Child discipline nowadays often gets a bad wrap and comes with unfortunate connotations of Victorian-style principles and children being ruled by overly strict, detached unloving parents.
However, despite this, child discipline is a necessary part of parenting.
Personally, I use the word guidance and together with the laying down of boundaries this guidance has a very important role to play in parenting and you can not be a good parent without either of them.
Becoming a parent, I believe, teaches you two fundamental things...
- How not to be selfish
- How not to be lazy.
Having the responsibility of raising a decent well-grounded human being is the most important job you will ever have, so you need to give it your full attention.
As humans, we do not make things easy for ourselves and the society we have created with all its temptations and pitfalls to tempt us to be less than good people, means that being a parent today is no easy job.
However, it is, without doubt, one of the most important and the most rewarding jobs you will ever do!
So what does all this have to do with child discipline? Well, in order to be able to understand the importance of the role of discipline and implementing boundaries when raising your children, you need to appreciate what you are up against!
Teaching your child to behave in a good, decent, respectable and kind manner requires effort, consistency and most importantly, leading by example.
Effective discipline does not mean being super strict, not listening or being dictatorial...
It means paying attention, taking well thought out action when necessary and being consistent.
Why is discipline important for a child?
So why is discipline important for a child? Discipline and boundaries make your child feel safe, loved and worthy of your time and attention. This may sound strange as surely we just need to love our children with all our hearts to make them feel worthy? Well loving them and nurturing them is sadly not enough, it has to be balanced with teaching them boundaries and levels of acceptable behaviour, by showing them how to behave in a kind, considerate and respectful manner. Trust me when I say that all children need boundaries in which to flourish and grow.
Each child is born an individual, they are a blank canvas to a certain degree, but they will have their intrinsic character traits that will be evident from birth. That is why some babies are laid back and easy, while others are cranky and more tricky to handle. Some toddlers will take everything in their stride, while others will be anxious at every turn. Some are adventurous and run headlong into every new phase in life, while others will first consider all their options and tread more carefully.
No matter which category your children fit into, discipline and boundaries will play an important part in your parenting and you will need to adapt your style of discipline and be creative. You have to stick to your principles, but you may need to explain or enforce them in different ways depending on the personality of the child you are dealing with.
Disciplining children and putting down boundaries if done in the right way will make your child feel safe. Most children that act out a lot are usually feeling insecure in some way and very often just creating safe loving boundaries for them to function in, will help them settle down. Have you ever wondered why a child that is being naughty and not listening to you will suddenly capitulate once you have lost your temper? I often hear parents say he or she does not seem satisfied until I am screaming and shouting at them. Well, chances are they are acting up because they are trying to get your attention and they may feel that the only way to get your full attention is to do something naughty or they may feel insecure because they do not have solid boundaries within which to function safely.
Obviously there are some more deep-rooted behavioural issues that can occur that will require professional help, but in general, if you apply some basic principles and guidelines for acceptable behaviour for your children, they will flourish and be happy.
When to start disciplining
By establishing routines and encouraging certain behaviours in the early years, with such things as a bedtime routine and helping your baby to self-settle, you are introducing your young child to the idea of expected behaviour in an atmosphere of love and guidance.
A consistent and loving bedtime routine and taking meals together even when your baby is in a high chair, for example, are all ways of laying the foundations for expected behaviour and consideration towards others. Teaching your child to share, be kind and loving towards friends and family, will mean that when you have to call them up for not doing these things later on, they will have a foundation of examples of what is the right way to behave and have more of an understanding as to why you felt it necessary to step in.
Many parents are reluctant or do not feel the need to discipline their children until their unruly behaviour is no longer cute. However, if you have been guiding your little one towards good behaviour in subtle and loving ways from day one, by not making them the centre of the universe and having even simple little rules in place, you will find that as they get older, it will become natural for them to accept boundaries and they will feel safer and more loved for it.
Of course all children are different. Some will willingly comply or quite naturally be mild-mannered, while others will test your patience to the limit by resisting you every step of the way and that is when your guidance and disciplining style needs to become creative, There are many ways to deal with a situation that requires discipline and for me discipline does not always equal punishment, or as I would prefer to say consequences.
In the early years, you need to know how to make sure that your child has a healthy understanding of what is good behaviour and what is not, all the while making sure they feel loved, worthy and understood. You need to try and navigate away from the situation that would result in them becoming overly frustrated or overtired, as this can result in them behaving in a way you may find unreasonable. But, in fact, is just due to them being worn out or exasperated.
That is why sleep is so important for young children and a regular bedtime is essential. You will be rewarded with a peaceful evening for yourself and which in turn will make you a far better and rested parent and your child feeling secure, well-rested and less likely to be cranky. In fact, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of sleep and the role it plays in your child's behaviour. A tired baby or toddler will be unreasonable, short-tempered and just plain difficult and you may find yourself interpreting naughtiness for what may in fact just be tiredness.
From very early on you can start praising your child. For example, when they offer you some food from their spoon when they complete a puzzle or even when your baby sleeps through the night for the first time and you think they don't understand what you are saying, they will respond to the positive sound of praise in your voice. The joy you show when they manage to grasp a toy for the first time or smile will fill them with positive feelings that will lay the foundations of how you will be able to encourage positive behaviour later on. In other words celebrate every triumph, no matter how small and you will reap the benefits later on.
Disciplining a child with low self-esteem is not going to go well. That is why it is so important to make sure that your child has a strong sense of self-worth to balance with any disciplining that may be necessary. You can create that strong sense of self in your child with praise and lots of it and it is very easy to do when you get into the habit.
Descriptive praise is a great way to guide your child towards acceptable behaviour, especially if your child is struggling with being asked to behave in a certain way or to do certain things. If for example you are trying to teach your toddler to put their toys away and they succeed, rather than say 'good girl' say 'well done for finding a place for all your toys, you have done such a good job'. By explaining what it is they have done that has earned the praise, it will reinforce the action they took that resulted in your praise. Once you start getting into the habit of descriptive praise you may be surprised at the results. Praise should be specific in order to be effective, otherwise, it may lose its impact.
Of course, I am not advocating that you should make your child the centre of attention all the time and that they should expect you to stop what you are doing whenever they demand it, or that they can interrupt at any point and get instant attention. However, if you are paying them the attention they deserve at the right time, they will more readily accept your rules about waiting and not interrupting. A child who is feeling loved, valued and secure is much easier to guide towards good behaviour and habits.
I always encourage parents to talk to their children and keep up a dialogue. This habit can be formed even when they are very little, as you chat away to your baby, telling them how much you love them, counting toes, pointing out all that you see around you and so on. This open dialogue will grow and develop into a healthy relationship where your child feels and knows that you are paying them attention and that they feel worthy of it. Many so-called 'naughty children' are just trying to get their parents attention and if you are only paying them your full attention when they misbehave, then they will continue to do so, as for them any attention even negative, is better than none or little attention at all.
You can use encouragement as a tool to help with the positive disciplining of children by praising them for their efforts to do a good job that you may have asked them to do. For example, saying to your toddler 'show me how nicely you can hang up your coat ' is far more effective than 'hang up your coat'. The way in which you word a request for good behaviour and habits makes a big difference. You should always speak to your children in a manner that you would expect to be spoken to yourself. Encouraging good behaviour is a great way to help your little ones steer away from unwanted behaviour and give them a clear message of what you expect in a non-threatening way.
You can even encourage good behaviour in the very young for example if they offer you a piece of their toast say' thank you that is very kind of you' and always say please and thank you when you hand them something and vice versa so that those words become second nature when they begin to talk.
Guidance and Consequence
The reason I prefer to call child discipline, guidance, is that I believe it is far better to guide our children towards good behaviour than to enforce it. Obviously, as children get older they will push boundaries and you may need to be very clear about the rules in your household and have clear consequences for not abiding by them. However, in the early years, you can be a lot more subtle in guiding your little one towards good behaviour which is far preferable to standoffs.
I also prefer to refer to punishment as consequences for bad behaviour and so we come to how we can guide our children toward good behaviour and make sure there are consequences for bad behaviour. So how should you go about disciplining your child? And what methods of discipline do I recommend?
How to set boundaries
Boundaries are an essential parenting tool and you can not discipline effectively without them, in fact, it would be unfair to expect your child to behave well without them. We all need boundaries, that is why we live in a law-abiding society as lawlessness leads to chaos and uncertainty and the same principles apply to young children. Remember that boundaries are not meant to keep children under control, rather help them grow into responsible considerate adults. Setting clear consistent boundaries does not only ensure good behaviour but it can also help your child build life skills for later on like patience, problem solving, responsibility and self-discipline.
Setting early boundaries for young children will help to make them more receptive to discipline. So laying the foundations is vitally important, which is why I advocate starting as you meant to go on and is why routine for young children is so important. It makes them feel safe and helps them to understand what is expected of them.
Introducing boundaries at a young age will be an investment in the future as children brought up in households with clear and consistent behavioural standards are less likely to rebel as they grow older.
Facilitate good behaviour
When you set limits for your children you should ensure that they have the best chance of succeeding by offering them the best chance of success. If you want your children to learn to put their toys away, make sure they have accessible and easy means to do so. If you want them to hang up their coat and put away their shoes when they come into the house, then make sure there is a hook at their height and a basket or shelf for the shoes. Before asking them to perform a certain task make sure it is achievable. You can begin to facilitate good behaviour in children as young as 8 to 12 months by using the right words. For example, instead of saying 'don't stand' say 'it is time to sit'. If children have positive experiences working within boundaries when they are very young, they are more likely to deal with them in a positive way later on.
Another way to facilitate good behaviour is to give warnings when there is something coming up that will require them to stop what they are doing. For example, when bath time is looming or a mealtime, give them time to adjust to the idea by warning them that it will be bath time or tea time soon. Offer to help them tidy away their toys or wash their hands for example. Swooping in and expecting your little one to comply just because you say it is time will often lead to an unnecessary stand of.
It is also important to explain to children why you have set certain limits and to concentrate on the dos rather than the don'ts. For example, you could say, 'let's see what we can do about tidying up this room shall we?' rather than 'don't forget to tidy up.' If you don't want balls to be played with inside the house, then explain that precious items might get broken and suggest they play outside, rather than saying 'don't throw the ball. It also helps to break tasks down into small pieces for young children, taking them through the task step by step. Always try and keep expectations simple and make them clear and easy to understand.
Model good behaviour
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to model good behaviour. The old adage 'do as I say not as I do' does not work and should not be used, if you wish your children to respect you. Young children have an innate sense of justice and you will be better able to enforce household rules and behaviours if they see you modelling the expected behaviour back to them. If your children witness you talking disrespectfully towards your partner, for instance, they will more than likely model that language and behaviour back to you when they are acting out. If they see you acting kindly towards others and showing empathy they will learn from you that this is the way to behave.
Respect is a two-way street and if you treat your children and others around you with respect they will learn to model this.
If you expect everyone to sit down at the table to eat at mealtimes without devices and be fully engaged with the family then you have to lead by example. If you do all of this from a very young age then your children will accept this as normal and are less likely to expect to behave in any other way. Do not fall into the trap that your baby or toddler is not taking any notice of what you are doing and that it is OK to sit and look at your phone while you are feeding them. When you are spending time with your children, you need to be fully engaged.
You should encourage your children to eat healthily from early on and explain why it is important to eat well and not live off unhealthy snacks. If you lay down these foundations to healthy eating when they are very young, children are more likely to accept your decision to deny a snack just before a meal.
There are endless ways that you can model good and healthy behaviours to your children, by tidying up after yourself, taking regular exercise together as a family, eating healthily, listening and paying attention to others, helping other members of the family to mention a few. These are all things that you can do from day one which will educate your children as to how to behave and will make any disciplining you have to do much easier and put you on a far stronger footing.
Another way to help discipline your children successfully is to try and limit the number of times you need to step in by not setting them up to fail. This means not going in heavy-handed, but rather guiding them toward making the correct choice and therefore avoiding a stalemate situation. Obviously this is not always possible and sometimes a definitive non-negotiable 'no' is called for, but there are occasions when you can get the desired result without a standoff.
If, for instance, your little one wishes to choose what clothes they should wear, then offer them two acceptable options rather than insisting on the outfit you want. Explain the difference between clothes for staying at home or going out and let them choose from the two on offer so they feel they have participated in the choice, rather than being dictated to. This method of offering limited choices works very well with toddlers from about 2 years old when they start to push boundaries and become more independent.
Tantrums and how to discipline toddlers
The first major battles that parents have with their children most commonly start in the toddler years and often shows itself in the form of temper tantrums.
As your little one becomes more independent, almost overnight they suddenly start to object to doing normal daily things they seemed to be quite happy to do in the past.
Toddler discipline will soon become very important as they might start resisting bedtime, refusing to eat foods they have previously enjoyed, not want to put their shoes on to go out or tidy up their toys.
It is important to remember that this is not strictly 'bad behaviour' but rather a normal expression of age-appropriate independence. Toddlers themselves do not enjoy tantrums and are very overwhelmed by the extreme emotions they are feeling, but they are learning how to cope with the frustrations of life.
They need to learn self-control and for some, it does not come easy. Not all toddlers will throw tantrums and there is a wide range of behaviour for this age group. As a parent, you will need lots of patience to navigate your way through this stage, but how you handle it will determine how your future disciplining journey will pan out.
As I have said so often before, having a regular and steady bedtime routine is of utmost importance and should be established well before the toddler stage. Bath, book and bed will be your saviour, as will regular meal times and ensuring your young children do not get overtired. An overtired toddler is more likely to throw a tantrum than a well-rested one. A toddler that has been used to boundaries from an early age will be less likely to be disruptive as they will feel more secure knowing where they stand and what is expected of them before the independence button gets pushed.
Diversion as you see a potential showdown approaching is far preferable to letting a full-on tantrum play out. Most tantrums are a result of frustration, tiredness or boredom so making sure you have snacks with you when you are out and about and ensuring they get enough rest is important. Keep an eye on what they are doing, as often a tantrum may erupt from not being able to complete a puzzle, for example, and not always because you have stopped them from doing or having something they want. If you see a potential meltdown, then step in in a kindly way trying not to take over and offer some gentle help or a distraction.
However, this is not always possible and should you find yourself dealing with a wailing, kicking inconsolable meltdown then you should not try to deal with it head-on. There is no negotiating with a toddler in the full throes of a tantrum, so it is imperative that you keep calm. If you are at home, I find sitting on the floor in the same room with your toddler works well and you can then keep an eye on them to make sure they do not hurt themselves.
- Stay with them
- Keep calm
- Keep your voice level and soothing and never shout
- Do not laugh or make light of the tantrum
- Some toddlers will like to be held until they calm down while others will not want to be touched
- Don't try to negotiate or bribe
- Attempt to distract them, but if that does not work then wait it out
- Stay resolved and do not give in
- Punishment is not necessary after a tantrum
- Watch for triggers that result in regular tantrums in order to avoid them in future
If your toddler throws a tantrum in public it is important that you deal with it in the same way as above. It will be difficult but try to ignore public judgement as if you give in to a tantrum when you are out in public, then your toddler may decide that this is a great way to get their own way when you are out and about.
Once the tantrum has passed it is time for a cuddle and reconciliation. It is important to explain that you understand why they were upset and why you were unable to let them have or do what they wanted.
Although tantrums are sometimes unavoidable, setting expectation and incentives for good behaviour can help. For example, you could offer a sticker or small treat if your toddler stays next to the trolley when you are shopping. The good old fashioned star chart still works wonders with toddlers, as an incentive to go to bed without a fuss, tidy up their toys or eat all their tea.
Rewards should not be grand gestures that are expensive or hard to fulfil. Simple things like choosing what to have for tea or going to the park are great incentives for toddlers. Try and steer away from sweet treats as these could cause more problems than benefits. Most importantly rewards should be saved for the larger more important achievements but should not be used as a constant means of negotiations. It is preferable especially with young children to reward after the event in a spontaneous way, rather than use rewards as an incentive to get children to behave. For example, say ' thank you for doing as I asked. Shall we go to the park as a treat?' instead of ' if you do as you are told we can go to the park'. By offering the reward at the beginning you are risking them failing at the task and suffering the double disappointment of not getting the treat.
Using time out as a method of discipline works well on children 2 years and older. Before that, the separation that is required for time out to have an effect is too distressing for the child and they will be too young to associate actions to reactions. If you start too early you may end up abandoning time out as it will not work, so timing the introduction of time out is essential.
It is possible to prepare your little one for time out by using 'positive time out' when they are around 18 months old. This works well when you can see they are getting frustrated and worked up about something. Before it goes too far you intervene with 'Let's take some time out to sit and read a book until you feel better' or you could do a puzzle together, or any other quiet activity. That way you are de-escalating the situation and diverting attention towards a positive, peaceful, experience.
This strategy will get them used the pattern of lowering the energy levels and having a cooling-off period which mirrors what 'time out' does but with you present.
Do not spring 'time out' out of the blue. It always works better if it has been explained beforehand, using simple terms. You should explain that if their behaviour gets out of hand, or they do something that you feel is not a good idea then you will call time out. You then need to explain what that will mean, for instance saying 'you will have to sit in that chair for a while until you calm down'. Some parents find it easier to do this with a doll or teddy for example.
When you do decide to use time out you should always offer a warning first and give them the opportunity to comply, by asking them nicely to behave and telling them that if they don't the consequence will be a time out.
Do not expect time out to be the magical answer to behavioural issues, as it can take time and practice. Being willful and testing your limits is the way a toddler establishes a true understanding of the world around them. When your child is around 2 years old, having them sit in a certain chair or on the 'naughty step' will not usually be achievable. The best solution at this age may be to suggest that they just put their head on the floor for a short while, or on a cushion. The period of time should be just long enough to refocus attention and 30 seconds to 1 minute should be enough.
Once your child approaches 3 years of age and has a longer attention span, they will be able to understand the concept of time out on a chair or step, as they are now better at understanding cause and effect.
Time out is a means of withdrawing your attention and is an excellent technique for shaping acceptable behaviour. You should look at time out as a way to teach your child how to deal with frustrations and modify behaviour when things don't go their way. During time out you should
- not offer words of encouragement or cuddles
- not scold or shout
- let them sit in solitude and silence
Not all children will require time out, some more compliant children will be happy to obey a parents request and redirection and you may find that the positive time out, as described above, will work successfully throughout their early childhood.
No single disciplinary approach will transform your child's behaviour, but learning about what behaviours are age-appropriate will help to keep your expectations realistic.
Be consistent and united
When it comes to boundaries and disciplining children, being consistent is the key. You can not discipline successfully and be inconsistent with your reaction to unacceptable behaviour and most importantly you and your partner must always portray a united front. Disagreements on how a certain situation played out should not be discussed in front of your children no matter how young they are, but rather wait until you are alone to talk through any concerns and then agree on a way to move forward.
You will need to keep your resolve even when your children are very young, so do not be tempted to waiver once you have made a decision. Children will definitely test you and they will often repeat unwanted behaviour just to make sure that the boundary still stands. You need to remember that they are not being deliberately defiant when they are very young, but making sure that the boundaries are still in place. This in itself makes them feel more secure. For example, your young child may throw his or her food on the floor to see what your reaction is meal after meal, just to make sure it is still not OK to do so. What is important is that you repeatedly say 'no' when he does it and make it clear by your tone of voice that this is unwanted behaviour. It may be a war of attrition, but that is why consistency in your response is very important.
Nipping unwanted behaviour in the bud is also key as your toddler will not understand why it was OK to throw his toys when he was a year old and now you deem it unacceptable. Even a 1-year-old can be told that the throwing of toys is not acceptable by using the word 'no' followed by a distraction or positive time out. At this age a firm 'no' is sufficient and it is important not to yell or give a long explanation at this stage.
Stick to your guns over bedtimes and mealtimes, but try not to make the meal table a war zone. Good table manners and participating in family time is more important than eating all their food. When it comes to finishing their meal the only rule should be that there will be no treats afterwards and if they do complain they are hungry, offer a healthy snack as an option.
If you do find yourself facing extreme objection and or a tantrum, stay resolute and see it through. You may sometimes doubt your decision and feel that is was not worth the fight, but once you have committed you must see it through.
Always try to stay calm, firm and consistent when dealing with these situations and if you do lose your temper or catch yourself snapping or losing patience, do not beat yourself up about it. Apologise to your child and explain that you were tired, for instance, and move on. Your children will need to deal with irrational human behaviour as they grow older and far better that they learn how to understand it from you.
As well as using different strategies to encourage good behaviour in your young child, it also extremely important that you listen to what your children say and take an interest in their little world. If you want your children to listen to you and respect you when they are older, then you should model that behaviour to them. Give them a voice and encourage dialogue even when they are very young and can not necessarily talk back.
Listen to what they like and what they do not like, paying attention will help them feel heard and less frustrated which in turn should lead to less confrontation. There will always be times when they need to wait for your attention, but if you give them due attention at the appropriate time, they are less likely to play up when you ask them to wait on occasion. As always explain why they must wait and that you will be with them shortly.
If you feel that your child is not listening, make sure that you when you talk to them or ask them to behave in a certain way, that you come down to their level, make eye contact and make sure you have their attention. Young children can very easily get distracted or become so engrossed in what they are doing that they may not hear what you are saying.
It's never too late
If you are reading this and you are thinking that because you have not implemented any of my suggested methods and that it is therefore too late to turn things around with an unruly or difficult toddler or older child, then be assured that it is never too late.
While it will be a more difficult task it is by no means hopeless and you will need a great deal of patience and resolve. Children who have initially had a free reign to behave however they wish or who have not had to experience consequences may certainly put up some resistance when you start to lay down boundaries and expect certain behaviours. However, if you are modelling good behaviours yourself and being consistent, firm but kind, loving and encouraging you will see results. It is all about balance and sensible expectations on your part as a parent and depending on the age of the child. You will need to employ some different techniques to deal with different issues whether they be resistance to bedtime, how they treat others, listening when spoken to or just doing as they are asked. There are solutions and things you can do to help resolve all these issues.
Pick your fights
Finally, I would like to say that you should decide which behaviours you find unacceptable and what values are important to you as a family and then pick your fights. Do not set your expectations too high as children are not angels and we should not expect them to be so. It is natural for them to investigate, experiment and push boundaries as they adjust to the world around them. They are not born with an inbuilt set of rules on how to behave and it is our job as parents to guide them to become good human beings and to equip them the best we can to deal with the life that lays ahead of them. So keep this in mind as you raise your little ones, and you will find you will have fewer battles and have more treasured times together.
- Always encourage and praise good behaviour, while diverting and addressing bad behaviour and explaining why it is unacceptable.
- Facilitate and model good behaviour wherever possible
- Do not make every little digression a standoff, as your disciplining strategies will lose their worth.
- Start as you mean to go on by introducing 'positive time outs' when age-appropriate.
- Maintain boundaries and keep to established daily routines especially bedtime.
- Try to avoid your little ones becoming overtired or hungry.
- Be consistent in the fights you pick and the consequences that follow.
- Save your 'time outs' and short sharp 'no's' for the really important issues.
- Always give warnings before a 'time out'
- Deal with meltdowns and tantrums calmly and by withdrawing attention.
- Do not resort to physical punishment
It is important to remember that when it comes to the discipline of children, no matter how hard you try to guide them towards good behaviour you will have to say 'no' a lot and you will find yourself dealing with a tantrum or some form of defiance. Always try to stay calm, firm and consistent when dealing with these situations and if you do lose your temper or catch yourself snapping or losing patience, do not beat yourself up about it. Apologise to your child and explain that you were tired move on. Children will push the boundaries and it is all about how you react to these occasions that counts.