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How to Provide the Discipline that Children Crave

Discipline is one of those ideas that everyone understands in concept, but applying it can be tricky. Most parents know the importance of instilling discipline in their child to ensure they grow to be mature and responsible adults. But implementing your ideas on discipline presents a path filled with challenges and traps that can have serious implications for the development of your child and your relationship with them in the future.

Parents need to provide the discipline that children crave. When done properly, discipline will be a key component in how you teach your child responsibility as they grow to become a productive member of society. The manner in which you teach them discipline will be just as important as what you want to teach them.

The old ideas of discipline were designed to generate immediate compliance but were not very effective in changing the behavior patterns of children. When a kid got spanked or paddled they learned more about how to hide their actions from their parents that they learned about the implications of their actions. The physical nature of the consequence also created separation between the parent and the child, further reducing learning and bonding opportunities.

That is one of the worst effects of people misconstruing what discipline should be. Children need close relationships with their parents so they can confide in them when they need their guidance. Discipline based on fear, physical intimidation, or shame does the opposite and chases them away.

Should the Discipline Paddle be Used on Children?

No. There is no research to support using a “discipline paddle” on children. In schools where its use has been studied, it has not been shown to reduce disruption or referrals. In homes where the child discipline paddle is used the child typically develops an ability to hide information from their parents in an effort to avoid an undesirable consequence, but it does not make them change their long-term behavior. Hitting is never the answer.

Why Parents Should Not Hit Their Child

Let’s think about what discipline really is for a moment. Discipline is a set of expectations or actions that allow an individual to regulate themselves. For parents teaching discipline to their child, it can apply to time management, skill development, workload management, motivation, dedication, persistence, awareness, appropriate behavior, self-control, and respect for authority.

Parents often feel a deep responsibility to teach their child discipline and tend to view their shortcomings as a reflection of their own parenting ability. Most times, they are not. The child is just at a particular stage developmentally and simply needs to work through it with parental support. Instead, the parent jumps in and takes action when they should probably step back to assess the situation.

Their shortsightedness puts the issue of the moment over their real vision for the future and implicitly shows their kid that aggression can be used to control the behavior of others. Parents should seek to avoid the temptation to hit.

Your job is to stay focused on your long-term vision for your children so you can manage today’s challenges while simultaneously developing a well-rounded child and your relationship with them along the way. Hitting, yelling, shaming, or intimidating are not effective tools to accomplish these goals. Effective discipline that allows you to raise healthy children is purposeful, loving, and has a long-term vision for the future in mind.

“approach them from a position of love, patience, respect, understanding, kindness, high expectations, strong guidance, and an unwavering commitment to be successful in carrying out your vision together. “

Wrong Way to Discipline a Child

There is an idea floating out there that if we just go back to doing things the way they used to be done that kids will change and respond to authority how they did in the good old days. This view has a bit of nostalgia attached to it. The truth is kids have always been disrespectful, and it has always been the parent’s job to teach them how to conduct themselves. The good news is that we have a better understanding today of how to do that than ever before.

First, let’s talk about the wrong way, starting with physically hitting the child. Spanking, paddling, or other forms of physical harm will not create a child that knows how to handle their emotions or manage challenging situations. All it does is creates a short-term appearance of compliance based on fear. The fright they feel may stay with them for life and there is no clear indication that it really helps them understand their behavior, which is what really makes them want to change.

Children who grow up in homes where they are hit are far more likely to grow into adults that have emotional problems. They are also more likely to be defiant as they grow further into adolescence, making it more probable they will have even more trouble with their parents as well as problems with school officials and law enforcement.

In short, hitting your kids has the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to do in the long run. There are better ways to discipline a child. The alternatives that I am about to present take a long-term view, are harder for parents to implement, and require more patience. They are also far more likely to create well-adjusted young adults who have healthy relationships with themselves and their parents.

What is true about discipline?

  • It Should be Age-Appropriate
  • It Should Teach Appropriate Behaviors
  • It Should be Administered with Love
  • It Should Include Praise for When Things are Done Right
  • It Should be About an Action or Behavior, Not the Child Themselves
  • It Should be Part of a System that Allows Desired Behaviors and Actions to be Practiced and Improved Upon
  • It Should Reward Good Behavior
  • Physical Punishment is Not Effective

Tips for Effective Child Discipline

The root word for discipline comes from the same place as the word disciple. So, let’s think of healthy discipline through that lens. If you were trying to create a disciple what would you do? Would hitting them or shaming them be effective in persuading them to follow you? Probably not.

What would work is to approach them from a position of love, patience, respect, understanding, kindness, high expectations, strong guidance, and an unwavering commitment to be successful in carrying out your vision together. It works in a very similar way for our kids. We have to be connected to them if we expect them to commit to following us.  

You can create this atmosphere in your home. It’s not easy to do it the right way, but it is worth all the effort. Effective discipline is not about focusing on the actions of the child when they are acting up. It’s about putting systems and boundaries in place that will help them practice the habits you know will make them successful in the long run.

When they make an error or have a lapse in judgment they need to be given time to reflect on their actions. If needed, they should be given a consequence. But everything you do should be purposeful and proactive. If discipline is carried out in a reactionary way it will not create an environment where learning and growth take place over time.

Effective Discipline Should be Age-Appropriate

Like most things in life, you need to consider your audience when disciplining your child. The steps you take to teach a lesson to your toddler will not be the same as what you do for your teenager. They will have different ability levels, and you will have different goals for them.

Early school-age children need clear instructions and time for them to develop and understand what you want them to do. Middle and high school aged children need time to reflect what they did, why they did it, and what the implications of their actions are.

In either case, you need a plan for what you want to see in the future. Systems and processes should be built into how things are done in your home so your child is naturally encouraged to do the right thing by their environment around them. It should also remind them when they don’t through natural consequences.

Effective Discipline Should Teach Appropriate Behaviors

The systems and processes that are put in place should inherently teach appropriate behaviors and the thought processes that go along with them. They should be rooted in routines that allow the child to do things for themselves and modeling that allows them to see how it’s done by the adult. Let’s start with routines.

In my house, for example, every day when we get home my 8-year-old has to feed the dog and do her homework. When she is done, she can play with her sister or play with her toys. There is no screen time allowed during the week. On the weekends we watch one or two movies together and they can play Xbox Kinect games. She knows her routine during the week is to take care of her chores then she can play, and that playing will not involve screen time.

How do routines teach children discipline?

The child learns that they have to handle their business before they get to relax. It’s a very adult lesson, centered on responsibility. It’s also supported by the research. Children who learn delayed gratification and impulse control are far more likely to effectively cope with stress, frustration, and peer relationships as adults later in life.

Routines also teach them prioritization on how to develop healthy habits. Screen time may not be allowed in our house during the week, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get asked about it all the time. We have to be strong and persistent as parents. Our children learn both from our example and from the routine of simply not having a screen available with which to engage. These habits of mind will sink in over time as they realize why we put them in place and help them to make good decisions when they are older.

How Does Modeling Teach Discipline?

Modeling allows you to be the guiding light as your children settle into your routines. If your child is feeding the dog when you get home, they will see you unpacking the lunch bags and putting the dirty dishes in the dishwasher. You will be sharing time together doing important work around the home.

They will learn that their work is part of a bigger picture of how things are done in your home, and their work plays an important role. Your modeling will teach them to be strong, to be consistent, to be disciplined, and that the work they do in the home in an expression of their love for their family.

Effective Discipline Should be Administered with Love

This one is not as fluffy as it sounds. To administer discipline with love means to be settled when you do it, not fired up. It means you should already have an idea in place of what actions will warrant which disciplinary measure and you will not be reactionary. It means you are putting the needs of the child first with an understanding of where they are developmentally. Consider both consequences for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior.

Consequences should be purposeful. Ask yourself:

  • What do you want the child to learn as a result of the consequence?
  • How will this particular consequence guide them in that direction?
  • Is a consequence even necessary in this situation?
  • What are some other methods I could use to help them reflect on their actions and grow?

Be patient as they work towards their new understanding of the situation. It may not happen right away. Just make sure you are moving them forward with love, patience, respect, understanding, kindness, high expectations, strong guidance, and an unwavering commitment to be successful in carrying out your vision together.

Incentives are a great tool to develop a child’s motivation. When you think about it, this is actually a very adult concept. We get performance incentives at work for doing a good job and at home for managing our money well. Why not start teaching kids early on that their performance matters and they have the power to achieve rewards?

Think about what motivates your child and build in some incentives into their lives that will keep them on the track you what them to be on. In my house, I try to make sure the incentives are also productive in some way. I don’t want every incentive to be built around materialism and princesses. I want to teach my daughters that they should strive for good things. In this regard, we tend to focus on experiences.  

Effective Discipline Should Include Praise for When Things are Done Right

Praise is powerful. Your kids want to follow you and they want you to be proud of them. When you praise them you are communicating to them that they have done well. Encouragement is far more likely to create a disciple over physical punishment, fear, or shame.

I’m not saying give them a sticker and tell them how great they are for everything they do. I’m saying that having a system in place that praises good behavior sets up performance incentives for the child to do the right thing. Simple acts of praise will go a long way in communicating what you want to see by reinforcing good behavior. It will also be a big part of the system of support you are putting in place to help your child grow and mature in all areas of their life.

Make sure the praise is specific and rewards their effort. General praise like “good job” is not always that helpful. Instead, if you take some time and bring them over to the side to tell them “I really like how you worked through your algebra homework even though you struggled with it at first”, you will teach them a lot more about themselves and what you want to see from them.

Effective Discipline Should be About an Action or Behavior, Not the Child Themselves

It is important to separate the child out from the behavior they are exhibiting. You don’t want them to think they are a bad kid. You want them to know they can learn, change, and grow. You want to help them see that when they make good choices, things go well. When they make bad choices, things get harder. You want them to believe the choices they make have consequences and if they change their choices then outcomes will change too.

Avoid phrases like “you always do that” or “you never listen”. Whatever it is that a child is going through, it is usually a snapshot in time that will not reflect the person they become as an adult. When you use phrases like that you may encourage the child to think that those behaviors are really a part of who they are when they are just part of the stage they are going through.

Instead, focus on the behavior. If they hit their siblings talk to them about what hitting does to the other person. If it is severe enough, give them a consequence. You should also have them apologize. In our house, we make sure our girls look each other in the eye when they apologize, give a hug, and say “I Love You”. It helps them set the reset button and move on. In this example the child is held accountable, they see the negative impact of their actions, but they are given a quick opportunity for redemption if they do the right thing.

Effective Discipline Should be Part of a System that Allows Desired Behaviors and Actions to be Practiced and Improved Upon

When you think of the word system don’t think of charts and checklists. Think of an ecosystem or a habitat. Think of a culture. What steps do you need to put in place to establish the family culture that you want? How can you turn everything that happens in your house into part of an ecosystem that feeds a bigger purpose?

Remember what I said before. Approach your kids from a position of love, patience, respect, understanding, kindness, high expectations, strong guidance, and an unwavering commitment to be successful in carrying out your vision together. Make sure you are consistent in each of these areas every day.

If you are, you will be laying the groundwork for establishing your family culture. That culture will be the system that keeps your child on track. I can’t tell you what to do for your kids. But I can share what some of our goals are in our home.

  • We want our kids to be well-rounded
  • We want our kids to be self-sufficient
  • We want our kids to be kind
  • We want our kids to be comfortable with who they are
  • We want our kids to be successful
  • We want our kids to enjoy life
  • We want to love each other
  • We want to like each other

That last part may throw some people off, but I think it’s critical. Let me put it in context. If my 8-year-old doesn’t like me because I don’t let her watch TV during the week that’s OK. Truth is though, that’s not true. She knows that the rules are in place for a reason and she benefits from those rules. We love to be around each other.

I cherish that and I want to grow that sentiment into her adulthood. We want our kids to want to come to visit us when they are adults, not just when they need something but because they want to be around us. We understand that the way we treat them now will greatly influence our relationship together later.

So, we try to take a perspective that will allow us to explain everything we do to the adult version of our kids later. Not because we have to, but because we would want to. We want them to understand why we did things the way we did. If we are fortunate, they may take some of that information as advice and use it for our grandchildren.

Everything you do is part of a larger cycle. Respect the cycle and it will reward you later.

Effective Discipline Should Reward Good Behavior

Rewards are a great tool in promoting discipline. Everyone wants a reward when we accomplish a given task. It may simply be the natural reward of having a clean home or a well-kept yard. Or it may be an incentive that is put in place to encourage performance.

When rewards are used correctly they are helpful tools in pushing our kids to learn responsibility. They communicate that when they do the right thing, good things happen. That’s a healthy lesson to learn. It’s a similar concept to a disciplinary consequence, but with a more positive sentiment. They help to move things in the right direction and make progress towards the goals of both the task and the personal growth of the child.

Which rewards are best for kids?

Simple ideas that can be built into your family culture work the best. Your system will benefit from a set of about a dozen go to rewards that will be just enough for you to mix it up but not too much that your child never gets to repeat the rewards they like best. You can increase or decrease that number as you like.

There are many options out there to choose from. Here are the ones that we like best in our home:

  • Praise
  • Game Night (board games or Xbox Kinect)
  • Stay Up Late
  • Read a Book
  • A New Toy or Game (link)
  • Going Outside to Play
  • Going to the Park
  • Inviting a Friend Over
  • Going Out for Ice Cream
  • Choosing Dinner
  • Choosing Dessert
  • Sleeping in Their Sleeping Bags

We do not promote rewards that include screen time because that is not a behavior that we want to incentivize. However, in our house, they always pick the movie (with our guidance) anyway.

Physical Punishment is Not Effective Discipline

I cannot emphasize this enough. We all have our moments where we are frustrated and want to lose our cool. In these moments it is very important to take a step back and resist the urge. Whatever it is your child did, you will work with them later and if necessary they will face a consequence.

You don’t need to work with them in the heat of the moment. Physical punishment teaches fear and does not promote the critical thinking processes that you want to instill in your child to ensure they develop into healthy, well-adjusted young adults. Avoid physical punishment.

Final Thoughts

There is so much to know about disciplining our kids, and this article just scratches the surface. When parents do it right, they can be rewarded with children who grow into well-adjusted adults that want to be around them. When it’s not done right, kids are more likely to face mental challenges as they grow older and the relationship they have with their parents are more likely to be strained.

We have a huge responsibility as modern parents. It is no longer socially (and in some places legally) acceptable for parents to just let their kids play outside for hours and hours. That pressure falls back on us, as our kids are with us for much longer periods of time than any generation before. We have to consciously work to develop our patience and understanding as we guide our kids through life in more time and energy intensive ways than parents from previous generations.