Healthy Discipline Do’s and Don’ts
Discipline is necessary—children need it in order to learn and grow. This article isn’t to dissuade you from trying to discipline your child, but rather, to provide guidance around how and when to discipline so that it is a learning experience for your child, rather than merely punitive.
As your child matures, discipline tactics must also evolve over time. These do’s and don’ts are for how to discipline a child, whether toddlers or small children.
Do use time-outs. Time out is an effective tool because it gives the child a time and place to calm himself down, teaching him self-regulation. This will lead him to alter his bad behavior in the future, even if he wants to express the same sentiment.
Do explain. Explaining why you have disciplined a child is as important as the act. This way, children learn what behavior to avoid or what behavior to display in the future. They also learn that discipline is not arbitrary.
Do use “time-ins.” That is, when kids are good, praise them for it. It’s easy to focus on and respond to bad behavior. But positively reinforcing good behavior on a regular basis can head off bad behavior before it happens. Phrases like, “I like how you are sitting quietly with that book,” or “I like how you stood still while we waited in line,” are specific and help the child learn what behavior to replicate.
Do be firm and consistent. Children must know what to expect in order to alter their behavior. So think carefully about what you want to set limits for – there are some areas where it may not hurt to be flexible or responsive to your child’s whims. Make sure you and your partner are on board with these limits and discipline tactics, as well as extended family and other caregivers. Have a family meeting, if necessary, to discuss it and make it a common agenda.
Do understand what is bad behavior. Important development milestones aren’t sudden; kids must practice and learn, fail and try again. All of this is often messy and frustrating—but incredibly necessary. For instance, two-year-olds are made to test boundaries; trying to do things their own way or trying something new is a key developmental behavior at this age. Just because they attempt a change in routine, doesn’t mean they’re willfully disobeying.
Do pick your battles. Hearing “no” or “don’t” too many times wears out the meaning and can inhibit spontaneity and curiosity. Pick one or two main behaviors you want to teach your child. Once he or she has mastered them, then tackle another issue.
Do distract. If your child is doing something you don’t want her to do, your first instinct is probably to say “stop,” or “don’t.” But she is more likely to stop if you suggest an alternative behavior or activity. For instance, if she is playing with something breakable, saying “hands in your pockets,” or “put it on the table,” or even “come play with this ball,” all suggest definitive, alternative actions that she can pursue—and repeat in the future.
Do give choices. When an activity or behavior is non-negotiable, be sure to give your child choices about something else that is. This gives the child a measure of control over his life, while still accomplishing what you need. For instance, try this if you’re trying to get her to go to sleep: “You have to go to bed now. Do you want to wear your blue pajamas or green pajamas? Do you want to sleep with your special blanket or stuffed giraffe?”
Don’t use any form of physical contact. Spanking or slapping is never a good way of disciplining a child. A single spank or slap may seem effective, especially if your child responds. But the child doesn’t learn from the experience; she doesn’t learn why it was wrong to do what she did, and hence, she’s like to repeat it. This can lead to a cycle of escalating violence, as the amount of spanking or slapping will have to increase to have the same effect. It also teaches the child that spanking and slapping are acceptable forms of social interaction.
Don’t fight for control. Development is all about children taking more control over and responsibility for their lives. Feeding and toileting can be especially fierce battlegrounds, as they are areas where children who are too tightly regulated can stake out their ground. If you find yourself consistently struggling to get your child to fall in line in a certain area, revisit whether your way is the best way. Is your routine more convenient for you than it is for your child?
Don’t get self-righteous. It’s so easy to recriminate after the disciplinary act – “I asked you not to throw things. But did you listen to me? No.” – but it really only validates the parent, not the child. Often, it leads to a new cycle of tantrums or bad behavior, when children aren’t acknowledged for calming down. Play it cool and move forward by acting like nothing has happened, and your child will, too.