Parents often ask, “How can I discipline my child?”
When we hear about child discipline, we may think it’s difficult, frustrating, and utterly exhausting. But proper discipline is one of the most crucial components of your child’s development. So no matter how discouraging it may seem, it will ultimately benefit you and especially your child in the long run.
In this post we’ll talk about:
- The 3 biggest myths about discipline
- The 4 discipline and parenting styles
- The evidence behind the positive discipline
- 4 key steps to discipline
Debunking the 3 Biggest Myths About Child Discipline
“Discipline” seems to have become a bad word in some parenting circles. That’s because of the misconceptions about what discipline is when discipline happens, and the why or the end goal of discipline.
Myth #1: Discipline is all about using a certain strategy or technique.
The basis for discipline is the ENTIRE relationship between parent and child. It’s not just a “technique or isolated strategy” that the parent uses. It’s not about memorizing certain “magic words” to “get your child to behave”.
We can’t discipline our kids unless we build a strong relationship first.
Myth #2: Discipline happens ONLY when the child misbehaves.
The truth is, discipline happens ALL THE TIME, whether or not we’re aware of it. It’s not just something we suddenly have to do when a child misbehaves.
Our kids are always learning by watching and listening to us and others around them.
Myth #3: The goal of discipline is to PUNISH bad behavior.
Many people feel that discipline equals punishment. Sometimes people will say, “You should discipline your child!” when what they mean is, “You should punish your child!”
However, discipline is not about punishing bad behavior. It’s about TEACHING the child and helping him become a capable adult.
“Discipline”, just like the word “disciple”, actually comes from discipulus, the Latin word for “pupil”. In child development, discipline means teaching your child responsible behavior and self-control.
Just think of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus guided and mentored his disciples with respect, kindness, and empathy.
Once we have debunked these three common myths, we see why we can’t really separate parenting and discipline.
The Different Discipline and Parenting Styles
Researchers classify these based on two dimensions: parental support or responsiveness, and parental behavior control or demandingness.
- Uninvolved parenting means being both unresponsive and also undemanding. Research shows that outcomes are worse for uninvolved parenting.
- In permissive parenting, there is high parental support, but low behavior control.
Here are examples of parenting advice that fall under the permissive parenting style:
“You should never say no to your child!”
“It’s disrespectful to do anything that makes your child cry.”
- In authoritarian parenting, there’s low responsiveness and high demandingness. Surprisingly, research also shows that both permissive and authoritarian parenting styles are associated with more behavior problems – whether internalizing – such as anxiety and depression – or externalizing – such as aggression and delinquency.
Advice like these would fall under authoritarian parenting:
“All your child needs is a spanking.”
“You should make your kids so afraid of you that they don’t dare misbehave.”
- The best outcomes are achieved with the authoritative parenting style where there’s high parental support, as well as, high parental behavior control. Parents who are authoritative show warmth and involvement in their interaction with their children AND at the same time, they set clear rules and expectations for children’s behavior.
What about spanking?
This method is associated with the authoritarian parenting style. Research shows that “Spanking alone is associated with adverse outcomes, to those in children who experience physical abuse.“
These are outcomes such as increased aggression and mental health problems.
Now, what if the spanking is less severe, or spanking is done in a “just” manner – only when the parent feels that the child deserves it, will it remove the behavior problems that are associated with spanking?
A study involving multiple countries showed that “Neither severity nor justness moderated the relation between frequency of corporal punishment and child problem behavior.” This suggests that corporal punishment is harmful to children, regardless of how it’s administered.
Unfortunately, many parents don’t know what else to do. They’re afraid that if they don’t spank their kids, then the only alternative is to allow their children to behave badly.
Outcomes of Positive Parenting Support
The good news is – parenting support programs do work. When parents are taught about how to increase positive and responsive parenting behaviors the outcomes include the following:
- Improve developmental, health, and nutritional outcomes
- Increase attendance at well-child visits
- Enhance parent and child mental health
- Improve school and academic performance
- Interrupt the cycle of violence
- Increase social cohesion
Rational Approach to Discipline
What’s involved in disciplining a child? Let’s remember the following: context, connection, communication, and correction. All these fit together like the pieces of a puzzle when disciplining a child.
First, we need to understand the context of the behavior. Often, when a child misbehaves, people assume that the child is naughty or bad. But behavior is actually the result of an interaction between many child factors and many environmental factors.
This is referred to as the Interactional or Transactional model because the child shapes the environment by influencing those around her, and the environment also shapes both the child’s development and behavior.
- One child factor is the physical condition. If a child lacks sleep or is uncomfortable, hungry, or ill, it will be a bigger challenge to behave appropriately.
- Another factor is developmental status. Remember – a child’s prefrontal cortex does not mature until he reaches his 20s. Sometimes kids are expected to have a level of self-control that even many adults don’t have. And when they don’t, they’re labeled as misbehaving. The child may also have a developmental disorder that’s leading to the behavior problem.
- Yet another child factor is temperament, or how a child experiences and reacts to the environment.
Environmental factors include the physical setting, family situation, and sociocultural circumstances.
It’s easier to behave appropriately if there is a goodness of fit. This describes how well a child’s temperament fits the demands of his environment. Problems can arise when there’s a mismatch between the child’s temperament and the environment.
As you can see, we can’t just look at a child’s behavior at any point in time and say, this is a naughty child, or this is a child who needs to be punished. We also see why there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline.
Advice for Parents
So what can we tell parents when it comes to understanding the context of a child’s behavior?
1. Set up the environment for success.
Work with the child’s brain, not against it. Make good behavior more automatic and less challenging for the child.
For example, for an active toddler, it’s easier to have a safe space where the child can explore, rather than constantly stopping the child from touching everything around him.
For a school-age child, make it easier to do school work by having a distraction-free space to work and the needed materials ready and organized.
2. Set developmentally appropriate expectations.
Many behavior problems are really the result of a mismatch between the child’s developmental level and what the child is being asked to do.
For example, a three-year-old who refuses to attend a one-hour online class. Or a four-year-old who throws a tantrum every time the parent tries to get him to sit down and answer worksheets. Then they will ask, “What can I do to discipline my child?” Well, in these cases, the best thing to do would be to remove these demands that are not developmentally appropriate.
3. Understand temperament and individual differences.
A lot of problems can be caused by a mismatch between the temperament of the child and those around her. For example, relatives may not understand why a child doesn’t seem excited to greet them and will label her as snobbish or disrespectful when in reality, it’s a manifestation of her temperament.
4. Don’t take behavior personally.
When a child misbehaves, many parents think it’s a “power struggle” or “My child is trying his best to annoy me.” But as we just discussed, there are so many factors that influence a child’s behavior!
We now go to the next piece of the discipline puzzle – the foundation, actually – which is connecting with the child.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships. These affect all aspects of their development – intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral.”
This means if we want a child to grow up to be disciplined, morally upright, and with good social and emotional skills, it all starts with building a strong relationship.
Advice for Parents
1. Make connecting with your child a priority.
First, we need to advise parents to make this a priority. When parents get busy with work, household chores, and making sure that kids get their homework done, often this connection part becomes a low priority – until later on, they realize that the relationship has already suffered. But it’s much easier to build a strong relationship from the start than to try and repair a broken relationship later on.
2. Listen to your child.
Ask open-ended questions. “What happened?” “How do you and others feel about it?” When the child answers, don’t interrupt, lecture, or give a command. Start even during early childhood, and it will be less of a struggle during the teenage years.
3. Have fun and play!
Again, this is true across all ages and this doesn’t have to be complicated. As you can see from the pictures here, you don’t even need to buy toys. The important thing is the parents are fully present and really engaging with the child.
4. Every day, have at least one meal together as a family.
Start this even during infancy, and continue all the way to adolescence. Also, avoid screen time during meals.
5. Put down your phone!
Take a break from sharenting. An observational study showed that when parents use smartphones while spending time with children, parents become less responsive and sensitive to their children’s cues, and kids engage in more risky behaviors while attempting to regain parental attention.
6. Have a special time with your child.
Bright Futures Tool for Families has some recommendations regarding special times:
- Given every day and never withheld as a punishment.
- Kept a consistent, short amount of time (10-15 mins).
- Set at a convenient and ideally consistent time.
- Given separately by each parent to each child.
- Used for a joint activity chosen by the child, within activities acceptable to the adult.
Special time should be separate from other time spent together, such as when a parent tutors a child, that’s separate from a special time. It’s not used for watching television or other passive activities and should be screen-free too. It’s not interrupted by taking phone calls or turning attention away to something else.
If we consistently connect with our kids, we’ll be setting the stage for the next part, which is communication. We need to communicate what’s expected clearly, consistently, with empathy, and using developmentally appropriate language.
Advice for Parents
1. Get the child’s attention.
Make sure your child is listening. Here are some things that you can do to get your child’s attention:
- Face your child and get down to the child’s level.
- Say her name.
- Make eye contact.
- Gently touch her arm.
- Use a stronger voice so she notices the difference in the tone.
2. Use positive language.
Instead of telling the kids what NOT to do, suggest what they CAN do. Take the following situation as an example:
Instead of saying, “Stop fighting”, say, “Go outside” or “Quiet time”.
Instead of saying, “Don’t hit”, say, “Touch nicely”. And a proper demonstration won’t hurt too!
3. Give choices.
Allow developmentally appropriate choices that are also acceptable to the parent.
Instead of saying, “Wear your shoes now!”, say, “It’s time to go out. Will you wear your red shoes or blue shoes?”.
4. Model it.
Kids learn the most from what they see us do, more than from what we tell them.
Whether it’s habits like brushing teeth or healthy eating, managing screen time, or values like respect and empathy, we must model what we want our kids to learn.
Then when the child does what’s expected, let’s encourage it! Be specific and action-focused. Instead of saying, “Good boy” or “good girl”, say “thanks for helping me”. This is the kind of encouragement that builds resilience and self-reliance.
6. Have a routine.
Kids behave better when they know what to expect and when to expect it. Collaborate with the child in creating a routine chart. Brainstorm tasks that need to be done. For younger kids, it may help to take photos of the child doing each task.
7. Prepare the child for new or potentially challenging situations.
When there are new or potentially challenging situations, prepare the child for them. Particularly now, with kids starting to go out or have face-to-face classes again, they’ll need to adjust to many new situations. Tell the child what to expect. For younger kids, it may help to use pictures. It may also help to practice or roleplay the situation.
Lastly, we have Correction. I put this last because unless all the other parts are in place, these methods won’t work.
Why do kids misbehave?
According to the behaviorist perspective, misbehavior is a learned response. A child misbehaves because, whether or not we realize it, that behavior was reinforced in the past. For example, if the parent hands over a gadget when the child has a tantrum, this can reinforce the tantrums. So if there’s any behavior we want to decrease, we should avoid reinforcing it.
According to parenting that’s based on humanistic psychology, misbehavior is due to a mistaken belief of not belonging or not being significant. So a misbehaving child is not bad or naughty but is actually discouraged.
How can we improve behavior?
According to this perspective, we improve behavior by focusing on solutions and making the child a partner in problem-solving.
How often do we tell kids – “not here”, or “you can’t be here”, then they misbehave?
Instead, allow the child to be useful and involved – for example, by assigning age-appropriate chores, or by including them in conversations and decision-making.
Now there are many different strategies for handling misbehavior. As we said, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to discipline. The art of parenting includes discerning when it’s appropriate to use which strategies. I’ll discuss four of them here.
Time out is not to be used as a punishment, but as a way to help the child regulate emotionally. If a child misbehaves, remove the child from the situation and place her in the time-out space. You must designate a time-out space where the child can calm down. For older children, help them how to use the time-out effectively on their own.
Another is to let the child experience the natural consequences of their actions. For example, if a child is already in school then she realizes she left her homework at home. The parent doesn’t bring the homework to school. This is actually very difficult for parents to do.
Show empathy and validate feelings. Be comforting without rescuing. For example, say,
“You didn’t have your homework in class today. That must have been embarrassing.”
Then stop. Don’t lecture. Just let the child learn from the experience.
But, we don’t stop there. What can we do so that in the future, the child doesn’t forget to bring her homework? Maybe we need to help the child organize her study area, or have her check her bag as part of her routine before leaving for school.
Compared with natural consequences where the parent doesn’t need to intervene, in a logical consequence, the parent needs to do something in order to administer it.
For something to be considered a good logical consequence, it must be related to the behavior. It must also be respectful, and not involve blame, shame, or pain. Also, It should be kindly and firmly enforced, in a way that’s respectful to everyone involved. It must be reasonable from both the child’s and the adult’s point of view. And it must be helpful, meaning it will encourage change for everyone involved.
For example, if a child destroys the plants of a parent, a logical consequence can be that the child needs to help the parent rebuild the garden.
TEACH THE DESIRED BEHAVIOR.
For any misbehavior, it’s very important not just to show the child what he did wrong, but to teach the desired behavior.
Take the time to teach the child step-by-step. We often take it for granted that kids already know what to do. But whether it’s a command like, “clean your room” or “play nicely with your cousins” – there are actually many little steps involved.
Sometimes, we may need to repeat it. Even as adults we don’t always learn how to do something correctly the first time around, so let’s not expect this from kids.
Also, brainstorm with the child possible solutions to everyday problems or conflicts.
Ask questions that invite your child to think. ex. “What do you need to do to be ready for school in time?”
Let’s see in the following example how these four strategies work together to handle a misbehaving child.
Example situation: Child shouts, throws and destroys toys while playing.
- Remove the child from the situation. Time-out to help the child regulate.
- When the child has calmed down, say, “Tell me what happened.” Then listen.
- Clean up the broken toys together. Don’t immediately go and buy replacement toys.
- Brainstorm what to do to prevent it in the future. Teach and give choices on appropriate ways to play.
Support Parent and Caregiver Mental Health
All these strategies – understanding context, connecting with the child, communicating and correcting in a positive way – require that the parents should be mentally and emotionally healthy.
Many parents are tired, stressed, and overworked from the demands of life today. They also receive a deluge of guilt-inducing parenting advice from social media. All these drain the parent’s time, energy, or mental and emotional resources.
We can help support parents and caregivers mental health, even simply by asking about and acknowledging the challenges of parenting. We may not have all the answers, and there are no quick-fix solutions – but we can all work together to responsibly raise the next generation.
So it may feel as though the kids from this new generation are so different. But in the end, just like all the generations that came before them, they need the foundation of a strong relationship with their parents and caregivers.
These kids will grow up to be our future doctors, innovators, and world leaders. By helping them today, we’re making the world a better place, one child at a time.