Discipline and Your Child

As a parent, it is your job to teach your child the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But getting your child to behave the way you want is not as hard as you think. This brochure will help you learn effective ways to discipline your child.

Because learning takes time, especially for a young child, you may find that it takes several weeks of working on a behavior before you see a change. Try not to get frustrated when you do not see the results of your efforts right away.

Discipline vs. punishment

Many parents think discipline and punishment are the same thing. However, they are really quite different. Discipline is a whole system of teaching based on a good relationship, praise, and instruction for the child on how to control his behavior. Punishment is negative; an unpleasant consequence for doing or not doing something. Punishment should be only a very small part of discipline.

Effective discipline should take place all the time, not just when children misbehave. Children are more likely to change their behavior when they feel encouraged and valued, not shamed and humiliated. When children feel good about themselves and cherish their relationship with their parents, they are more likely to listen and learn.

Encourage good behavior from infancy

You can begin laying the framework for good behavior from the time your child is born. When you respond to your infant’s cries, you are teaching her that you are there, you can be counted on when she needs you, and that she can trust you. When your child is about two months of age, start to modify your responses and encourage your baby to establish good sleeping patterns by letting her fall asleep on her own. By keeping a reasonably steady schedule, you can guide her toward eating, sleeping, and playing at times that are appropriate for your family. This lays the groundwork for acceptable behavior later on.

Once your baby starts to crawl (between 6 and 9 months of age) and she learns to walk (between 9 and 16 months of age), safety is the most critical discipline issue. The best thing you can do for your child at this age is to give her the freedom to explore certain things and make other things off-limits. For example, put childproof locks on some cabinets, such as those that contain heavy dishes or pots, or poisonous substances like cleaning products. Leave other cabinets open. Fill the open cabinets with plastic containers or soft materials that your child can play with. This feeds your baby’s need to explore and practice, but in safe ways that are acceptable to you.

You will need to provide extra supervision during this period. If your child moves toward a dangerous object, such as a hot stove, simply pick her up, firmly say, “no, hot” and offer her a toy to play with instead. She may laugh at first as she tries to understand you but, after a few weeks, she will learn.

Discipline issues become more complex at about 18 months of age. At this time, a child wants to know how much power she has and will test the limit of that power over and over again. It is important for parents to decide – together – what those limits will be and stick to them. Parents need to be very clear about what is acceptable behavior. This will reduce the child’s confusion and the need to test. Setting consistent guidelines for children when they are young will also help establish important rules for the future.

If you and your partner disagree, discuss it with each other when you are not with your child. Do not interfere with each other when your child is present. This upsets the child or teaches her to set the adults up against each other which can cause more problems.

Tips to avoid trouble:

One of the keys to effective discipline is avoiding power struggles. This can be a challenge with young children. It is best to address only those issues that truly are important to you. The following tips may help:

  • Offer choices whenever possible. By giving acceptable choices, you can set limits and still allow your child some independence. For example, try saying, "Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue one?"
  • Make a game out of good behavior. Your child is more likely to do what you want if you make it fun. For example, you might say, "Let's have a race and see who can put his coat on first."
  • Plan ahead. If you know that certain circumstances always cause trouble, such as a trip to the store, discuss with your child ahead of time what behavior is acceptable and what the consequences will be if he does not obey. Try to plan the shopping trip for a time when your child is well rested and well fed, and take along a book or small toy to amuse him if he gets bored.
  • Praise good behavior. Whenever your child remembers to follow the rules, offer encouragement and praise about how well he did. You do not need any elaborate system of rewards. You can simply say, "Thank you for coming right away," and hug your child. Praise for acceptable behavior should be frequent, especially for young children.

Strategies that work
Of course you cannot avoid trouble all of the time. Sooner or later your child will test you. It is your child's way of finding out whether you can be trusted and really will do what you say you will do if she does not listen to you.

When your child does not listen, try the following techniques. Not only will they encourage your child to cooperate now, but they will teach her how to behave in the future as well.

Natural consequences. When a child sees the natural consequences of her actions, she experiences the direct results of her choices. (But be sure the consequences do not place her in any danger.) For example, if your child drops her cookies on purpose, she will not have cookies to eat. If she throws and breaks her toy, she will not be able to play with it. It will not be long before your child learns not to drop her cookies and to play carefully with her toys.

When you use this method, resist the urge to lecture your child or to rescue her (by getting more cookies, for example). Your child will learn best when she learns for herself and will not blame you for the consequences she receives.

Logical consequences. Natural consequences work best, but they are not always appropriate. For example, if your child does not pick up her toys, they may be in the way. But chances are she will not care as much as you do. For older children, you will need to step in and create a consequence that is closely connected to her actions. You might tell her that if she does not pick up her toys, then you will put them away where she will not be allowed to play with them again for a whole day. Children less than 6 years of age need adult help picking up yet can be asked to assist with the task. If your child refuses your request for help, take her by the hand as you silently finish the job. This insistence that your child participate, along with your silence, becomes a clear consequence for your child.

When you use this method, it is important that you mean what you say and that you are prepared to follow through immediately. Let your child know that you are serious. You do not have to yell and scream to do this. You can say it in a calm, matter-of-fact way.

Withholding privileges. In the heat of the moment, you will not always be able to think of a logical consequence. That is when you may want to tell your child that, if she does not cooperate, she will have to give up something she likes. The following are a few things to keep in mind when you use this technique:

  • Never take away something your child truly needs, such as a meal
  • Choose something that your child values that is related to the misbehavior
  • For children younger than 6 or 7 years of age, withholding privileges works best if done immediately following the problem behavior. For instance, if your young child misbehaves in the morning and you withhold television viewing for that evening, your child probably will not connect the behavior with the consequence.
  • Be sure you can follow through with your promise.
Time-out. Time-out should be your last resort and you should use it only when other responses do not work. Time-outs work well when the behavior you are trying to punish is clearly defined and you know when it occurred. Time-outs can also be helpful if you need a break to stay calm. You can use a time-out with a child as young as 1 year old. Follow these steps to make a time-out work:
  1. Choose a time-out spot. This should be a boring place with no distractions, such as a chair. Remember the main goal is to separate the child from the activity and people connected with the misbehavior. It should allow the child to pause and cool off. (Keep in mind that bathrooms can be dangerous and bedrooms may become playgrounds.) Decide which 2 or 3 behaviors will be punished with time-out and explain this to your child.
  2. When your child does something she knows will result in a time-out, you may warn her once (unless it is aggression). If it happens again, send her to the time-out spot immediately. Tell her what she did wrong in as few words as possible. A rule of thumb is 1 minute of time out for every year of your child's age. (For example, a 4-year-old would get a 4-minute time-out.) But even 15 minutes will work. If your child will not go to the spot on her own, pick her up and carry her there. If she will not stay, stand behind her and hold her gently but firmly by the shoulders or restrain her in your lap and say, "I am holding you here because you have to have a time-out." Do not discuss it any further. It should only take a couple of weeks before she learns to cooperate and will choose to sit quietly rather than be held down for time-out.
  3. Once your child is capable of sitting quietly, set a timer so that she will know when the time-out is over. If fussing starts again, restart the timer. Wait until your child stops protesting before you set the timer.
  4. When the time is up, help your child return to a positive activity. Your child has "served her time." Do not lecture or ask for apologies. If you need to discuss her behavior, wait until later to do so.

Tips to make discipline more effective You will have days when it seems impossible to get your child to behave. But there are ways to ease frustration and avoid unnecessary conflict with your child.

  • Be aware of your child's abilities and limitations.Children develop at different rates and have different strengths and weaknesses. When your child misbehaves, it may be that he simply cannot do what you are asking of him or he does not understand what you are asking.
  • Think before you speak. Once you make a rule or promise, you will need to stick to it. Be sure you are being realistic. Think if it is really necessary before saying "no."
  • Remember that children do what "works." If your child throws a temper tantrum in the grocery store and you bribe him to stop by giving him candy, he will probably throw another tantrum the next time you go. Make an effort to avoid reinforcing the wrong kinds of behavior, even with just your attention.
  • Work toward consistency. No one is consistent all of the time. But try to make sure that your goals, rules, and approaches to discipline stay the same from day to day. Children find frequent changes confusing and often resort to testing limits just to find out what the limits are.
  • Pay attention to your child's feelings. If you can figure out why your child is misbehaving, you are one step closer to solving the problem. It is kinder and helps with cooperation when you let your child know that you understand. For example, "I know you are feeling sad that your friend is leaving, but you still have to pick up your toys." Watch for pattterns that tell you misbehavior has a special meaning, such as your child is feeling jealous. Talk to your child about this rather than just giving consequences.
  • Learn to see mistakes -- including your own -- as opportunities to learn. If you do not handle a situation well the first time, don't despair. Think about what you could have done differently, and try to do it the next time. If you feel you have made a real mistake in the heat of the moment, wait to cool down, apologize to your child, and explain how you will handle the situation in the future. Be sure to keep your promise. This gives your child a good model of how to recovery from mistakes.

Set an example
Telling your child how to behave is an important part of discipline, but showing her how to behave is even more significant. Children learn a lot about temper and self-control from watching their parents and other adults interact. If they see adults relating in a positive way toward one another, they will learn that this is how others should be treated. This is how children learn to act respectfully.

Even though your children's behavior and values seem to be on the right track, your children will still challenge you because it is in their nature and is a part of growing up. Children are constantly learning what their limits are, and they need their parents to help them understand those limits. By doing so, parents can help their children feel capable and loved, learn right from wrong, develop good behavior, have a positive approach toward life, and become productive, good citizens.

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