What You Need to Know About Disciplining Your Child

Serious scolding at sunset

From sitting them in corners to sending to their rooms, from saying to “say sorry” to giving a time out, the methods are all different but the question is the same: What is really the best way to discipline a child?

Disciplining our children is one of parenting’s least appealing tasks. Unless you intended to become a drill sergeant or a chief-of-police, even the word itself implies something you probably never had any desire to partake in. So what are you supposed to do when your kids start to misbehave?

Ideally, a parent’s style of disciplining and socializing a child reflects a philosophy of childrearing that allows and encourages the gradual unfolding of the child’s distinctive personality, vitality, and enthusiasm for life. With this sensitivity and interest in the emergence of a child’s unique traits, the parents maintain a sense of inquiry in relation to their children. When a child acts up, they wonder about what is troubling the child emotionally rather than automatically punishing the behavior. The ultimate purpose of discipline is to help the child develop into a decent, likeable adult who is capable of survival in a social milieu, rather than one who is submissive to the socialization process.

The following are useful guidelines for the discipline and socialization of children:

1) Avoid making unnecessary restrictions, rules or standards.
2) Act as a positive role model.
3) Reward rather than punish.
4) Avoid cynical, judgmental attitudes that reinforce a child’s sense of badness.
5) Attempt to control children’s acting out of hostile, manipulative behavior

1) Don’t make unnecessary restrictions or rules

Many parents mistakenly believe that to provide a child with structure, a parent must make a lot of rules. However, unnecessary rules are disrespectful of a child as a person. Rather than shape the child’s character, excessive regulation acts to restrict and inhibit the emergence of his/her personality. It is important that parents decide on the rules that are necessary and useful in their family. These should be communicated to the children and then they should be consistently upheld. In situations where definite rules apply, parents should not act as though a child has a choice in the matter.

2) Act as a positive role model.

A positive parental example has a much more powerful impact on a child than any disciplinary measures a parent might take. For example, the best way for parents to teach a child to be considerate is not to lecture about consideration and punish inconsideration, but for the parents to be considerate themselves.

In all families, the parents’ own behavior and standards provide the children with the most powerful lessons about right and wrong. Children, who have decent, moral parents, learn ethical behavior and decency through observing and imitating their parents. Lectures and object lessons about goodness and righteousness are often counter-productive and can be destructive, especially when parents do not live up to their principles or personify their beliefs.

3) Reward rather than punish.

When trying to influence a child’s behavior, it is much more effective for parents to reward positive behaviors than to punish negative behaviors. Children naturally want their parents’ love and approval. Therefore children come to value and place importance on the behaviors that their parents praise and acknowledge.

Child psychologists and behaviorists have learned that positive reinforcement such as smiling, verbal praise, and physical affection are significant for learning. They have also found that nagging, complaining and lecturing are ineffective. In general, behaviorists have found that a combination of verbal approval, tangible rewards, affection, genuine acknowledgment (not false praise), and some form of negative consequence for misbehavior are conducive to successfully teaching and disciplining children.

It is not a good practice for parents to offer children monetary rewards for good behavior. This approach tends to place the child’s behavior on a commercial basis rather than a personal one. It is always best to encourage a personal reaction in a child. Monetary rewards interfere with the child’s natural generosity and desire to please, and foster calculating attitudes.

4) Avoid cynical, judgmental attitudes that reinforce a child’s sense of badness.

Some parents mistakenly believe that their verbal punishments and cynical, judgmental attitudes do not have a damaging effect on their children. They believe that only physical abuse and punishment leave emotional scars. However, parents must spare more than the rod to spare the child from psychological harm. Just as physical punishment damages the child’s psyche, harsh, judgmental attitudes act to destroy the child’s self-esteem. The parents’ hostile point-of-view becomes implanted deep in the child’s psyche and forms the basis of a negative identity that the child carries through life.

Parents should not define their children’s behavior in terms of good and bad. Rather than making an evaluation of their child’s behavior, parents are better off offering a personal response. Evaluative reactions leave children thinking of themselves in terms of good and bad. With a personal response, parents communicate their feeling rather than a judgement about the child’s behavior: “I don’t like when you do that.” “I worry about you when you do that.” “It makes me angry when you do that.” Even: “Don’t do that.”

Along with not defining children in terms of good and bad, parents should refrain from analyzing or categorizing children in general. These practices tend to foist a strict or fixed identity on a child. It is important that parents instill in their children the awareness that we are all developing human beings. That any of us, children and adults alike, can change any behavior that we want to. It is also advisable to avoid comparisons with other children for the purpose of motivating good behavior. Comparisons are not useful or appropriate for motivating good behavior in children.

5) Attempt to control children’s acting out of hostile, manipulative behavior

Discipline is an expression of an adult’s concern for a child. An essential component of parental love is offering control and direction. Therefore, the loving parent disciplines a child because the parent cares about the kind of person the child is growing up to be. The adult’s anger is in the best interest of the child.

Discipline should be consistent. It should be in relation to the child’s actions, and the rules and standards that have been established in family. When this is the case, the punishment will make sense to the child. However, when disciplinary actions are reflective of parents’ moods or over-reactions, they are unexpected and surprise the child. They seem to be “coming out of left field.”

Express genuine anger when disciplining a child but do not act out emotional or physical aggression toward the child. The parents’ expression of anger should be motivated by wanting to influence their child positively, not by a desire to vent and release their own emotions on the child. Their anger is for the child’s sake, not for their own sake. In instances when it becomes necessary to restrain a child, parents can gently but firmly hold the child and talk to him/her with firmness.

Do not use idle threats of future punishment to enforce rules and standards. The parent who avoids being strong and taking action by making idle threats is experienced by the child as a weak and ineffectual parent. Parents should avoid engaging in battles of will with a child. Such battles are easily avoided when rules are clearly established and then consistently upheld in a family. The child knows what the rules are and there is no room for negotiation.

It is not only important that parents deal with their children’s aggressive and hostile behavior, but also that they deal firmly with behavior that involves negative power plays and manipulation. Because children are smaller and weaker, they often resort to negative power plays to manipulate their situation. Such behaviors include: crying unnecessarily, falling apart, having temper tantrums, playing the victim, acting weak and helpless, engaging in self-destructive behavior, trying to make others feel guilty, and acting paranoid or mistreated. These are not simply childish behaviors or phases that the child will outgrow. If they are not confronted and altered in childhood, they will become life-long habits and interfere with personal relationships through adulthood.

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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2 Comments

Miles Patrowski

Interesting approach to parenting. I think that when asked why parents allow their children to have too much power, many say that too much discipline might injure their child’s self-esteem. In reality, letting children get away with too much can be just as damaging to their self-worth as being too strict. When kids thrive on power, they become anxious about the impulses they cannot control, and then feel poorly about themselves. When children act out, it is often a cry for a more balanced, consistent form of discipline. The following article is a great follow up for “Parenting Experts Weigh in on ‘Tiger Mother'”:

Read: http://bit.ly/docarticle

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himanshu sharma

My childis 6 year of age and at timeshe gets really violent and aggresive he hits everyone whether its grandmother, younger sister, or a friend or even me. He is also abusive and loud. always wants attention and we posesive about me… only he fears is his father because he beats him and scolds him badly…. so I am confused that loving him makes spoiled and violent and if anyone is violent as I said his father he will listen quitely what his father says….. what shud i do….Iam not able to controlhim… he is doing bad in studies in school and if I enroll him in diferent activities he is not regular or interested in completing it properly…. like dance class, music, casio, karate, drawing I havae tried everything….. actually i am like friend to him and this attitude works with my daughter who is 4 now but with him nothing works… I am really worried about his future… day by day he is becoming worst… at times I loose my temper at that time he behaves normal and says sorry… he abuses me in front of people anywhere, hits me…cry…. I try to keep my cool and talk to him regarding his behaviour but he doesnot respond positively, I give him educational games, cds, tv programs and sorts of activity… nutrious food, milk everything on time, I love him, hug him kiss him…. do every little thing a mother can do…. but I am not able to improve his behaviour with anyone… finally I have started searching for my answers on web through your website…. please help me to sort my son’s problem…. what do I do, how can I make him a normal child….??????pleaseeeeee help

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