Positive Ways to Discipline Your Child

Whether you’re a parent or a babysitter, sometimes you need a go-to trick or two–or three–when it comes to discipline. All families develop their own approach when it comes to doling out punishment for bad behavior, but in case you need a little inspiration, here are some expert opinions on the most effective strategies. These are listed roughly in the order of escalation. Remember, you are playing the long game here. You need to immediately stop violent of dangerous behavior (such as experimenting with the stove or a sibling’s eyes), but for other infractions, bear in mind that you’re trying to create a new human with a sense of right and wrong, empathy and decency. So sometimes, it’s worth trying something a couple of times before moving on, especially since kids really respond to consistency.

“Discipline has to do with civilizing your child so they can live in society,” says psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD. Yet kids repeatedly test their parents’ limits. When it comes to disciplining children, there is no quick fix and no magic bullet. You need to find that nice balance between disciplining kids without being a drill sergeant or a pushover. The fact is, raising disciplined children is not easy. Despite your best efforts, there will be good days and bad days. “As a parent, you’re constantly pushing your own limits. It’s the toughest but the greatest job I’ve ever had,” says Turner.

Each of these methods has its upside and downside and, for the most part, we are not debating merits, so much as suggesting the approaches a parent might like to try. Discipline is never less work for the parents than it is for the kids, so choose your battles wisely.

Let Natural Consequences Play Out: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is a fan of teaching children through natural consequences. For instance, if a child is tossing her crackers on the floor, don’t pick them up. At a certain point she will learn that throwing her food on the floor means she no longer gets to eat it. Throwing toys against the wall could mean that they break, and a child can no longer use them.

Try Some Logical Consequences: When natural consequences are not doing the trick, stepping in to create a consequence of your own can work well. For instance, removing the toy being chucked at the wall and locking it up for the rest of the day. Try to be as consistent as possible when you chose consequences or when reacting to behavior that needs to change.

Guide The Child to Better Behavior: Dr. Ben Siegel, the immediate past chair of the AAP committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health is an advocate for positive parenting, which includes guiding a child toward better behaviors. “Discipline means to teach,” he says. According to Siegel, kids do not cognitively understand or remember the rules of the house until age 2.5 or 3 and around that age, kids can be stubborn. Siegel recommends guiding children to appropriate behavior by giving them choice. For example, if the child doesn’t want to put on their jacket, a parent could say, “Fine, but you have to carry it.” Or insisting a child can only have dessert if they finish their dinner. Other experts suggests that decisions should be made collaboratively with a child and that children should be empowered to suggest their own solutions to behavioral issues they are having. For instance, does the child have any ideas for what would make bath time easier? With older children, you can ask them what they think would be an appropriate consequence to a negative behavior.

Withhold a Child’s Privileges: You know the drill. When a child is acting up, they lose something they like. Experts recommend taking away privileges or cherished items immediately, and choosing something that is not a necessity; depriving them of a meal would be a bad idea. Depending on the age of the child, canceling a playdate that wasn’t going to happen until the evening may allow too much time to pass for the message to sink in.

Scold Strategically: The AAP isn’t a big fan of yelling, but at a certain point, raising your voice may be necessary to get a child’s attention or to simply be heard over their own tantrums. Experts suggest avoiding screaming things that are humiliating or are physical threats because they don’t appear to be that effective. And because kids are great mimics. When parents totally lose their cool, which can certainly happen, recognizing and talking about any mistakes or regrets in that interaction can be a learning experience for both child and parent.

Use Non-Negotiable Arguments: When the inevitable “It’s not fair” argument arises, some experts suggest using firm responses along the lines of “No, it’s not,” or simply, “I know”. It’s an easy trick for stopping a fight in its tracks. Parents can offer some sympathy by acknowledging they understand the child is upset, but that their decision is still final.

Enforce an Effective Time-Out: To pull off a successful time out, experts suggest sending a child to a pre-designated corner or to a chair. Avoid sending a child to their room, where there may be more distractions and toys. Some recommend assigning a minute for every year in the child’s age. What if they just refuse? You may need to sit with the child, or remain nearby to monitor them. Other experts even recommend having a “time-in” rather that a “time-out” which consists of sitting with the child to talk and reflect about their behavior.

What to do About Spanking: The AAP says don’t do it, arguing that it teaches aggression and is not very productive. Yet statistics suggest many parents do so anyway. One poll showed 80% surveyed thought that spanking was appropriate at least “sometimes” and 86% reported being spanked themselves when they were a child. Perhaps no form of discipline is more controversial than spanking. Here are some reasons why experts discourage spanking:

  • Spanking teaches kids 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” tem–negative attention is better than no attention at all.

Reward Good Behavior: When punishment is the centerpiece of discipline, parents tend to overlook their children’s best behaviors. “You’ll get a lot further with positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement,” says Mason Turner, MD, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center. Rewarding good deeds targets behaviors you want to develop in your child, not things he shouldn’t be doing. This doesn’t mean you should give your child a pound of chocolate every time he picks up a paperclip. “There are grades of positive reinforcement,” says Turner. “There’s saying ‘good job. I’m really glad you did that.’ when your child cleans his room.” And there are times when your child does something extraordinary that may warrant a larger reward.

Be Clear About Rules: If your rules are vague, or discussed only when one has been broken, your child will have a hard time following them. “It’s up to the parent to make clear what’s expected of the child and what isn’t,” says Brody, who chairs the Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Be sure to explain the rules of the house when you can speak clearly and your child is not too upset to listen. James Sears, MD, a pediatrician in Southern California suggests practicing discipline when it works for you. For instance, you have 30 minutes to spare, interrupt your child’s game and tell her you need help with something. If she helps, great, do a quick and easy chore together and let her go back to her game. If she throws a tantrum, you have time to deal with it. “If you do that every once in awhile, your child will understand that when Mommy says I need to put my toys away, I need to do it,” says Sears.

Neutralize Arguments: How do you deal with a child who wants to argue into submission? Steer clear of no-win arguments. Instead, “go brain dead,” advises Jim Fay, co-author of Parenting with Love and Logic. For instance, if your child says, “This isn’t fair,” say, “I know.” If your child says, “All of my friends get to have this,” say, “I know.” or “I’m not their mother/father.” or you can use the phrase, “And what did I say?” to enforce rules you have already discussed with your child. Sometimes the less you say, the more clear your point becomes.

Buy Yourself Time: You may have read that children need to experience the consequences of their actions as soon as possible. And maybe you’ve heard that parents should be calm as they discipline children. In reality, you may not be able to keep your cool and react right away.”Buy yourself time to cool down before you deal with the situation,” suggests Fay. You can tell your child, “Wow, bad decision. I need some time to figure out what I’m going to do about it.” When your emotions are in check, express empathy for your child first, then deliver the consequences. Empathy gives your child room to connect with his behavior to the outcome. “You don’t have to get angry at kids, you don’t have to yell. Just allow it to become their problem.”

Be Consistent About Rules: Sometimes sticking to the rules is as challenging for the parents as it is for the kids. Sears sees too many parents turn the other cheek when their kids talk back or otherwise act out. “Parents just are not consistent in enforcing rules,” he tells WebMD. Not enforcing your own rules puts everything you say into question. “If kids don’t know what to expect from their parents, they never really know what the rules are.” You may want to back down for fear of ruining your child’s fun. Keep in mind that kids benefit from limits. Rules and structure give children the security of knowing their parents are watching out for them. As kids get older, you can take a more flexible approach. Around the ages of 9 and 12, kids should get “a little leeway to test out the rules,” says Brody. “But always be careful about safety.”

Model Good Behavior: Like it or not, your children are watching you. You can dole out as much advice as you want, but if your personal conduct makes a more lasting impression than your words. “The number one way human beings learn is through imitation and copy,” Says Fay. If you want your child to be honest, make sure you practice honesty. If you want your child to be polite, let her see your best manners, at home and in public.”

When Nothing Else Works

So, now what happens when none of the above works with your child? What happens when your child refuses to respond to consequences? How else are you supposed to get them to change their negative behavior? How are you supposed to get them to follow the rules? Certainly, every family is unique. Your situation may look different on the surface, but I bet lots of parents can agree on the same underlying cycle: My kid acts out. I give him a consequence. Nothing changes. I give him another consequence. Nothing changes. Now he’s even more resistant, and we’re even more annoyed. He gets another consequence. Nothing changes.

Fortunately, there is a way through this seemingly never-ending conflict. The answer might not be what you think…..

Stop Adding Consequences: James Lehman tells us that you can’t punish a kid into better behavior. So, while it is certainly tempting, taking everything away from your child is unlikely to be effective in changing behavior. James goes on to say that “stacking” consequences–adding one after another–only teaches a child to “do time”, or to simply wait out his consequences, rather than actually follow any rules. It’s also true that when you stack up too many consequences, or ground your child indefinitely, they see this as a hole from which they can never escape. Think of it this way: If everything is taken away and there’s no chance of earning anything back anytime soon, why would they bother to try? If they’ve lost access to their Xbox  for six months, what good is behaving better today? By stacking your consequences, you remove any impetus for your child to change. It becomes a game, a deeply entrenched power struggle, rather than an effective parenting tool.

Once kids feel like there’s no way they can get their stuff back, it’s almost like their best “defense” is to stop caring. As a parent, there is nothing more frustrating than working up a consequence, only to hear your child tell you they don’t care about what you’ve taken away. So, here’s the thing: If you’ve come to a place where you’ve taken almost everything away, and it’s still not working, know that trying a different approach can change to whole dynamic in your family. Keep in mind that parenting is a work in progress, and we want to keep looking for what’s effective. Here are five things you might do to start seeing some real progress in your household.

  1. Tie Your Consequences to a Specific Behavior: Remember, you’re giving your child a consequence because you want them to change what they are currently doing. You want your child to learn something: whether that is learning to clean their room, abide by the house rules even when they don’t want to, or come home on time each night. For example, if they routinely get a consequence for not cleaning their room, then they need to show that their room-cleaning skills are improving. A consequence tied to this behavior might be: “When your bed is made, your dirty clothes are put in the wash, and the dirty dishes are put in the dishwasher, you can have access to the internet. If these things aren’t done, you don’t get internet access that day.” It’s sort of a combination encouragement-consequence: show me you’re improving, and you earn something you want.
  2. Give Them a Chance to Succeed: When you’ve taken everything away, kids see no escape. It’s a bottomless pit of punishment. Instead of tacking on additional punishments, try taking it day-by-day. To stick with our “clean your room” example, you might say, “Your room needs to be clean by 4 pm each day. When it’s clean, you can access the internet. If you don’t get it clean by 4 pm, there’s no internet that day. You’ll get to try again the next day.” Do you see how that might work more effectively? Rather than a bottomless pit, you give your kid a new chance, every single day. But, what if it’s not something simple like cleaning his room? What if you’re dealing with abusive language, or disrespectful behavior? Regardless of the behavior you’re trying to change, giving your child a chance to succeed–every single day–is more effective than stacking consequences. Remember: punishment does not change behavior.
  3. Break It Down! Chances are there are a lot of things you want your child to do differently. If you focus on too many things at once, your child will get overwhelmed with all the things they’re supposed to be doing. Not only that, but you will get overwhelmed with trying to remember what consequences go with which behavior. Remember that you give a consequence because you want your child to do something differently. Focus on one or two behaviors at a time. Once they’ve shown improvement in those areas, you can use their success (and yours!) to build future success.
  4. Don’t Double Up: Related to focusing on just a couple of behaviors at a time, you want to match each behavior with one consequence, and don’t double up. Let’s say he’s working on cleaning his room, and getting home by his curfew. So if your child earns internet time by cleaning his room each day, don’t take away his internet access if he breaks curfew. Match a different consequence to that rule. It makes things clear and straightforward for everyone involved. Plus–you want your child to succeed, which means he needs to know that a privilege already earned stays earned. It can’t be taken away by something unrelated. Choose something your child wants, and match one consequence to one behavior.
  5. “But Wait!” My Kid Doesn’t Care What We Take Away!” Ah, the feigned indifference of childhood. Look, kids do this all the time. If they know you will restrict, or make them earn, something they really, really want, why would they let you know what that thing is? If they pretend not to care, then maybe you won’t bother taking it away. Pretty smart, when you think about it. The way to find consequences that matter to your child is you know your child best. Don’t listen to what they tell you they care about, look at what they actually care about. You know what they value. The trick to effective consequences is to choose something they value, tie it to a specific daily behavior, and make them hungry for more of it by giving them a taste of success, every single day. If you aren’t sure what your child values, choose a calm, relatively quiet time to sit down and talk with them about it. You might even ask them, “Is there something you’d like to have more of, or have time with? We’d like to give you an opportunity to earn things, every day.” Having this discussion with your child makes sure everyone understands the expectations, privileges, and consequences. Not only does this simplify the whole process (no more coming up with a consequence in the heat of the moment), it makes your child feel like part of the team: you want them to succeed, and you’re going to help them get there.

Once you’ve chosen the behaviors you want your child to improve, and you’ve matched them with a specific consequence, the most important thin is to stick to it. Consistency is important; it keeps everyone in your family on track. The truth is, you are all in this together. You create an environment of success, together. One behavior at a time, taking each day as it comes, things will start to change.