The Key to Well-Behaved Kids Isn’t Punishment. It’s Discipline, and There’s a Big Difference.
Those blue and red permanent markers, hidden in the kitchen drawer, are too tempting. Your child remembers seeing you stash them there, and one afternoon, she gets her hands on them. She has a field day expressing her inner Jackson Pollock by creating big permanent drawings all over your living room walls. She’s having too much fun to stop—until you walk into the room and catch her in the act.
How to handle a child who misbehaves occasionally, or one who disobeys your wishes often, proves daunting for most parents. What are the most effective discipline strategies? Is it wrong to raise your voice? Should you give her a time-out or just an icy stare? The first and most crucial piece of today’s discipline puzzle is understanding that shaping kids’ behavior goes well beyond what you do when they’re misbehaving, experts say. Discipline is something you do all the time, in the way that you talk with your children and the examples you set every day. The goal is not only to encourage good behavior but also to promote independence, resilience, strength of character and solid values.
“Many parents think of discipline as a way to correct their child’s bad behavior, often by using punishment,” says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child. “The debate becomes ‘What sort of punishment works best?’ Instead, parents should ask themselves, ‘How do I raise a child who’ll become an adult I’ll admire and respect?’ That’s the goal of discipline.”
Today’s working moms, it appears, are on the right track. In a Working Mother Smart Mom Council survey, more than 80 percent of you said that when disciplining your children, your primary goal is to teach them, not to punish them. Still, most admit there are some hefty challenges along the way. History hasn’t always been kind to working moms and the way we approach our kids’ misdeeds. Some 45 years ago, in an early revision to his groundbreaking book Baby and Child Care, Benjamin Spock, MD, wrote that a working mother is “inclined to shower [her child] with presents and treats, bow to all his wishes, regardless of her own, and generally let him get away with murder.” By 1985, Spock had softened only slightly, changing “working mother” to “working parents.” Today, however, experts no longer assume that we’re guilt-driven, inferior disciplinarians. In fact, some point out distinct ways working parents may have an edge over stay-at-home parents when it comes to discipline.
“Working parents really do need their kids to make a contribution, and that helps the kids feel important,” says Jane Nelsen, EdD, author of Positive Discipline for Working Parents. “The best managers at work have faith in other people, enlist their input and depend on them to carry out their ideas. These are important skills for good discipline, too. Kids need to feel valued, and these feelings may be more likely in homes where both parents work and children need to pitch in to make things run smoothly.”
Dr. Spock stressed that punishment is never the main element in discipline and that, above all, children need the love of good parents. Today’s experts agree, with many highlighting the two sides of discipline: proactive techniques that promote good behavior, and reactive techniques used in the moment when a child is misbehaving. Simply put, the more proactive you are, the less reactive you’ll need to be. “Discipline has two major functions,” says Robert Brooks, PhD, a psychologist on the staff of Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. “The first is to ensure that children have a consistent, safe and secure environment in which they can learn and understand the importance of reasonable rules, limits and consequences. The second, equally important, is to nurture self-discipline, or self-control, which will ultimately help them become more resilient and able to deal with frustration and mistakes.” Reactive discipline is really crisis intervention, when bad behavior flares and you feel the need to do something—fast. “But those aren’t the most teachable moments,” Dr. Brooks adds.
If you can work with your kids during calm, reflective times, you’ll help them learn how to master their behavior during more frantic moments, like the morning rush to school. By doing this, you’ll spend less time correcting them and more time enjoying their company. Here, ways to make pro-active parenting work.
Turn punishment into problem-solving. Kids often misbehave for a reason. If you talk to yours in a moment when they’re well-behaved, you may find out what their reason is. “In one family I counseled, five-year-old Robert would throw a tantrum every night at bedtime,” says Dr. Brooks. “His parents thought he was just being oppositional, but when I asked him why he didn’t want to go to bed, he revealed that he was having nightmares. He and I then figured out that a nightlight and a picture of his parents on the nightstand would make him feel better. He got both, and the battles stopped.
Getting to the root of a problem helps you modify your mindset, and involving your child in the solution gives him ownership over it and promotes self-discipline.” Sometimes you have to coax kids a bit to find solutions to their behavior. If your child is chronically late getting to bed, for instance, you might say, “Maybe you need more time to get ready for bed. What if I tell you fifteen minutes ahead of time that you need to start getting ready?” This allows your child to pick a solution from choices you can live with.
Be authoritative, not authoritarian. Of course you need to set limits for your kids. But if you set all the rules and demand that your children follow them, you teach them to be obedient but not to think for themselves. In the long term, they might rebel. If, instead, you let them help establish the rules, they’ll learn to set goals, compromise and work as a team. Plus, they’ll be more likely to feel that the rules are fair—and follow them. For example, your kids might help devise a chore chart at home that outlines what tasks need to be done (and when) and take turns doing them. Older kids could help set limits on how much TV they watch on school nights or help decide their own curfews.
Make sure everyone is clear about the rules and the consequences if they are broken. Set realistic consequences, and follow through. If you say to your child, “Stop yelling or we’re not going to the park,” but she keeps yelling and you go to the park anyway, she learns that you don’t mean what you say. But if you clarify your expectations and the consequences for poor behavior in advance—and then follow through on those consequences when necessary—she’ll be more likely to behave next time.
Do your kids habitually fight in the backseat of your car? “Say to them before you leave, ‘If you fight, I will pull over to the side of the road and wait until you’re ready to stop. We’ll only drive when both of you say you’re done,'” suggests Dr. Nelsen. “Have them repeat what you just said so you know it’s clear to them, then grab a good book and leave twenty minutes early. If they act up, pull over, take out your book and—here’s the key: Do not say a word. Just sit there and read. I promise you that within a few minutes they’ll get bored, and one of them will say they’re ready to stop fighting. Wait silently until both of them do, then start up the car and go. If they start fighting again, pull over and do the same thing. Usually, you won’t do this more than three times before they see that you mean what you say and start to behave well in the car.”
Encourage your kids, but limit rewards. In a classic Stanford University study, preschoolers were divided into two groups: One received small rewards for drawing with markers and the other didn’t. In subsequent free-play periods, those who had received rewards for their artwork gradually became less interested in drawing, and when they did draw, they spent less time on their art than the children who hadn’t received rewards. Being rewarded for their work had diminished the innate pleasure the children took in the activity. The same thing can happen with behavior.
“Star charts and penny jars can be motivating to an extent, but you don’t want your child to become so reward-focused that he doesn’t want to do something unless there’s an external incentive,” says Jennifer Lansford, PhD, a research scientist at the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy in Durham, NC. “You don’t want your child to lose his internal motivation.” A child’s main motivation to behave well should be his or her own sense of accomplishment—not just pleasing you. “Praise is saying to your child, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Encouragement is saying, ‘You must be so proud of yourself,'” explains Dr. Nelsen. “Encouragement teaches your children to seek inner satisfaction rather than becoming approval junkies. They learn to self-evaluate rather than relying on others.”
Be a parent first, a pal second. While most of the women on our Smart Mom Council say they try to be both a friend and a parent to their kids, experts say the parent side needs to take the lead. “Parents are our inner guardians,” notes Dr. Rosenfeld. “They instill in us a sense of right and wrong, and when we internalize that, they become our conscience. If your conscience is always your friend and never tells you when you do something wrong, anything goes!” Of course you want your children to like you and have fun with you, but you also want to give them values and limits. So don’t be afraid to be a parent and say no. Often it’s just what they need—and want.
Present a united front. Children with two parents learn best when the messages from both parents align. Similarly, your caregiver’s approach to discipline should match yours. Ask her how she would handle certain situations, whether she takes a preventive approach to discipline and how, if at all, she punishes the children for inappropriate behavior. When your kids have playdates, you can enlist other parents to present a united front, too. For example, if you’re teaching your little one to share toys, ask his pal’s mom if she’ll help you reinforce this when he’s at their house.
Set a good example. “Our children emulate us in far more ways than we’d like to admit,” Dr. Rosenfeld says. “The first question every parent has to ask is ‘Am I behaving in an exemplary fashion?'” Let your child see the way you handle difficult situations. Show empathy, say, for a new store clerk who takes longer than you’d like, rather than getting angry. If you swear when you spill coffee, look at your gape-mouthed kids and admit, “I shouldn’t have said that. I was upset and I said something inappropriate. I’m sorry.” Showing your kids that everyone makes mistakes and that you can apologize and move on may be the most important example of all.
Express love. Truly effective discipline always comes wrapped in a message of love. “Sometimes, when your child has a tantrum, the best thing to say is ‘You know, I could really use a hug,'” says Dr. Nelsen. “You’re not telling him that he needs one, but that you do. If he says, ‘I don’t want to,’ just say, ‘Find me when you’re ready.'”
When to Be Reactive
Once you’ve set a good foundation of proactive discipline, you’ll most likely have to stop bad behavior less and less. Still, all kids misbehave at times, and you’ll need to step in and do something immediately. Don’t expect these to be the times when you do your best parenting. But do try to stay in control and remedy the situation calmly. Later, in a quieter moment, talk to your child about what he could have done differently and create a game plan for next time. Dr. Lansford offers these in-the-moment, age-by-age best practices.
Up to age 3: Distraction works best. If your child is getting restless in the grocery store line and you feel a tantrum coming on, distract him by pointing out something interesting in the aisles (“Look at those balloons. Can you find one that looks like a gorilla?”), making a funny face or doing something else amusing. You’ll make him forget, at least momentarily, what he was so upset about and buy yourself time to get through the checkout line unscathed.
Ages 3 to 6: Use time-outs. “The goal of a time-out is to break the cycle of whatever negative thing is going on and separate your child from the situation for a few minutes so that when he returns he has a fresh start,” says Dr. Lansford. A good guideline is one minute for each year of the child’s age; a 3-year-old, for example, would spend three minutes in a time-out. But this is also an opportunity for you to cool down and figure out how to handle the situation. Rather than saying to your child, “Go to your room and think about what you did,” give her a time-out, then gently talk to her about how she could have handled things better. If appropriate, you might ask her to apologize.
Ages 7 and up: Remove privileges. If your 8-year-old knows he’s not supposed to ride his bike down a certain street but does so anyway, you might bar him from riding for the rest of the day. If your teenager packs more friends into his car than he’s allowed, you could take away his driving privileges for a week. Being smart about discipline, like being a good parent in general, requires taking good care of yourself. You’re more likely to succeed at being proactive if you’re well rested and can think clearly than if you’re tired and stressed. So try to get enough sleep, take a little time for yourself and find moments to step back and reflect. If you do, chances are you’ll be a better—and happier—mom.
Did Mother Know Best?
What a difference a generation can make. Our Smart Mom Council told us how their own discipline strategies were similar to or different from their moms’. Their top do’s and don’ts:
What Mom did that I still do
- Order time-outs (though she didn’t necessarily call them that)
- Remove privileges (toys, etc.)
- Give “the Look” (raising one eyebrow)
- Establish rules and enforce them
- Count to three (or five or ten) to get the kids to do things—or stop doing things
What Mom did that I don’t do
- Spank with her hand, a wooden spoon, a stick or a hairbrush (84 percent of moms in our survey said they rarely/never spank)
- Wash the kids’ mouths out with soap
- Give the kids “the silent treatment”
- Shame the kids (make them feel guilty)
- Say, “Wait till your father gets home!”
Curated by Erbe