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“Disciplining” children is in the news a lot lately. It’s an important issue for those who care about children and parents. Many parents think the word discipline is all about punishment ― and especially about physical punishment. But discipline really is about helping a child understand what to do ― and learn how to self-regulate.
“The word discipline actually means to teach or to guide,” says D’Arcy Lyness, PhD, behavioral health editor for KidsHealth.org. “It’s not about punishment ― and certainly not about shouting, scolding, or physically hurting a child. Effective discipline is built into the daily parenting of a child ― not used an after-the-fact reaction to an unwanted behavior.”
Parenting (and discipline) that is emotionally warm, has high expectations for kids, and focuses on teaching children positive ways to act is far more effective ― and far more rewarding ― than parenting that focuses on punishment.
Physical punishment, like slapping or hurting a child, is never acceptable. And not just because it’s wrong ― it is also less effective than other methods. Why? A parent who hurts a child almost always does so out of frustration and anger. It’s an out-of-control moment that sets a bad example for children. A parent who uses physical force might get a child to stop doing something for the moment, but risks damaging the parent-child relationship permanently.
“Children who are physically disciplined develop less self-control rather than more. They do worse in school and have more emotional problems than children who are disciplined in other ways. That’s just the opposite of what their parents intend,” says Lyness.
KidsHealth offers these tips for parents looking to help their children learn better behavior and how to self-regulate:
* Have high expectations for good behavior ― but make sure your expectations match your child’s age. For example, it’s unrealistic to expect a toddler not to touch things. Toddlers naturally explore and touch everything within reach. With that developmental reality in mind, parents can focus on toddler-proofing the home to make it safe, providing things to play with and explore, and being attentive and responsive. If your toddler ventures toward something off-limits, protect and redirect him, rather than scold or punish.
* For preschoolers, have clear rules and consistent routines, and be proactive by patiently showing kids how you want them to behave. Your everyday interactions ― from playtime to bedtime to mealtime ― are the perfect opportunities to show and tell your child how to behave in different situations. Model positive cooperative behaviors, and be clear and firm about what’s OK and what’s not.
* Look behind the misbehavior. Misbehavior isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a preschooler is cranky because he’s hungry or sleepy. Or perhaps the spilled water was part of young child’s experiment with water. Looking at the misbehavior from your child’s perspective might affect how you react.
* Respond to your child’s emotional needs with warmth and understanding. Give your preschooler opportunities to do things “all by himself,” but offer help as needed. Use routines to help kids get into good habits like putting toys away, helping, sharing, saying sorry, cooperating when it’s bath- or bedtime. Expecting and praising desired behaviors helps them become habits. And practicing these habits helps kids develop self-help, and social and cognitive skills.
* When it comes to responding to a young child’s misbehavior, take firm but gentle action without too much talking or explaining. Making too much of your child’s misbehavior, or reacting too emotionally, sometimes keeps it happening.
* Avoid asking questions, (‘why would you do that!?’) and avoid harsh words that disparage or shame your child (‘you are so selfish’). And don’t be distracted by your child’s story about why he did what he did (“she started it!”). Instead, stay focused on the specific misbehavior you want to correct. Simply stop your child, and calmly (but firmly) say what’s not allowed (‘it’s not OK to grab her toy’). Then say what will happen next (‘you need to say you’re sorry for grabbing, and give her back the toy’). When your child does that, offer brief praise (‘that’s better, thanks’). Most times a longer punishment is unnecessary. It can be more helpful to encourage your child toward a positive way to behave (‘OK, ready to get back to playing nicely together?’).
* Manage your own emotions. It’s natural for parents to feel frustrated or angry when children misbehave. Be aware of your emotions, but be in control of how you express them. Remain calm and clear when responding to your child. Avoid yelling or preaching. Teach kids to manage their own emotional meltdowns by setting a good example.
* When it comes to discipline, parents should be warm and fair…but firm and clear. Don’t use threats, physical punishment, or consequences that are too harsh or out of scale with the misbehavior. Have reasonable consequences for misbehavior, and carry them out calmly.
* Use approaches that help your child learn to problem-solve and to manage difficult emotions. Some young children are more challenging than others, such as those who are often oppositional or uncooperative. Help kids learn to cooperate with your requests by giving specific instructions (nicely), and breaking down tasks into small parts. Teach cool-downs or use time-outs to help kids regroup. Ignore your child’s protests whenever you can. Stay calmly focused on what you expect. Praise your child for self-reliant cooperative behaviors. Teach your child to know and name emotions and to tell you how he feels and why.
* Reach out for help and support. Your support network may include family members or friends. But also consider talking to your child’s doctor, nurse, teacher, or a child therapist. Take a parenting class. Read. Talk to other parents who are successful at raising children without having to use physical force.
* Above all, be patient. Being a parent is a difficult job. But raising a happy child who is socially and emotionally equipped to be successful in life is probably the most important (and rewarding) job a parent can have.
For more information about disciplining children, visit these KidsHealth articles:
Disciplining Your Child
How Can Parents Discipline Without Spanking?
Am I Too Tough When I Discipline My Kids?
Nine Steps to More Effective Parenting