Discipline has got a bad rap. Just the mention of the word evokes the image of a screaming parent seizing a child by the scruff or swatting his behind—a cringe-inducing moment we’ve all witnessed in grocery stores nationwide. Nobody wants to be the parent who resorts to yelling and physical restraint. At the same time, how do you handle a child who ignores multiple pleas before hurling himself bodily into displays of canned corn?
The answer is a lot of patience and steady, smart discipline.
Good discipline is about expecting certain standards of behavior and then teaching the child the limits of those standards by reinforcing positive actions or, when those limits are breached, enforcing understandable consequences. Compared to that clichéd image of an angry parent, effective discipline should be pretty darn dull—unemotional, predictable, consistent, and above all, loving.
Remain Cool, Calm, and Collected
From the ages of two to teen, your children will test the limits of your patience. It’s an inevitable part of maturation. It’s perfectly natural to become angry when your child misbehaves, but as the adult, it falls upon you to model the behavior that you want your children to adopt. Time outs for both parent and child are a good way to take a moment when the situation becomes heated. When tempers are tamed, get your child’s attention, either by crouching down to his level, or by setting aside all distractions for a heart-to-heart at the dinner table. Keep your voice even. In simple, age-appropriate, and no-nonsense terms, explain the breach in conduct and then follow through on the consequences.
Don’t Make Them Guess
Shifting boundaries and house rules can confuse young children and increase the likelihood they’ll fail in fulfilling family expectations. It may be boring, but enforcing a predictable daily routine goes a long way to taming the chaos that children often perceive in the world around them. If a preschooler knows he can’t play on the swings until his bed is made, then he’s more likely to tuck in those sheets lickety-split. If a kindergartner knows she won’t hear a bedtime story unless she has finished brushing her teeth, she’s more likely to hustle up the stairs when prompted. As kids age into the teen years, those rules can be renegotiated, providing teenagers with a sense of confidence and growing independence.
Stay The Course
We’ve all witnessed this situation. A parent is chatting when her child sneaks over to steal a cookie before lunch. The parent looks over, says ‘no,’ but the child ignores her and slips away with the cookie. The parent sighs, rolls her eyes, shrugs, and continues chatting.
Even if it means leaving a restaurant, taking a phone away from a teen, or risking a tantrum from a child breaking the rules, following through on the consequences is crucial. Firing blank ‘nos’ makes the word mean nothing. The child who knows he can steal a cookie without consequences will soon question every rule.
Feel The Love
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of criticizing or nagging a child for inappropriate behavior, or forgetting to praise them when they do what is expected. Positive reinforcement is just as important to discipline as age-appropriate and situation-appropriate punishment. A nurturing, loving environment teaches the child that they can make mistakes, forget, and even misbehave, and they’ll still be unconditionally loved.
For more information, check out this primer on age-appropriate discipline.