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General Principles of Discipline


What is discipline all about?

Discipline means to provide guidance or structure so children learn right from wrong. Parents provide discipline to keep children safe, and to teach them to make positive choices that will guide them throughout their life. The term discipline is sometimes confused with the term punishment. Parents do not have to yell or spank children to be good disciplinarians. The ultimate goal is that children learn self-discipline.

These are some tips that will help you connect with your children and help them learn to manage their own behavior:

  • Do not have too many limits and rules. Make the rules clear, simple and specific. Be sure your child understands them. For example, saying “I expect you to behave" is not clear. Saying “Use a quiet voice in the house” is clear.
  • Make fair rules and allow children to have input when creating rules. Children are more likely to cooperate when they feel like their thoughts and opinions are valued. Rules and limits can change as your child grows older.
  • When setting limits, know your child's level of understanding and development abilities. For example, it is not fair to expect an 18-month-old to sit still for long periods of time. Plan ahead and help your child be successful. For example, If you know your 18 month old is going to have to sit for more than a few minutes, bring toys for distraction.
  • Give your child simple choices so he/she can practice making decisions. For example, your child can choose if he wants an apple or banana or if she wants to wear a red or blue shirt. Making choices allows a child to feel confident and capable.
  • Help your child understand choices and consequences by giving warnings and reminders. For example, “What do you need to put on if you don’t want to be cold outside?”
  • Positive consequences are a very important part of discipline. Children are more likely to cooperate with rules, when they are praised or reinforced for making positive choices. Giving children attention when their behavior is positive will help them feel good about themselves. Positive consequences should happen immediately after the desired behavior.
  • Some examples of positive consequences are:
    • Saying “I like it when you pick up your toys"
    • Giving a hug and smile
    • Spending special time together
  • Negative consequences can be a part of effective discipline. If a child purposely breaks a rule, negative consequences can be used to reinforce that the rule is important. When using negative consequences, the child should always know what behavior was unacceptable, and what behavior is expected.
  • Remember the purpose of discipline is to teach right from wrong, and enhance self-discipline. Negative consequences will deter unacceptable behavior, only if the child relates the consequence to the behavior and is able to think of alternative ways to get their his/her needs met.
  • Some examples of negative consequences are:
    • Losing a privilege. For example losing TV time, or video games for not doing homework.
    • Time out. This means putting your child in a quiet place so he/she can calm down. You can use a specific “time out” chair or space. Your child stays in time out 1 minute for each year of age. For example, a 3-year-old sits for 3 minutes. Set a timer and when the timer rings, the child knows “time out" is over. Time out is only effective if time-in is quality time. Make sure you give your child attention for positive behavior and redirect your child to a positive activity when time-out is over.
    • Restitution. Have your child make amends or “fix” the problem. For example, if your child leaves a bike in the driveway and it gets run over, he/she needs to earn the money to replace it by doing chores.
    • Being grounded. Losing the privilege of going out for older children. For example, If a child does not come home on time, he/she can not go out the next night.

    Discipline is most effective when you focus on the positives, and try to partner with the child. As a parent you want to make a connection with your children, so they feel good about themselves, their family and the choices they are making.

  • Try to use fun and humor. For example, instead of saying: “If you don't get your shoes and coat on, you can't play with your friend today," say: “If you can put your shoes and coat on before the timer rings, you can play with your friend for an extra 30 minutes today." Then, set a timer for a reasonable time (3-5 minutes). Praise  your child for being speedy.
  • It is okay to let your child know that you are angry or disappointed with his/her choice, however, remaining calm and modeling self-discipline will teach your child much more in the long run.
  • Make sure your child knows that you still love him/her even if you are unhappy with his/her behavior. Work with your child to come up with solutions that will allown him/her to be successful.

Consult your child's pediatrician if:

  • You have difficulty understanding your child’s behaviors, feel confused when consistent, effective discipline techniques are not working, or need help understanding typical child development.
  • You want to take a parenting class to learn more about discipline.

You may want to read:

  • Bailey, B.A. Conscious Discipline
  • Coleman, P. How to Say it to Your Kids, The right words to solve problems, soothe feelings and teach values.
  • Faber, A. and Mazlish, E. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk
  • Pattersen, G.R. Living With Children

Always remember: If you feel out of control, leave immediately and get help from a family member or friend. In anger you can seriously hurt your child.

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Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.