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A Parenting Dialogue: What's Your Discipline Style?

by Vannessa Rhoades 02 Dec 2022
parenting dialogueWhat's Your Discipline Style three children sitting at a table

Q: What’s your view on the best way to discipline kids? I don’t want to be one of those overly permissive parents, but I don’t want to be a complete authoritarian either. What are your go-to methods for disciplining your child? Time-outs? Revoking privileges? Reward system? Spanking? What do you think works best and why?

The New Mom

A: I feel like violence is unacceptable from a parent. (You're bigger and stronger than they are – way to go on intimidating a child, I guess.) I think that having conversations with children is the best way to make them understand. My husband and I take away privileges for misbehavior. They have to learn there are consequences for actions, and you have to stick to it for your kid to actually learn something.

I find that most bad behavior is just a way to get attention, so it's not really about the child. It's about whether you're tuning them out. Have you been looking at your phone more than you've been spending time with them? Have they asked you to play with them multiple times and you tell them no every time? That's when I have a hard time in with my son. I get down to his level, I look him right in the eyes, and we talk about it. The answer is almost always because we made him sad in some way.

For the times when he's done something he knows he's not supposed to do, like drawing on the wall, we make him clean it up. Did he break a toy by throwing it? Now the toy goes in the garbage because some things are just broken forever and can't be fixed. Play-doh is hard as a rock because he didn't put it back in the tub? Sorry, no more Play-doh. But we never spank, we never yell, and we never do time-outs.

-- Shawn, mother of one toddler

The Experienced Mother

A: These days there is way too much talking and not enough discipline, in my opinion. I spanked my kids. (I know most people nowadays don't agree with it.) But when they were little, that was the only thing that worked other than spending the entire freaking day bargaining with them. In fact, I was swatting their hands as early as age one. Spanking them on the butt didn't happen until about age two.

By age four, I'd say that was happening less. At that point, our discipline style moved more toward taking away things they enjoy. For instance, my son sometimes got into the candy jar without asking. So later in the day, when the rest of us were having dessert, he'd be made to just sit and watch and not have any. I would just tell him, "Sorry, you already had your snack."

Another example: When my daughter was about four years old, my mother was visiting and wanted to take some family photos. My daughter refused to cooperate, but my son did. So my son got to enjoy the tire swing and cupcakes, and she didn't. I told her, "I only swing kids in the swing and give cupcakes to kids who respect and obey me when I ask them to pose for a photo for three minutes." She cooperated from then on.

My kids pretty much outgrew that stuff by the time they were nine or ten years old. They obeyed me, though, and I always tried to reward that and show consideration for what they wanted. For example, if they wanted candy--they asked. Most times I said yes or it was, "No, because I'm making a full meal, but you can have some afterward."

Otherwise, they knew not to sass me or their father, or it was extra schoolwork (which I made up for them) or the TV or phone privileges were taken away. Their rooms had to be clean or else sleepovers were canceled. If their grades were good, they got extra money in their allowance. If their grades were bad, their allowance was reduced.

-- Katie, mom of four grown children

The Pediatrians' Approach

A:Doctors recommend positive discipline strategies in order to effectively teach children how to manage their behavior and keep them from harm while promoting healthy development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers the following suggestions on the best ways to help your child learn acceptable behavior as they grow:

    • Show and tell. Be an example of the behavior you’d like to see. Use calm actions and words to teach children right from wrong.
    • Set boundaries. Set clear and consistent limits, and explain thing to them in age-appropriate terms.
    • Provide consequences. Clearly and calmly explain the consequences if the rules aren’t followed. For instance, tell your child that if they do not put away their game when they’re asked, they won’t be able to play it for the rest of the day. Be ready to follow through immediately and don’t cave into tantrums. Keep in mind, you should never take away something your child truly needs, like food.
    • Listen to them. Let them explain what’s going on from their perspective. You may uncover other root issues, like jealousy or hurt feelings. Discuss this with your child instead of just doling out punishments.
    • Notice when they’re being good. Ignore bad behavior. Children love attention. Point out good behavior and valiant efforts. Be specific with your praise (e.g., "Wow, you did a great job making your bed!").
    • Ignore bad behavior. Simply not responding to bad behavior can be an effective way of stopping it (as long as your child isn't doing something dangerous). Ignoring bad behavior can also reinforce natural consequences. For instance, if a child leaves the caps off her markers (after being told to replace them), they’ll dry up and she won’t be able to draw with them. It won’t take long before she learns to replace the caps on her markers. 
    • Plan ahead. Be prepared for circumstances when your child might have difficulty behaving. 
    • Redirect bad behavior. Boredom is often the culprit for misbehavior. And sometimes children simply don't know any better. Find a different activity for them to do.
    • Call a time-out. This strategy can be particularly effective when a specific rule is broken. Warn your child they will get a time out if they don't stop the behavior. If it continues, calmly remind them that they broke a rule and remove them from the situation (1 minute per year of age is a good rule of thumb). This technique can teach children self-management skills. It’s also effective for older children and teens.

When it comes to spanking or yelling, the AAP policy statement, "Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children," emphasizes why it's important to concentrate on teaching good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior. Research shows that spanking, slapping, and other forms of physical punishment are ineffective methods for correcting a child's behavior. Yelling at or shaming a child doesn’t work either. Besides being unproductive, severe physical and verbal discipline can hurt a child's long-term physical and mental health.

The Holistic Approach

A:Nationally recognized parenting expert and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, Amy McCready offers a holistic approach to discipline. She says the key to correcting our kids’ negative behaviors is giving them the tools they need to learn alternative positive behaviors.

“When we punish with the intent to have the child ‘pay’ for their mistake, it doesn’t help her learn how to make a better choice next time. Punishment often leads to power contests, and because our kids know poor behavior gets them attention, they’ll keep doing it.”

McCready says that because these frustrating misbehaviors take up so much of a parent’s energy and patience, they understandably want to know how to respond in the moment. She argues that the most effective discipline strategies are those that proactively prepare a child so the parent doesn’t have to reactively respond. She recommends the following for effective, long-term discipline results.

    • Fill their “attention basket.” Children need attention and will seek out whatever they can get from you – positive or negative. Take just ten minutes a couple of times a day with each child and play a game or read a favorite book. Let your phone go to voicemail. Don’t respond to the text. Let the laundry sit unfolded.
    • Take time for training. Help your child make better choices by teaching him the correct behavior or response. Role-playing is an ideal way to do this. When a little one throws a tantrum because they want a snack, model appropriate language by saying to them, “I’d like a snack, please.” This one takes time and practice. Also, be sure to respond encouragingly when your child does make the right choices (e.g., “Thank you for sharing the toy with your sister. How kind!”).
    • Set limits and stick to them. Children thrive with structure and boundaries. When you’ve clearly communicated your expectations in advance, it gives your child a framework in which to operate. Does that mean you need to have hundreds of rules in place? No. But be clear about what’s most important and what happens when someone breaks the rules. Kids need to understand the consequences ahead of time and that the punishment is related to the misbehavior. For example, it’s appropriate for a kid to lose video game privileges the following day because they didn’t follow your rules on technology time limits. Making a child clean their room because they made a bad grade on a test is an unrelated consequence, and therefore, not an appropriate punishment. Most importantly be consistent. Follow through every time with the agreed-upon consequence when your child pushes the rules.

The Takeaway

At some point, every parent struggles with how best to discipline their child. Whether dealing with a crying toddler or an angry teenager, it can be hard to keep your cool. No parent wants to be in that position, and the reality is that yelling and hitting never make the situation better. So why do parents do it? Because they’re stressed and don’t see another way.

As a parent, it helps to take the time to learn healthier, more effective ways to discipline a child. By exploring different approaches and strategies, you can build a more positive relationship with your child and teach skills like responsibility, cooperation, and self-discipline.

Choosing an effective approach to discipline is all about understanding your child’s temperament and stage of development and finding the right balance. Too little discipline can foster feelings of insecurity in a child. Too much negative discipline may instill fear and anxiety. Above all, it’s important to remember that discipline is most effective when it’s firm, fair, and consistent. This means setting limits and age-appropriate consequences for misbehavior, while encouraging good behavior with rewards and praise.

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