This morning my son and I were going for a walk to the local park. Opening the front door we were greeted by a loud screeching noise – it was my neighbor yelling at her three boys who, from what bits I could understand (most of it was indecipherable apart from a long string of curse words!) had been pulling up plants from another neighbors garden. Unfortunately this is nothing new, we usually open our door to find her screaming yet evidently it doesn’t seem to do any good. The children misbehave on a daily basis and she reacts this way but if it worked then surely they would have started behaving themselves as soon as she yelled the first time which got me thinking, what are the best ways to discipline a child?
A lot of parents will visibly wince when asked how they discipline their child. It seems to conjure up in people’s heads an image of a child being yelled out or slapped and this isn’t the case. Discipline doesn’t mean punishment but is simply teaching your child how to behave and is one of the most important parts of parenting.
A lot of parents don’t set or enforce rules for their kids because they want to be ‘cool’ parents or they want to keep the peace but setting rules helps kids feel secure and allows them to understand their role in society so if you have (or know of) an unruly child, read on…
1. Start Young
When she was about a year old, my niece went through a phase where she would head butt us if she was in a temper. I used to firmly tell her ‘no’ and put her down which would make her cry and my mom would tell me I was far too strict with her. She would immediately pick her up and soothe her, telling me that she shouldn’t be disciplined because she was too young to understand. I disagreed and have always disciplined her in a way that is appropriate to her age. The consequence now is that at seven years old she listens to me and is (fairly) well behaved when she visits my house – if she misbehaves usually all I need to do now is give her is my ‘stern glare’ – yet she pushes the boundaries when she’s with my mom, her other aunt and even her parents. By setting expectations and telling them ‘no’ at a young age, children learn what is acceptable and what is not. You can’t let them get away with a behavior such as hitting and throwing when they’re a toddler then start telling them off when they’re four and five for the same thing!
As a mom I found it more difficult to discipline my own child – as soon as he gives me that wide eyed Bambi look coupled with the wobbly bottom lip I want to cuddle him but try to stay strong! I always feel that if he gets upset when I discipline him then that means he understands he’s done something wrong and is less likely to do it in the future. In fact he’s recently started to put himself on the naughty step when he’s misbehaved!
2. Use Rewards
My friend’s little boy is seen as a ‘naughty’ child and she is often telling him off for hitting or not sharing. Whilst I think it’s good that she’s pointing out bad behavior and telling him it’s unacceptable sometimes it’s easy to only see the bad and forget about the good.
Positive reinforcement often works better than negative as it highlights the behaviors you want to develop in your child so rather than yelling because your child hasn’t tidied his (or her) room, try to notice when he (or she) has put away toys and say ‘well done, I’m really glad you helped out.”
A reward can simply be having ice cream after finishing a healthy meal or candy for behaving on a shopping trip but sometimes having an actual reward system in place can help set longer term goals for children. For instance now my son is a bit older I’ve made a chart where each day is split into morning and afternoon. He gets a smiley face for being good – for example, if he’s held my hand and not run off in the supermarket or he’s helped pick up his toys and has played nicely all morning. However if he’s misbehaved such as having a temper tantrum when we’ve been out or he’s hit one of his friends or refused to do as he’s been told then he gets a sad face.
If I decide to give him a sad face I explain why, likewise if he’s received a happy face I emphasize the reasons why he’s been good.
He has to earn X amount of smiley faces in the week in order to get a treat so for example I might say to him “if you get at least five smiley faces this week then we’ll go swimming on Friday” or to the play center or wherever. If I tell him this on a Sunday night he has the chance to earn eight smiley faces before Friday so this gives him three chances to misbehave but still earn his treat making it achievable. As he gets older I’ll up the amount of smiley faces he has to earn. If he gets so many smiley faces in a month then he gets a bigger treat such as a trip to the aquarium or cinema or whatever or maybe a new toy that he wants. Set the reward to suit your child’s interests and age, older children could even help set their own rewards.
However remember to not use rewards to trick the child into good behavior – they need to understand that their behavior needs to be good over a period of time and know what warrants good behavior rather than just being nice for a few days because they want the reward.
Also don’t be too quick to punish, for instance, if I ask my son to pick up his toys and he says ‘no’ I don’t just up and put a sad face on his chart, especially if he’s been good the rest of the day. I’ll give him a few more chances to co-operate. If he eventually does as he’s asked then whether he’s earnt a smiley face or not depends on how well he’s behaved during the rest of the day. If he’s been more good than bad then he’ll still get his happy face.
3. Use Age Appropriate Discipline
The most popular way of discipline seems to be the use of the ‘naughty step’, thanks to a certain television program. For anyone that isn’t familiar with the concept if your child is misbehaving give them a warning and if they continue the behavior put them on the bottom step (or a quiet spot in the room) and tell them to stay there. Explain why they’re on the step then walk away. Obviously you still need to supervise but busy yourself with other things whilst keeping an eye on them. If the child moves return them to the naughty step but don’t talk or engage in any way. The child should stay there for one minute for every year of their age so a three year old would get three minutes, a six year old would get six minutes and so on. When their time is up return and ask the child what they’ve done wrong. Once they’ve explained (this shows they’ve understood why their behavior was inappropriate) your child can return to whatever activity they were doing before the misdemeanor.
I found this is effective most of the time but like any method nothing works a hundred percent of the time. As I said above, my son will sometimes cry when he’s put on the naughty step and stay there for his full three minutes but sometimes he’ll just give me a smug look and get up and down and shout ‘no’ and ‘I’m not sitting here” and I have to keep putting him back on which can take a long time and can become frustrating. Therefore it’s good to have a few discipline methods and choose the one which is most appropriate otherwise you might find your child spends half the day sitting at the bottom of the stairs!
Timeouts will work until about age eight or nine. After this age you can discipline using natural and logical consequences (see below) and for teenagers you should set out the rules such as curfews, boyfriends, et cetera so they know what is expected of them. If they break the rules taking away privileges such as TV time or games consoles or not letting them hang out with friends, is the best way to discipline at this age.
4. Stick To What You Say
My mom constantly threatens my niece with things then never follows through. For instance, if she’s being rude my mom will say something like “carry on and I’ll take away your IPad time” however half an hour later she’ll be sat there with the IPad! It infuriates me because basically she knows she can do whatever she likes with no consequences. Don’t make threats you’re not going to keep, it’s no good saying “tidy away your toys or I’ll give them away to your friends” unless you’re actually going to do it otherwise the child won’t know what to believe and what not and they’ll just act however they want to because there’s no fear of consequence.
When choosing how to discipline your child make sure the punishment is related to the misdemeanor. For example, if they’re using a toy inappropriately, take it away or if they don’t do their homework then they don’t get their television time. Again make sure it’s age appropriate and for younger children make sure they’re disciplined as soon after the inappropriate behavior as possible and tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing. A three year old that misbehaves in the supermarket for instance won’t connect that bad behavior with losing their afternoon television time.
5. Set Clear Rules
Children need rules to be set out for them so they know what is expected of them. Telling them what the rules are only when they’ve been broken means a child will have difficulty following them. One way of doing this is to make a list of house rules such as “pick up toys after you’ve played with them”, “be kind to one another”, “hold hands when walking in the street” and so on. Discuss the rules when the child is in the right mood to listen rather than when they’re tired or upset. Having rules set out this way means if one is broken you can point it out to the child and explain why their behavior is unacceptable.
Children need to know what to expect so make sure you give clear warnings to avoid tantrums. For instance, my son knows that he’s allowed to watch a television in the afternoon and I used to just switch his programs off as soon as my partner got home as this is when we sit down for our dinner and it would always result in a tantrum. I soon learnt to give my son a warning so now about a half hour before I tell him it has to go off when his daddy gets home then remind him again fifteen minutes later. When my partner returns I’ll then tell my son that whatever he’s watching is the last one. (He’s young so they’re usually only five minute programs but for older children you can give them a time such as ‘the television goes off at five o’clock’ or whatever) Also give an explanation why – for example, when my son questions me I say ‘it’s mama and daddy’s television time’ or ‘because we’re going to eat’. If they can understand there’s a reason behind what you’re doing and it’s not a punishment they’re more likely to accept it.
6. Consistency Is Key
Sometimes it’s easy to ignore a child’s bad behavior especially to avoid causing a scene in public or because you’re tired but if you only enforce rules in the house and not when you’re out or vice versa or you only enforce certain rules children will never be completely sure what the rules are.
Be consistent with your discipline, for example, if your child throws a toy and is given a time out, this should be done every time they throw something.
Out in public it can be harder to discipline – my son went through a phase of throwing himself on the floor and screaming loudly in the middle of the supermarket (he never did it at home!) and of course people would stare and I’d feel embarrassed. However rather than give in I’d simply wait it out otherwise your child learns that they can always get what they want by throwing a public tantrum! With younger children you can try and distract them, for instance, I used to pick my son up without a word and tuck him under my arm, after walking for a few minutes with him this way I’d pretend to drop him, nine times out of ten he’d find this so funny he’d forget all about his tantrum!
All adults looking after your child need to present a united front and be consistent so if Mom says no the child can’t simply go to Dad! This just leads to them favoring one parent over the other and can cause problems in your relationship. If the child goes to grandparents then they need to be consistent too, for instance, if you punish your child for breaking a toy at home then grandparents should be aware of this and discipline in the same way.
7. Pick Your Battles
It can be easy to become frustrated with a child that constantly refuses to do as you ask but rather than fly off the handle or punish every time they don’t instantly do as they’re told, take time to think about whether you can let it go, for instance is it hurting them or anybody else? For example, my son doesn’t always want to wear his coat and when he first started to refuse I used to put him on a time out or tell him he couldn’t go outside but sometimes this wasn’t possible, to follow through and would make me really angry, for instance, a time out would make us late or if we had an appointment I just couldn’t refuse to go out. One day I thought “if he doesn’t want a coat, what harm is it doing?” I explained to him it was cold and he still refused to wear it so I simply put him in his buggy, tucked the coat underneath in case he changed his mind and set off on our way. Unfortunately this first time I did this happened to be the day we were going for his flu jab and a lot of people I passed stared and whispered. One woman even turned round and said “no wonder he needs his flu jab if you’re not dressing him properly!” So yes some people may look at you like you’re a terrible parent but they don’t see what had taken place before. If anyone confronts you, you can always explain the reason why but really who cares what they think anyway?
It’s a hard lesson to learn but children need to learn that all actions have consequences. There are natural consequences which is where something happens because of the child’s actions – for instance, my niece’s dad took her out one day and bought her a toy which she took into a play area despite his warnings not to. She ended up putting it down and another child stole it. This is a natural consequence and the worst thing you can do is to try and rectify it – in this case buying a new toy. Instead the child should learn from their disappointment.
Logical consequences are those which you decide will follow the child’s bad behavior. It needs to be directly related so the child can see why they’re being given this punishment and teach them not to do it again if they don’t want the consequence. For instance, if my son refuses to pick up his cars and I end up doing it then I put them away and he doesn’t play with them for a while. Again, logical consequences need to be age appropriate and explained to the child.
9. Model Good Behavior
Your children are watching and listening to you, even if you don’t realize it. My three year old always amazes me when he pipes up with something I was discussing with his dad three weeks previously even though at the time he appeared to be playing with his toys. You can talk until you’re blue in the face and insist that your children follow hundreds of rules but unless you’re doing the same it’s futile. Children learn by copying therefore if you want your children to be polite, be on your best behavior and use your manners with everyone. If you want your child to be honest and kind, make sure you’re doing the same. This works with discipline too, if you lose your temper and shout and scream, your children are likely to do the same. Instead keep your cool and stay calm. As a parent I know that’s not always easy to do so if you are really angry make sure your child is safe, go to a quiet room and have a few minutes to gather your thoughts. Once you’re feeling calmer go back to your child and explain why their behavior isn’t acceptable and discipline as appropriate.
One thing you should remember is not to carry things on. Once a child has been disciplined, move on. For instance if your child breaks a toy and you decide to give them a time out, once their time is up resume the activity you were doing or start a new one but don’t keep reminding them of the toy they’ve broken as this just continues to punish them.
Another bone of contention with discipline is the view on hitting – some people think it’s a good thing, some people don’t. If I had a dollar for the amount of people who say “a smack never hurt us” I’d be rich! My mom used to whack me and my sisters on the back of the legs with a wooden hairbrush and it never turned me into a violent person but I still don’t agree with it. Children learn by example so if you hit a child they will usually respond by hitting back. Don’t get me wrong I don’t claim to be a perfect mother and I have slapped my child once or twice across the back of the legs when I’ve lost my temper (learned behavior from my mother? Maybe it did have more of an effect than I thought!) However I stopped after he turned round one day a few weeks later and slapped me saying “mommy is naughty” because I’d done something which he’d deemed wrong. To this day I don’t know what I’d done to make him this and that’s the point – if he hadn’t told me he hit me because I’d been naughty I would have thought he’d hit me because he was being naughty then I would have disciplined him and you end up in a vicious circle. Instead try and be a good role model by talking calmly to the child in a way that’s appropriate to them.
10. Try Not To Stress
My friend’s son is about six weeks younger than my own and she constantly worries about him because he doesn’t cope well in social situations. With my son he’s a delight but with other children he tends to hit or snatch and refuses to share. Another friend constantly tells her she needs intervention whereas I disagree. I think what my friend – and anyone else out there in similar situations – need to remember is to consider the age of your child. If this little boy is still acting this way in a few more years then I’d probably agree that she should maybe think about getting some professional help but for a child who’s not quite three I think she may be worrying unnecessarily. I think the best thing to keep in mind is that not all children develop at the same rate. Some three year olds may indeed be able to share (especially if they’ve got older siblings or cousins they see on a regular basis, again a case of learning by copying) but the majority don’t! Recognize when you need professional help and know who you can talk to such as Health Visitors, GPs and so on but try not to stress just because your child hasn’t reached a milestone that other children his age seemed to have and try not to compare them to friends’ or relatives’ children as it’s not always helpful and remember just because one child is well behaved in public, who knows what goes on in their house!
However you decide to discipline, the three most important rules are to;
Explain why the behavior is inappropriate.
Discipline in a way that is appropriate to the age and development of your child and is related to the bad behavior.
And remember – nobody is perfect, you’re not going to do everything right all of the time and neither are your children but you can all learn from your mistakes.