallway or other equally boring spot, set the kitchen timer, and go on with my work. When the buzzer rang, our chastised one could then rejoin the group.
I also tried to make punishment the natural consequence of the action, making sure that the children knew what the results would be. If a pair quarreled loudly over a television program, I simply turned off the set. If they wouldn't behave in the car, I pulled over to the side of the road, refusing to go any farther until the mischief stopped. If our preschoolers were cooperative in the supermarket, they were allowed to choose a piece of fruit to bring home, but if someone was naughty, the fruit was forfeited.
I well remember the day our three-year-old had a tantrum in the checkout line because she wasn't getting her banana; it was embarrassing for me, and I'm sure the onlookers thought we were a terrible family. But the ''be consistent'' rule paid off. Our daughter learned that I meant what I said, and she behaved well on subsequent shopping trips.
Obviously it was impossible to arrive at the perfect solution for every problem. But by emphasizing the positives - giving more praise than blame - and acting with decisiveness when the situation called for it, we eliminated much of the arguing and frustration the preschool years can bring. A framework of consistency, we discovered, not only builds trust, but also provides security and a relaxed environment for both parent and child.