Disciplining Your Children

17 minutes to read

Experts say that consistency, logic, and self-restraint are the keys to controlling a child’s behavior.

It happens in playgrounds, supermarkets, shopping malls, and home kitchens. A child disobeys, talks back, or misbehaves, and a parent responds in frustration or fury. According to one poll, 90 percent of parents yell at their children in order to discipline them—even though only 30 percent said they think that hollering works. Research has also revealed that 90 percent of American parents have used spanking as a means of discipline at some time, despite arguments from experts that physical punishment neither corrects nor controls a child’s behavior in the long run.

Discipline defined

Why is discipline such a difficult challenge for so many parents? One reason is that many think of discipline and punishment as the same thing. “They absolutely are not,” says Marianne Daniels Garber, an educational consultant at the Behavioral Institute of Atlanta and coauthor of The Good Behavior Made Easy Handbook. “Discipline means teaching appropriate behavior.” In fact, the word discipline shares the same Latin root as the word disciple. The most effective disciplinary approaches help youngsters learn self-control as they prepare for productive and fulfilling lives.

“To know how to discipline your child, you must first know your child,” say William Sears, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Martha Sears, a registered nurse and certified childbirth educator, coauthors of The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten. According to the Searses, deep attachment from birth breeds good behavior. Parents who are attentive to a newborn infant’s needs, respond to the child’s cries, and become aware of the infant’s temperament create the foundation for a good relationship in the years to come. “The real payoff of attachment parenting is obedience,” say the Searses. When parents open themselves up to the needs of a baby, as the child grows he or she, in turn, opens up to the wishes of the parents. Children who feel strongly connected to their parents want to please and cooperate with them.

Common behavioral problems

Children act out in different ways at different ages. Common behavior problems include:

Ages 2-4

  • Stubbornness
  • Negativity
  • Temper tantrums

Ages 5-10

  • Verbal conflicts
  • Physical conflicts
  • Unreasonable demands

Ages 11-14

  • Intense confrontation / argument
  • Overt defiance toward authority figures

Ages 15-19

  • Increased risk-taking
  • Experimentation with drugs or alcohol

Discipline problems in young children

In the exuberance of these early years, some parents may think children are misbehaving when they are doing what comes naturally. As they grow from total dependence to increasing independence, toddlers who seem sassy, defiant, or stubborn are actually experimenting with a newfound sense of self, which they typically assert by saying “no.” Confronting a child’s negativity, however, usually leads to a temper tantrum on the part of the child. Better alternatives, say experts, include clearly and simply expressing rules, distracting and diverting young children from potential dangers (pointing to a toy as a child reaches for a hot bowl of soup, for example), and creating a child-safe environment that allows a youngster to explore without the threat of danger.

In terms of discipline, actions almost always speak louder than words—especially with younger children. “Parents might try saying to a 2-year-old, ‘You need to go to bed,’ or, ‘If you don’t go to bed, you can’t go to the park tomorrow.’ Either way the child still isn’t in bed,'” says Jane Nelsen, a licensed marriage, family, and child counselor and the author of Positive Discipline. “What works best is to take the child by the hand and lead him to the bedroom.”

When a young child does throw a tantrum, it is important for parents to stay in control of their emotions and react calmly yet firmly, according to many experts. Simply letting the child know that the parents understand he or she is having a difficult time and offering the options of either being held or being left alone to ride out the tantrum can help.

Discipline problems in school-age children

As children enter grade school, discipline problems often center on verbal and physical conflicts with siblings and peers. Experts agree that no-hitting is one rule parents should always enforce, explaining the consequences—such as immediate removal from the room—in advance. School-age children also make many demands, often for toys advertised on television, or for special privileges such as staying up past their regular bedtime. Although parents may be tempted to bribe youngsters to behave with promises of whatever the child wants, experts warn that it is better to motivate them to feel good about being well behaved and offer only such nonmaterial rewards as a special family excursion as an incentive.

Preteen and young teen-age children use their newly acquired debating and reasoning skills to challenge rules and authority. If a child cannot win by arguing, the child may try to talk back to a parent or become overtly defiant. Parents need to outline their expectations for respectful and appropriate behavior along with the consequences for not meeting these standards, advise experts. For example, if youngsters disrupt family dinners with obnoxious behavior, they will have to leave the table. Or, if they violate a house rule on getting home by a set time, they will have to come home 15 minutes earlier the following day.

“Teen-agers learn about themselves and the world by testing limits and taking risks,” says psychiatrist Lynn Ponton of the University of California, San Francisco, author of The Romance of Risk. “”The challenge for parents is ensuring that teens stay safe and focus on healthy risks, such as sports, rather than unhealthy risks like experimentation with alcohol or drugs.” While parents need to remain firm on rules against unsafe hangouts and behaviors, they should discuss other issues, such as clothes and curfews, with their teen-agers, listen to their viewpoints, and try to find mutually agreeable solutions. When an action does require punishment, withdrawing such privileges as the use of the family car can be among the most effective.

Common discipline mistakes

Experts agree that parents who practice ineffective discipline techniques often fail to teach children proper behavior. Common discipline mistakes include:

  • Inconsistency with discipline techniques, or being “wishy-washy”
  • Ineffective warnings
  • Setting behavioral expectations too high
  • Spanking
  • Verbal abuse, such as shouting, shaming, or blaming

The effects of spanking

According to many experts, any time parents lose control of their own temper, they undermine their attempts at discipline. This is especially true for physical punishment, which occurs most often when parents are angry and cannot think of any other alternatives. Since spanking may temporarily stop a child’s misbehavior, parents may conclude that it works—at least in the short term. What most parents do not realize, however, is that physical punishment contains a harmful, long-term impact.

Studies have shown that youngsters who are repeatedly or routinely spanked are more prone to low self-esteem, depression, and poor educational achievement. Preschoolers, who usually cannot understand the difference between what they did and who they are, may conclude that they are being hit because they are bad. Older children, feeling humiliated, may either withdraw or try to strike back, often at their siblings or peers.

In the spring of 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced a new policy addressing ways in which pediatricians can counsel parents on ways to discipline their children—including stressing the use of positive reinforcement to increase desired behavior and outlining the consequences of spanking. The AAP policy echoed the stance of many child experts—that alternatives to spanking are often the best choice. According to the AAP, spanking teaches children aggressive behavior and can alter parent-child relationships, which in turn can make discipline more difficult, especially in the teen-age years, when spanking is no longer an option. In addition, spanking can become less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP policy.

A continuing problem

Despite such warnings, spanking remains widespread. In a study of 807 mothers with at least one child between the ages of 6 and 9, researchers at the University of New Hampshire found that 44 percent reported having spanked their children at least once in the week prior to the interview. The study, published in 1997, found that on average, the children were spanked 2.1 times during that week. In follow-up interviews two years after the initial interview, the researchers found that, when compared with children who had not been spanked, the children who had been spanked showed more antisocial behavior, including cheating, lying, bullying, deliberately breaking things, acting cruelly toward others, disobeying at school, and having trouble getting along with teachers. The researchers had adjusted the link between spanking and antisocial behavior to consider the child’s socioeconomic status, sex, and ethnic background.

There are differences of opinion, however, over what constitutes physical punishment and what is child abuse. And not every parent agrees that spanking is the detriment that many professionals claim. Some parent groups have called for pro-spanking parental rights amendments to some state constitutions.While most experts con-sider physical punishment to be detrimental, they regard verbal abuse—including shouting and blaming—as being just as emotionally damaging. “Tongue-lashing and name-calling tirades can actually harm a child more psychologically,” the Searses contend.

Effective methods of discipline

Many experts agree that effective discipline involves teaching youngsters to cooperate while avoiding confrontations. Effective discipline methods include:

  • Calmly explain why the behavior was stopped and explain what the child should do next.
  • Explain exactly what type of behavior is expected.
  • Hold family meetings to discuss potential problems.
  • Follow through on punishment if limits are exceeded.
  • Make frequent reminders of behavioral limits.
  • Make sure that any disciplinary action is appropriate for the misbehavior. In other words, “have the punishment fit the crime.”
  • Immediately stop improper or disruptive behavior.
  • Provide positive reinforcement.
  • Teach a child the related consequences of his or her actions.
  • Put the child in time-out, or have a child take a break from whatever undesirable action is occurring.

Useful discipline techniques

According to experts, consistency is essential when it comes to successful discipline. With older children, a broken-record response, consisting of a single phrase repeated over and over, is more effective than long explanations and arguments. When a child asks to watch more television before starting homework, for instance, a parent should say, “Homework first.” The child may plead, protest, or argue that the parents are being unfair or unreasonable, but the response should remain the same.

Since discipline is meant to be educational, experts advise parents to ask themselves what they are teaching a child before they do or say anything more. “There’s a big difference between short-term parenting and long term parenting,” says Nelsen. “If parents think in terms of the long-term, they’ll focus on teaching kids life skills and beliefs so they feel good about behaving right.”

Encouraging cooperation

The best approaches to discipline do not pit parents against children in win-lose confrontations, according to many experts. “If you continually try to enforce your point of view over theirs, children resist, and you end up with an ongoing battle of wills,” says psychologist Stephanie Marston, author of The Magic of Encouragement. The key to effective discipline is motivating your children to cooperate. Doing so requires different techniques at different ages.

For example, when a baby yanks at his mother’s dangling earring, the mother should take the child’s hand and explain, “No, that hurts mommy.” If he tries again, she puts the child on the ground. Thus, the mother has stopped an unacceptable behavior and shown the consequences of doing it again, according to Marston. While such simple, straightforward responses are effective throughout the first years of childhood, parents of an energetic toddler or a strong-willed preschooler soon feel a need for other alternatives.

According to experts, one of the most effective disciplinary techniques is called time-out, which removes a youngster from an undesirable situation and gives him or her a chance to reflect on what went wrong and how to correct it. Children as young as age 2 or 3 can grasp the concept of a time-out, and for them just a two- or three-minute pause can be beneficial. Even for older children, experts recommend that time-outs be kept brief—five minutes for a preschooler, 15 minutes for a school-age child. Such a break also gives parents time to refrain from impulsive hitting or yelling and to plan their next move.

Setting limitations

Whatever the situation, parents should focus on what action they want the youngster to stop or to do. “Every bad behavior has an opposite behavior, and that’s what you should keep in mind,” says Garber. “Trying to stamp out a bad behavior is like trying to get rid of weeds in a garden. You can use a weedkiller, but unless you put in a good ground cover to replace those weeds, they’ll come back.”

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If a daughter begins to talk back to her parents in a sarcastic or surly tone, for example, parents should think about what the child really wants—such as pleasant, respectful conversation—and tell her how to achieve it. To make sure she understands, according to Garber, they can try role-playing—switching roles and allowing the daughter to play the parent and the adult to imitate her. Once a child knows what is appropriate, a mother or father might say, “I’m not going to respond if you talk the old way, but I will give you my attention if you use a pleasant voice.”

According to child discipline experts, the basic point of discipline is not admonishing or punishing children, but letting the child know very clearly what they are doing wrong and helping them find a more acceptable way of behaving. “Parents often get in trouble because they’re wishy-washy or give mixed signals,” says Garber. “They end up feeling frustrated when they haven’t communicated what it is they want and their kids don’t pay attention to their muddled messages. The kindest thing you can do for children is to be honest and clear about what you expect.”

Following through with consequences

Once a parent makes an expectation or limit clear, they have to be prepared to back it up, even if it isn’t convenient. For example, if a parent tells a child that if he throws sand one more time, he will have to leave the beach and head home, that is what should be done if he continues the behavior. “If you go with what seems like the easiest solution in the short run, it almost guarantees you’re going to have the same problem the next time,” says Garber. “It’s better to do what you know you have to do, even if it’s hard. Once you teach your children they can change your no’s, they’ve got you over a barrel.”

Children also need a clear sense, and frequent reminders, of limits. Small children need to know what objects they can and cannot touch and where they can and cannot go. Older children look to their parents for guidance in appropriate social behavior. “Think of limits like a barrier railing on top of a cliff,” says Nelsen. “They can give a sense of security if they’re imposed with kindness. The younger they are, the more limits children need. You broaden them as kids get older, and they get more involved in problem-solving.”

Helping children make choices

As children mature, offering choices is another disciplinary tool that is both empowering and educational. “When we offer our children the opportunity to make choices, we teach them to think clearly,” says Marston. “We help them learn about responsibility and prepare them for greater independence. If children have made a mess in the kitchen, parents—rather than yelling—might ask, ‘Which part of the clean-up do you want to do first: picking up all the crayons or getting a sponge and wiping the table?'”

Choices also can help circumvent many disciplinary problems, such as battles over bedtime. Rather than arguing with youngsters to get them into bed, parents might ask: “Do you want to read a story or listen to a lullaby tape when you get into bed?” With an older child, parents might ask, “Do you want me to come in and shut off the light in five minutes or seven minutes?” Regardless of a child’s age, parents have to be willing to accept the choices they offer, according to experts. Before delivering such an ultimatum as, “Put your dirty clothes in the laundry room or wear them dirty,” parents should think about whether they are really willing to have their children leave the house in clothes that look or smell bad.

Sometimes the choices parents offer might involve how they react rather than what the child might do, some child discipline experts explain. For instance, if a child whines constantly, a parent might say to that child, “I am going to leave the room when you whine,” or “I am going to put my hands over my ears.” The youngster can then choose to continue the negative behavior, or to stop and win back the parent’s attention.

The three R’s of discipline

In many situations, the consequences of violating a household limit or rule might make the point better than any punishment. Accord-ing to Nelsen, any consequence used as a form of discipline should contain the three R’s—related, respectful, and reasonable. The premise behind the three R’s of discipline is that any related consequences should have an obvious connection to the child’s actions, rather than being a generic punishment doled out for all misdeeds. For example, if parents have been asking their children to pick up their toys that have been scattered all over the house, the parents might put the toys in a box and not allow the children to play with those items for one week, rather than rescind the childrens’ television privileges.

A respectful consequence does not piggyback, which Nelsen defines as adding an unnecessary and hurtful punishment—a comment such as “Maybe this will teach you,” for example. A reasonable consequence adjusts the punishment to fit the crime. Teasing a little sister, for example, does not merit the same response as locking a little sister in a closet.

Whenever possible, parents should try to involve their children in determining the consequences of their misbehavior. “You might ask, ‘What do you think would be logical to help you remember to come straight home after practice?'” says Nelsen. “At the very least you can let kids know what the results of a certain behavior will be, for instance, that if they are disrespectful, they will be asked to leave the room.”

Working as a team

In general, a team approach works best because, rather than pitting the parent against the child, it unites both parent and child against a shared problem. One of the best ways to build such team spirit and foster cooperation is through family meetings, according to experts. In a family meeting, every member of the family puts items on the agenda, brainstorms about better ways of handling them, and negotiates to work out solutions that parents and children can live with.

“If I had to choose only one parenting tool, it would be family meetings,” says Nelsen. “They offer an opportunity for parents to listen to kids and show that you value their ideas and input. Even 4-year-olds can come up with beautiful, creative solutions. If children are involved in solving a problem, they’re more motivated to follow through.”

The importance of positive reinforcement

While child discipline often focuses on correcting behavior, positive reinforcement can be equally as important in affecting the way a child acts. Experts say that whenever a child does behave well, a parent should take time to notice and comment on such behavior. “Praise and attention are the best ways to reinforce good behavior,” says Garber. “Your attention means more than anything else.”

Garber advises parents to keep a diary of their youngsters’ good behavior. “A lot of them are afraid they won’t have anything to put in it. Then they’re amazed at all the things their kids are doing right. It really changes their perspective. When things aren’t going well in a family, it’s easy to be negative about little things and to overlook the positive things.” If the only way children feel they can get your attention is by misbehaving, that is what they will do, says Garber.

Having positive expectations of your children can affect both the way you see them and the way they behave. If you see them as responsible and cooperative, that is the goal they will try to achieve. “The more trust and confidence you place in them, the more your children learn that they are worthy of trust, and the more trustworthy they become,” notes Garber.

Discipline with a dose of love

“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that to make kids act better we have to make them feel worse?” asks Nelsen, who emphasizes the importance of respect. “Very often a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. But if you make sure the message of unconditional love comes through, children will feel encouraged. They need to know that mistakes don’t mean that they’re bad or inadequate, but that there’s something they have to learn.”

Some sort of monitoring system can also help offer motivation to a child, especially when trying to get a child to develop a new behavior. One technique that Garber recommends is going for “a new world record.” If a youngster repeatedly disrupts family dinner, for instance, create a chart and give a check or a star when he or she manages to make it through a meal without misbehaving. If he or she gets three stars in a row, then misbehaves, a parent should not overreact. Rather, they should stay focused on the goal and say, “Look, you had a bad day. We all do. Starting tomorrow, let’s try for a new world record.”

Dealing with repeated defiance

What can you do when nothing works? Regardless of the limits parents set or the punishments they administer, some children, for whatever reason, continue to misbehave. To deal with non-compliance, repeated defiance, and aggressive or abusive behavior, pediatrician Ernest Swihart and pediatric psychologist Patrick Cotter, coauthors of The Manipulative Child, have developed a technique they call “Stop, Pause, and Redirect” that can be used anywhere with a child of any age.

The first step is to stop a misbehaving or defiant child. If a child is kicking a playmate, for example, parents can physically remove the child and place him or her somewhere quiet and close. If a child is disrupting a dinner at a restaurant, he or she can be told to put his or her head down on the table. Once the behavior is stopped, everything pauses until the child becomes quiet and settled.

During this quiet time, the parent should not interact with the youngster in any way, including words, gestures, or looks. Once the child has been quiet for a brief period (less than a minute), the parents calmly explain why they intervened and redirect the youngster to behave appropriately, such as putting his or her toys away or continuing to eat quietly. If the child does not comply, the process repeats itself. With consistent and frequent use, according to Swihart and Cotter, this approach can create revolutionary change in the relationship between parents and children. The younger the age at which parents implement this crisis response, the better, but even older children comply if parents always respond to misbehavior in this nonnegotiable way.

When children do not respond to discipline

At times, however, professional help may be needed to determine the cause of a child’s behavioral problem and offer possible solutions. A school counselor, psychologist, or physician can often offer solutions or alternatives. However, experts agree that any solution requires teamwork on the part of the parent, child, and professional.

The good news for both parents and their children is that it is never too late to start positive, loving discipline. “All parents make mistakes,” says Nelsen. “I have seven kids, I teach seminars on parenting, and I still make mistakes. If you feel you’ve been too harsh or too permissive, what you might say to your children is, ‘I thought the way I was handling things was the best, but now I realize it’s not. I want to work with you together as a family, and I’d appreciate your help.”

For further reading:

Conner, Bobbi. The Parent’s Journal Guide to Raising Great Kids. Bantam Books, 1997.

Garber, Stephen, Marianne Daniels Garber, and Robyn Suizman. The Good Behavior Made Easy Handbook. Family Life Productions, 1995.

Hyman, Irwin. The Case Against Spanking. Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Makarowski, Lou. How to Keep Your C.O.O.L. with Your Kids. Perigee, 1998.

Marston, Stephanie. The Magic of Encouragement: Nurturing Your Child’s Self-Esteem. William Morrow, 1992.

Nelsen, Jane. Positive Discipline. Ballantine Books, 1996.

Ponton, Lynn. The Romance of Risk. Basic Books, 1997.

Sears, William, and Martha Sears. The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten. Little-Brown, 1995.

Swihart, Ernest, and Patrick Cotter. The Manipulative Child. Macmillan Publishing, 1996.

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