Whatever your child’s age, it’s important to be consistent when it comes to discipline. If parents don’t stick to the rules and consequences they set up, their kids aren’t likely to either. Discipline is about changing your child’s behavior. Discipline is not about punishing children. It is not about forcing them to obey and follow directions. Discipline helps children learn to set limits. It helps them learn self-discipline. Fair and healthy discipline can help your child become an emotionally and socially mature adult. Positive discipline is based on trust, love, support, and respect. It is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental stage.
Raising a child requires patience. Certain stages of development require a more focused discipline approach. Mealtimes, toilet training, and bedtime require creative methods of discipline. Effective discipline means to treat your children with mutual respect. It should be done in a firm, fair, reasonable, and consistent manner. Raising children can be stressful. Parents might need to take their own “time-outs” so as not to lose their tempers.
Positive reinforcement is a very effective type of discipline. It may be more effective than punishment. Positive reinforcement can be enjoyable for the parent and the child. It is used to encourage wanted behavior. If you find your child acting appropriately, take notice. Praise him for it. The praise for good behavior is positive reinforcement. It may encourage good behavior in the future. On the other hand, punishment acknowledges negative behavior. Positive discipline teaches and guides children and is part of a comforting family environment. It helps your child grow up to be a happy, caring person who has:
- Self-esteem (feeling good about oneself)
- Respect for others
- Problem solving and other life skills.
Setting the stage for good behavior
External forces are things that families have some control over.
- Physical space: a calm, comfortable and organized space will foster good behavior. Materials: toys that are right for your child’s age will excite and entertain him. These do not need to be commercially bought toys and can often be found all around you. I’m sure our parents have told us about the time we had more fun with the box the toy came in than with the toy that was inside it……
- Routine: Organize your day with your child so he knows what to expect. You can include planned and unplanned activities as well as quiet time and physical activities. Try to spend part of every day playing outside.
- Sleep: Naps are important for young children and should be part of your routine. As much as possible, keep bedtimes and wake times the same and make sure your child is getting enough nighttime sleep.
- Food: A hungry child can be a cranky child. Keep regular mealtimes and offer healthy snacks between meals. Offer age appropriate servings.
- Peers: How your child’s friends treat him will affect his own behavior. Get to know your child’s friends. When friends come to visit, explain your house rules and expect the same respectful behavior from everyone.
- Television and other media: Limit your child’s screen time. While high quality children’s shows may promise positive behavior, violent shows may make your child feel anxious and even encourage aggressive behavior in some children.
Internal forces are things you can’t control. Your child has her own temperament (a built-in style of behavior) that affects how she reacts to events and people in her world. She also has a unique personality that you will come to understand over time. You can support your child by:
- Respecting your child’s feelings and thoughts.
- Respecting your child’s ideas and contributions.
- Being honest with your child.
- Listening when your child talks.
Developmental stages will affect your child’s behavior. His/her behavior has a lot to do with his age and stage–what he can do, what she is learning, how he understands and experiences the world around him. If you know what to expect as she grows, you can discipline her in a way she can understand.
Ages 0 to 2
- Infants under one year of age:
- cry to make their needs known. Let your baby learn to self-soothe. Comforting your
- baby when he is sick, hurt, or upset–rather than ignoring or brushing off the
- feeling–will help him learn how to do this.
- gets into everything. Say no when your baby does something you don’t want him
- to, like biting you. Don’t use techniques such as timeout or consequences.
- learns by touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.
- Young toddler 1 to 2 years:
- is starting to test limits as she explores her independence. Create a safe environment
- that your child can explore.
- may be fearful when separating from you. Give your child attention when she is being
- will learn to say no.
- curious and wants to explore. Use redirection, with a brief explanation (No–hot).
- too young to remember rules.
- Older toddler 2 to 3 years:
- is becoming more independent.
- becomes frustrated when you set limits, and will show it. Some frustration is good
- because it helps your child start to learn how to problem-solve. But,
- remember, there are situations your child won’t be able to handle.
- becomes very possessive, doesn’t understand the concept of “mine” versus
- “someone else’s”. Give choices when you can. Use timeout to discourage major
- unwanted behaviors, like hitting. Explain briefly why the behavior is
- is easily distracted.
- Babies and toddlers are naturally curious. So it’s wise to eliminate temptations and no-nos–items such as TVs and video equipment, stereos, jewelry, and especially cleaning supplies and medicines should be kept well out of reach.
- When your crawling baby or roving toddler heads toward an unacceptable or dangerous play object, calmly say “No” and either remove your child from the area or distract him or her with an appropriate activity.
- Timeouts can be effective discipline for toddlers. A child who had been hitting, biting, or throwing food, for example, should be told why the behavior is unacceptable and taken to a designated timeout area–a kitchen chair or bottom stair–for a minute or two to calm down (longer timeouts are not effective for toddlers).
- It’s important to not spank, hit, or slap a child of any age. Babies and toddlers are especially unlikely to be able to make any connection between their behavior and physical punishment. They will only feel the pain of the hit.
- And don’t forget that kids learn by watching adults, particularly their parents. Make sure your behavior is role-model material. You’ll make a much stronger impression by putting your own belongings away rather than just issuing orders to your child to pick up toys while your stuff is left strewn around.
- It’s called “the terrible two’s” for a reason. Your child is struggling for independence. She gets frustrated when realizing her limits. This can lead to temper tantrums. Help her by showing empathy for her frustrations.
Ages 3 to 5
- Should be able to better accept limits, but won’t always make good decisions. Needs to have clear and consistent rules. Timeout continues to be a good technique. Small and appropriate consequences also work. Long lectures do not work.
- Tries to please and wants to feel important. Set an example through your own actions. Approval and praise will encourage your child to do good things.
- Can follow simple instructions and can make choices.
- Asks a lot of questions.
- Independent. Tries to tell other children what to do. May tell on others.
- As your child grows and begins to understand the connection between actions and consequences, make sure you start communicating the rules of your family’s home.
- Explain to kids what you expect of them before you punish them for a certain behavior. For instance, the first time your 3 year old uses crayons to decorate the living room wall, discuss why that’s not allowed and what will happen if your child does it again (for instance, your child will have to help clean the wall and will not be able to use the crayons for the rest of the day). If the wall gets decorated again a few days later, issue a reminder that crayons are for paper only and then enforce the consequences.
- The earlier that parents establish this kind of “I set the rules and you’re expected to listen or accept the consequences” standard, the better for everyone. Although it’s sometimes easier for parents to ignore occasional bad behavior or not follow through on some threatened punishment, this sets a bad precedent. Consistency is the key to effective discipline, and it’s important for parents to decide (together, if you are not a single parent) what the rules are and then uphold them. Even if you are divorced, both parents need to agree on rules that will be followed at each house, and as much as possible keep the consequences the same. Kids will learn how to play one parent against the other, especially if they know one parent is a bigger pushover.
- While you become clear on what behaviors will be punished, don’t forget to reward good behaviors. Don’t underestimate the positive effect that your praise can have–discipline is not just about punishment but also about recognizing good behavior. For example, saying “I’m proud of you for sharing your toys at playgroup” is usually more effective that punishing a child who didn’t share. And be specific when giving praise rather than just saying “Good job!”
- If your child continues an unacceptable behavior no matter what you do, try making a chart with a box for each day of the week. Decide how many times your child can misbehave before a punishment kicks in or how long the proper behavior must be seen before it is rewarded. Post the chart on the refrigerator and then track the good and unacceptable behaviors each day. This will give your child (and you) a concrete look at how it’s going. Once this begins to work, praise your child for learning to control misbehavior, and especially, for overcoming any stubborn problem.
- Timeouts can also work well for kids this age. Pick a suitable timeout place that’s free of distractions so your child can have time to think about how he or she has behaved. Remember, getting sent to your room isn’t effective if a computer, TV, or games are there.
- It’s important to tell kids what the right thing to do is, not just say what the wrong thing is. For example, instead of saying “Don’t jump on the couch” try “Please sit on the furniture and put your feet on the floor.”
Ages 6 to 8
- Timeouts and consequences are also effective discipline strategies for this age group.
- Again, consistency is crucial, as is follow-through. Make good on any promises of discipline or else you risk undermining your authority. Kids have to believe that you mean what you say. This is not to say you can’t give second chances or allow a certain margin of error, but for the most part, you should act on what you say.
- Be careful not to make unrealistic threats of punishment (Slam that door and you’ll never watch TV again!) in anger, since not following through could weaken all your threats. If you threaten to turn the car around and go home if the squabbling in the backseat doesn’t stop, make sure you do exactly that. The credibility you’ll gain with your kids is much more valuable than a lost beach day.
- Huge punishments may take away your power as a parent. If you ground your son or daughter for a month, your child may not feel motivated to change behaviors because everything has already been taken away.
Ages 9 to 12
- Kids in this age group–just as with all ages–can be disciplined with natural consequences. As they mature and request more independence and responsibility, teaching them to deal with the consequences of their behavior is an effective and appropriate method of discipline.
- For example, if your fifth grader’s homework isn’t done before bedtime, should you make him or her stay up to do it or even lend a hand yourself? Probably not–you’ll miss an opportunity to teach a key life lesson. If homework is incomplete, your child will go to school the next day without it and suffer the resulting bad grade.
- It’s natural for parents to want to rescue kids from mistakes, but in the long run they do kids a favor by letting them fail sometimes. Kids see what behaving inappropriately can mean and probably won’t make those mistakes again. However, if your child does not seem to be learning from natural consequences, set up some of your own to help change the behavior.
Ages 13 and Up
- By now you’ve laid the groundwork. Your child knows what’s expected and that you mean what you say about the penalties for bad behavior. Don’t let down your guard now–discipline is just as important for teens as it is for younger kids. Just as with the 4 year old who needs you to set a bedtime and enforce it, your teen needs boundaries, too.
- Set up rules regarding homework, visits by friends, curfews, and dating and discuss them beforehand with your teenager so there will be no misunderstandings. Your teen will probably complain from time to time, but also will realize that you’re in control. Believe it or not, teens still want and need you to set limits and enforce order in their lives, even as you grant them greater freedom and responsibility.
- When your teen does break a rule, taking away privileges may seem the best plan of action. While it’s fine to take away the car for a week, for example, be sure to also discuss why coming home an hour past curfew is unacceptable and worrisome.
- Remember to give a teenager some control over things. Not only will this limit the number of power struggles you have, it will help your teen respect the decisions that you do need to make. You could allow a younger teen to make decisions concerning school clothes, hair styles, or even the condition of his or her room. As your teen gets older, that realm of control might be extended to include an occasional relaxed curfew.
- It’s also important to focus on the positives. For example, have your teen earn a later curfew by demonstrating positive behavior instead of setting an earlier curfew as punishment for irresponsible behavior.
- Communicate with your teen. Stay available and accessible. Keep rules in a fair and consistent manner. Do not belittle or over-criticize your teen. Avoid lecturing or predicting disasters.
- A helpful discipline technique is making verbal contracts with your teenager. Make sure that basic rules are followed. Set logical consequences. Fro example, if your teen damages the car, the consequence could be the he has to pay for the repairs. This teaches responsibility and accountability.
Other tips on setting rules and applying consequences:
- Praise positive behavior whenever you can.
- Avoid making threats without consequences.
- Be consistent when applying rules.
- Pick your battles. Ignore unimportant behavior.
- Set reasonable limits.
- Accept age-appropriate behavior.
- Apply consequences right away with younger children.
- Be as unemotional as possible when setting consequences.
- Do not shout or scream at your child.
- Show your child love and trust after consequences. This way, your child will know tht the correction is aimed at the unwanted behavior and not at him.
Promoting good behavior
- Spend time alone with your child each day.
- Be comforting. Give your child hugs, cuddles, or a gentle pat on the back.
- If your child is sad or angry, respect her feelings. Try to understand why she is angry or sad.
- Do things that are fun. Laugh together.
- If you make a promise, do your best to keep it. It is important that your child trusts you, and she will want you to trust her, too.
- Always look for opportunities to praise your child for good behavior.
- Ignore little things. Before you raise your voice, ask yourself, “Is this important?”
A Word About Spanking
Perhaps no form of discipline is more controversial than spanking. Here are some reasons why experts discourage spanking:
- Spanking teaches children that it’s OK to hit when they’re angry
- Spanking can physically harm children
- Rather than teaching kids how to change their behavior, spanking makes them fearful of their parents and merely teaches them to avoid getting caught
- For kids seeking attention by acting out, spanking may inadvertently “reward” them–negative attention is better than no attention at all
- Tell a Big Ole Lie: One mom told her daughter, when she refused to get out of the car to go to daycare, that the house next door was a daycare center run by the caveman from the Geico commercials, which really scared her. The daughter was given a choice–either the sitter’s house or the caveman’s daycare. She chose her sitter’s house. Mission accomplished. However, a week later, the babysitter casually asked if she knew of a daycare center in the neighborhood because the daughter couldn’t stop talking about it. The mom admits–she was mortified to have to explain, and now her daughter thinks all daycare centers are run by cavemen. She foresees big trouble if she ever has to actually send her to a daycare. Little white lies can be so tempting in a pinch, and you might even be able to get away with it sometimes. But they can come back and bite you in the butt. The best thing is just to be honest. In the case of the Geico caveman, a little empathy would have worked. “I know you don’t want to go to your babysitter. Sometimes I don’t want to go to work. If you want all the nice things I’m able to get for you now, I have to go to work to make the money to buy those things.”
- Back Down: You want a surefire way to make sure your kids never listen to you? Threaten, but don’t act. That is, tell a child that if he/she doesn’t stop, you will do something (“If you don’t give that toy back to your playmate, I will take it away from you.”), and then don’t take it away. It’s no fun to be the bad guy, but if a child acts out, there has to be a consequence. For example, repeatedly saying “If you don’t stop throwing sand, I’m going to make you leave the sandbox.” What your child hears is, ‘I can keep doing this a few more times before Mom makes me stop.’ Instead, give a warning, and then, if your child does it again, give an immediate consequence such as a time-out. If he continues, leave. The next time, a gentle reminder should do the trick. “Remember how we had to leave when you threw sand? I hope we don’t have to go home early today.”
- Dis Dad or Mom: When parents take their kids out for a treat, they often tell them that if they don’t behave, they won’t get it. Then one or the other parent is a complete pushover and always gives them the treat even if they act up. What is happening is that one parent is undermining the other. Showing a united front won’t just help your child behave better–it will prevent one from feeling like the bad guy all the time. Mom and Dad may prefer to use different punishments, just as long as there are consequences for the same actions. When parents are out of earshot of kids, they need to create a list of rules and discuss different options.
- Bribe a Little Too Often: This happens when you over-reward behavior. For example, giving candy if the child finishes a meal. Now the child is demanding candy at every meal, even if the meal is not completed. Yes, you always need a good bribe up our sleeve to get through certain things, like a trip to the grocery store, or a church service. But experts insist that reinforcing good behavior is a better way to go. So, instead of saying, “If you’re good at Grandma’s today, I’ll buy you a toy,” instead try, “I’m really proud of you for sitting so nicely during dinner at Grandma’s”. Don’t underestimate the power of disappointment. “I’m really sad you broke the present Daddy gave me” makes a child feel appropriately bad about his behavior. You may feel like a terrible parent in the moment, but you’re actually helping your child develop a conscience.
- Break Your Own Rules: If a punishment for doing something a child shouldn’t is slapping his hand and saying, “No!” harshly is your practice, be aware that your child will do the same thing to other children. You can’t tell your child that hitting is wrong when you yourself are doing it. Not only are kids little mimics, emulating your bad behaviors, but they will call you on it. For example, if you have a “no throwing” rule in your house for your kids, don’t get caught throwing something, say a pillow from the floor to the couch, or a pet toy out of the room. Follow your own rules.
- Lose It: Taking care of an active toddler requires a lot of patience, but there are some times when things do get completely out of control. You don’t want your children yelling at you, so don’t be caught yelling at them, or they may put you into time-out! Time-outs aren’t just for kids. They work great for adults as well. Give yourself permission to walk away, making sure your child is safe–in a crib or child-proofed room– before doing so. Take a deep breath, count to ten, and then you will be much more effective when disciplining your child. If you can’t leave your child alone, both of you go into another room. Often a change in scenery will help you both cool off. If someone else is around, tell them you need a break and ask if they can handle the situation. Remember, kids are expert at pushing your buttons, but if you can avoid letting the situation escalate by giving one warning and then an immediate consequence, it may help keep you both calm.
- Wait Too Long: Don’t give a consequence that you cannot immediately enforce. In other words, do not threaten to do something that would be a bedtime consequence in the middle of the afternoon. Kids don’t remember what they did wrong an hour after the fact, much less the next day. You want an immediate consequence as close to the bad behavior as soon as possible. If your child hits a friend with a toy truck, don’t cancel tomorrow’s playdate–just take away the truck.
- Talk On….and On….and On: Don’t give lengthy explanations as to why doing something will make you feel better, etc to a small child. In other words, as tempting as it may be to try and reason with a toddler, you might as well be speaking gibberish. Kids are not mini-adults. Long explanations go right over their heads. “No cookies before dinner” is enough to get the point across–you can skip the lecture about how sweets will spoil an appetite. Use age-appropriate words. Don’t use big words kids don’t know. It’s okay to use a term like whining as long as you explain what you mean. “I can’t understand you when you whine. Please use your big-boy voice.”
Getting back on track. You gave a warning, then caved in. Or you yelled at your kid–for yelling at you. Here’s how to fix your own bad behavior.
- Get Over It: We all make mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up. Apologize. Have everyone follow the rules.
- Take It Slow: Even if you feel like your discipline techniques need to be completely overhauled, pick two of your top issues and start there. Don’t overwhelm your child with 20 new rules. Sit down with him and go over the new rules so he knows what’s expected of him.
- Work Around It: Let’s say your child has a tantrum over what to eat for breakfast. Rather than duke it out each morning, offer your child just two choices–say, cereal or eggs–so he can still feel in control.
- Give It Time: It takes time to undo a pattern of bad behavior. If you start being consistent, they’ll catch on. It may take ten or twenty times, but they’ll get it.