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Discipline That Works

The hope of every parent is to have children who are responsible, concerned members of society. Discipline is, of course, part of this effort. Research has repeatedly shown that, despite the importance of the peer group, parents usually have much more influence than they realize. Disciplining children takes a great deal of effort, but the main idea is that children and parents can change.

Changing behavior requires much time and well-thought-out reactions. Some parents think they do not have the time, energy, or patience to attempt to motivate change in the child or even in themselves. It is not easy, but read on. You will be convinced that it can be done. You Can Do It!

Some Suggestions for Positive Steps Toward Better Discipline

Let your children know you like them. Tell your children how much you admire their good qualities. Don't take their good behavior for granted. Remember to reward them once in a while. These rewards may take the form of extra time reading to your child, time spent in an activity chosen by your child, or even something as simple as a hug.

Listening to your children, hugging them, smiling or talking with them are all rewards, the kind that you can give hundreds of times every day. One of the most powerful rewards for children is the love, interest, and attention they receive from their mother and father.

Let your children know exactly what you expect of them - set limits. Youngsters, who would be the last to admit it, find too much freedom frightening. Set limits for the actions that your children are not ready to control themselves. Children need to know exactly what parents expect of them and also how parents will react to their behavior.

It is important to state your request clearly. For example, it is much easier for the child to follow the direction, “Please put your glass in the center of the table” than “Be careful with your mil.  It’s so close to the edge of the table it will fall off.”  Set rules that you think are important and be firm in seeing that your children follow them.  Above all, do not make rules you have no intention of enforcing.

Encourage responsible decision-making. Whenever possible, find areas in which you know your children can make decisions for themselves. If your child approaches you with a request you feel you should deny, try saying, "What would you say if you were in my place? What should I say? What would be my reason?" You'll find that if you treat children as responsible individuals, their level of responsibility increases rapidly.

Set a good example. Remember that children are great imitators. While you are telling your children why you think they should not steal, cheat, or be cruel to others, be sure they cannot cite some example of your behavior that contradicts these values. Be honest yourself - hypocrisy shows.

Encourage your children to respect proper authority. At home, in school, and in other areas of their lives, your children need to know the importance of respecting authority. It is a simple fact that some things cannot or will not be changed. Certain rules must be followed. Help your children understand that it is harmful to them, as well as to everyone else, to have constant arguments, fights, and problems with peers and adults. Let your child see how his/her misbehavior affects other people.

Have fun with your children. Young people need to interact with adults. Try choosing a regular time each week to do things as a family. Engaging in sports, playing games, sharing hobbies, visiting museums are some of the many activities that parents and children can enjoy together. In addition, initiate your children to join you in some activities in which they may not usually be asked to participate. Also encourage your children to ask questions and to express their own points of view.

What About Punishment?

Thus far, we have approached the subject of discipline from a very positive standpoint. Changing behavior with positive methods is the best way. But it is a rather slow process, and you may find some behaviors of your child that you need to change more quickly.

Punishment, if used properly, will produce rapid changes in behaviors that disrupt the family. It is strongly recommended, however, that you use punishment sparingly. It does encourage the child to refrain from certain behaviors, but your real task as a parent is to teach the child to be a person. By using the more positive methods described earlier, you can teach the child positive ways of behaving.

Effective punishment relies on withholding rewards or privileges and provides a clear-cut method of earning them back. Before punishing, it is a good idea to give a cue (a physical or verbal warning that the behavior is to stop at once). Then punishment should follow immediately after the offense so that the child understands the association between the misbehavior and the punishment.

Avoid physical punishment because other forms of discipline (short periods of isolation or withholding privileged activities) focus more on the behavior and less on the self-concept of the child. Hatred builds quickly when punishment hurts the child physically.

Realistically, however, because some physical punishment is likely, care should be taken that it is neither severe nor prolonged. Physical punishment can be harmful to a child and does not accomplish the goal. Besides, no parents want their children to fear them. If a parent slaps or hits a child in anger, the undesirable behavior may stop, but two things are wrong with this method:

  • both parent and child are likely to be upset for some time, and
  • no parent can hit a child every time he or she does something undesirable.

Don't Give Up

Consistency will determine the success of whatever discipline methods you use. Each time you ask your children to do something, you also have a job. Be predictable - follow through. Remember, too, that your children may have been misbehaving for some time. If this is the case, when you start to correct them, they may not think you mean it. They will learn that you mean business when you continue to follow your program consistently.

If you see your children slipping into behaviors you cannot correct by yourself, it may be time to seek outside assistance. When you feel you have exhausted your own efforts, your child's teacher, school counselor, or principal, your pastor or rabbi, or a child or adolescent psychologist may be able to suggest some helpful ideas and strategies.

Remember, changing or establishing parental discipline is a long, slow, often tedious, process. The important thing is to form a clear objective, then take a few steps at a time in that direction.

Copyright © 1987 National Education Association of the United States, Stock No. 5165-3, "Discipline That Works" by Jane L. Williams, Washington, D. C. 20036-3290