Discipline That Works
All children "misbehave" sometimes, and all parents wonder how to stop the misbehavior. But that's only half of our mission as parents. The other half is raising a child who internalizes our guidance to become "self-disciplined." The most effective "discipline" for your child is always positive, loving, gentle guidance. Here's why.
In this Section
Children misbehave when they feel bad about themselves and disconnected from us. The word "Discipline" means to teach, which raises the question of how kids learn how to behave. Research shows that children learn best when they feel heard and valued, not when they feel on the defensive. Here's how to use loving guidance, so you can get out of the discipline business altogether.
Your ten-step guide to putting positive parenting to work in your house, from setting limits effectively to weaning yourself off yelling and punishment.
Most parents assume that strict parenting produces better-behaved kids. However, research studies on discipline consistently show that strict, or authoritarian, child-raising actually produces unhappy kids who feel bad about themselves and behave worse than other kids -- and therefore get punished more! Here's why.
Infants' wants are identical to their needs. But over time, that changes. Toddlers' wants are often in direct opposition to their long-term developmental needs and safety. When parents don't make that developmental leap and learn to set limits, their children don't develop the ability to tolerate frustration or to manage themselves. These children are often referred to by others as “spoiled.”
Were you spanked as a child? Then you may think it's a good way to guide a child. Or maybe you don't want to spank, but you find yourself doing it because you don't know how else to get through to your child. Interestingly, adults who were not spanked as children don't spank their kids. It just feels wrong to them. And you know what? They find other ways to get through to their kids. And their children turn out fine. In fact, it's the kids who are spanked who have a harder time regulating their emotions, and who get into more trouble.
Setting limits is an important part of parenting. Limits keep our children safe and healthy and socialize them enough so that they can function happily in society. And if we do it right, our kids will internalize the ability to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline. Why neither permissiveness nor strictness works, and how to chart an effective middle course.
Mommy: “Avery, you must be getting hungry. Its time to walk home and make some yummy peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Would you like to walk or ride in the stroller?”
Avery: “No Mommy, I’m sitting on the swing.”
Why timeouts are vastly better than hitting, but sabotage your child's development and create power struggles -- and what to do instead.
Why consequences, as used by most parents, create defiant children and teach all the wrong lessons -- and what to do instead.
My Aha! Parenting moment last week came when my husband called me three times to email him something at work. He often works on a computer at home and then emails himself documents so he can access them from the computer at his job. A couple of times a year, he’ll forget to send himself something important, so he’ll call me and ask me to email it to him. Luckily, I have a home office, so it’s easy for me to go to his computer and email it.
Breaking a child's will is a betrayal of the spiritual contract we make as parents to nurture our child's unique gifts. That said, strong-willed kids can be a handful -- high energy, challenging, persistent. How do we protect those fabulous qualities and still encourage their cooperation -- without going crazy?
All kids -- like all humans -- get angry. When we feel threatened, we move into fight, flight or freeze. Anger is the body's "fight" response.
There will be times when you embrace your acting-out child with your warm compassion and he bursts into tears, sobs his heart out, and is cooperative and delightful for the rest of the day. But more often, your child will be too frightened of that logjam of emotion he’s been tamping down. The problem is, he needs to cry to release all those feelings. Otherwise, he’ll spend the day bouncing from one angry incident to the next. How can you break through his anger to release the tears and fears underneath? By building safety through play when he “misbehaves.”
Staying calm when our child hurts us is almost impossible. Pain sends us immediately into our lower brain stem, which governs the "fight or flight" impulse, and our child immediately looks like the enemy. That automatically drops us onto "the low road" of parenting. You know the low road. It’s when you snarl at your child through clenched teeth, or start screaming, or become physically rough. When you lose all access to reason and feel justified in having your own little tantrum.
All parents get angry at their children.
It doesn’t help that there are always the endless pressures of life: appointments we’re late to, things we’ve forgotten until the last moment, health and financial worries -- the list is endless. In the middle of that hectic momentum, enter our child, who has lost her sneaker, suddenly remembered she needs a new notebook for school today, is teasing her little brother, or is downright belligerent. And we snap.
The bad news is that virtually all of us were wounded as children, and if we don't heal those wounds, they prevent us from parenting our children optimally. If there's an area where you were scarred as a child, you can count on that area causing you grief as a parent. But the good news is that being parents gives us an opportunity to heal ourselves. Most parents say that loving their children has transformed them: made them pore patient, more compassionate, more selfless. Our children have an unerring ability to show us our wounded places, they draw out our unreasonable fears and angers. Better than the best zen master or therapist, our children give us the perfect opportunity to grow and heal. Almost magically, as our wounds transform, we find that these hurt places inform us, motivate us, make us better parents.
Parents ask me "what DO you do instead of punish when your kids act up?" My answer: stay calm. Decode the behavior -- why is he acting this way? Meet his needs, including his need for more connection with you. You’ll be amazed at how your kid will settle down, and begin cooperating to please you. Do you set limits? Of course. But if you set them with empathy, you’ll find you need to set them less and less.
Want to explore the research behind this approach?
My favorite resource is the index of Alfie Kohn's wonderful book Unconditional Parenting, which lists hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that support this view. That's a wealth of research. I refer readers here because you get a synopsis of peer-reviewed research from a credible academic, and you get the citations to track the studies down if you want to. But here are a few studies to get you started. More are being published every day.
Burhans, Karen Klein, and Carol S. Dweck. “Helplessness in Early Childhood: The Role of Contingent Worth.” Child Development 66 (1995): 1719-38.
Chapman, Michael, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler. “Young Children’s Compliance and Noncompliance in Parenting.” In Marc H. Bornstein, ed., Handbook of Parenting, vol. 4, Applied and Practical Parenting. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995.
Dienstbier, et al. “An Emotion-Attribution Approach to Moral Behavior.” Psychological Review 82 (1975): 299-315.
Hoffman, Martin. “Power Assertion by the Parent and Its Impact on the Child.” Child Development 31 (1960): 129-34.
Hoffman, Martin. “Moral Development.” In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed., vol. 2, edited by Paul H. Mussen. New York: Wiley, 1970b. 285-6
Assor, Avi, Guy Roth, and Edward L. Deci. “The Emotional Costs of Parents’ Conditional Regard: A Self-Determination Theory Analysis.” Journal of Personality 72 (2004): 47-89.
Grolnick, Wendy S. The Psychology of Parental Control: How Well-Meant Parenting Backfires. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003.
Hoffman, Marin, and Herbert D. Saltzstein. “Parent Discipline and the Child’s Moral Development.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5 (1967): 45-57.
Cohen, Patricia, and Judith S. Brook. “the Reciprocal Influence of Punishment and Child Behavior Disorder.” In Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives, edited by Joan McCord. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kandel, Denise B., and Ping Wu. “Disentangling Mother-Child Effects in the Development of Antisocial Behavior.” In Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives, edited by Joan McCord. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associate Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analysis and Theoretical Review.” Psychological Bulletin 128 (2002): 539-79.
Gordon, Thomas. Teaching Children Self-Discipline…At Home and at School. New York: Times Books, 1989.
Hoffman, Martin. “Conscience, Personality, and Socialization Techniques.” Human Development 13 (1970a): 90-126.
Sears, Robert R., Eleanor E. Maccoby, and Harry Levin. Patterns of Child Rearing. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957.
Stormshak, et al “Parenting Practices and Child Disruptive Behavior Problems in Early Elementary School.” Journal of Clinical Child
Psychology 29 (2000): 17-29.
Straus, Murray A. “Children Should Never, Ever, Be Spanked, No Matter What the Circumstances.” In Current Controversies on Family Violence, 2nd ed., edited by Donileen R. Loseke, Richard J. Gelles, and Mary M. Cavanaugh. London: Sage, 2004.
Straus, Murray A., David B. Sugarman, and Jean Giles-Sims. “Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior of Children.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 151 (1997): 761-67.
Straus, Murray A. Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2001.
Toner, Ignatius J. “Punitive and Non-Punitive Discipline and Subsequent Rule-Following in Young Children.” Child Care Quarterly 15 (1986): 27-37.