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The Art (not science) of Effective Discipline

Discipline can be a touchy subject.  Everyone has an opinion and a story to back up their opinion but there isn’t one cookie-cutter approach that will work for every child.  Even within one family, siblings may require something different depending on their temperament, their age, or your level of patience after a long day at work.     There is no “one size fits all” approach.  However, there are some general guidelines that every parent can follow to make their style of discipline as effective as possible.

Discipline is not all about consequences.  If your goal of discipline is to find the perfect consequence, then you’re missing the bigger picture.  In the long run, every parent wants their child to learn how to stop and think in order to make the right choices.  Therefore, that needs to be one of the main goals of discipline.  Giving your child a second chance in the moment to choose again is a great way to do this.  If they are holding a handful of cookies right before dinner but they have already eaten one, offer them the choice of putting them back before immediately punishing them.  If they have snatched a toy from their little sister, prompt them to return it before sending them to timeout.  We need to give our kids second chances to make the right choice before jumping to a consequence at the first mistake.  This is especially important for toddlers and young children.  They are still learning self-control and the difference between right and wrong so give them a chance to correct themselves before sending them to timeout.  They will learn far more from making the right choice the second time than just getting punished.

When a consequence is needed, stick to something that is natural and/or logical as much as possible.  If a consequence makes sense, it is much more likely to be effective.  If a child breaks their toy by playing too rough with it, the natural consequence is that it’s broken.  If they spill their ice cream because they ran with it, the natural consequence is the ice cream is gone.  The logical consequence is that they must help clean it up.  If two siblings can’t get along while playing a game, the logical consequence is that they can’t play with it anymore that day.  The best consequences are those that make the most sense.

Meet your child’s most basic needs first.  Tantrum behaviors often baffle parents.  Tantrums tend to happen mostly at night or first thing in the morning and sometimes they just come out of nowhere.  It’s important to ask yourself:  is there a natural cause for this behavior? If a child is tired, hungry or sick, they are more likely to meltdown or misbehave.  Tantrum behaviors in this context are not a result of defiance.  It is a result of something more organic.  In these cases, the best guideline to follow is meet the underlying need first.  If that still doesn’t resolve the behavioral issue, then consider a consequence.

Make the consequence timely. If a child’s consequence doesn’t occur until the next day, chances are they will not make the connection between the problem behavior and the consequence.  Consequences need to be as timely as possible. The closer they are to the offense, the more effective they will be.  Consequences also don’t need to be as long as you think.  Taking a 7-year old’s tablet away for a week isn’t going to help anyone.  What’s the motivation for behaving for the rest of the week if their favorite thing is gone?  Shorter consequences are generally more effective.  It’s much harder to lose something two days in a row for repeating the same inappropriate behavior than it is to lose it for a week and forget about it by tomorrow.

Last but not least, when consequences or limits are needed, make it about the behavior, not the child.  I always prefer to frame a limit in the form of “something is/isn’t for something.”  For example, “cookies aren’t for eating before dinner,” “teeth are for brushing,” “homework is for finishing before going outside. ” A kid isn’t bad for wanting to eat cookies first, but everyone is supposed to eat the meal before the dessert.  A kid isn’t bad for not wanting to brush their teeth, but everyone has to brush their teeth to avoid cavities.  Every kid wants to play first but homework has to be made a priority.  When we focus on the behavior rather than the child, we protect their self-esteem and avoid them believing “I’m a bad kid.”

There is no perfect way to discipline and frankly, every parent is going to make mistakes and that’s okay.  The best parenting and the best style of discipline will come from really knowing your kid inside and out.  Spend quality time with them and really get to know their thoughts and their feelings.  The more quality time you spend with your kids one on one, the more you can read them like a book.  As the parent, you know your child better than anyone.  When in doubt, trust your parental instincts before you bow to parental peer pressure.

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