Disciplining your child is one of the toughest challenges of parenthood. It can frustrate, discourage, and humble you. When you're trying to get your independent toddler, preschooler, or big kid to behave, you may wonder why you ever thought the feeding and sleeping dilemmas during the baby months were so tough.
The right expert advice can be instructive and reassuring. Start by learning about a few of the major "categories" of discipline philosophies. Once you get a handle on these, it will be easier to incorporate the ones that are a good fit for you and your family.
Similarities in discipline theories
Although the field of discipline field is vast, many popular books address similar themes. Here are some of the big ones:
- Aim for the middle ground between being too punitive and too permissive.
- Don't use physical punishments like spanking and slapping.
- Steer clear of psychological punishments, such as name-calling and insults.
- When you or your child spiral out of control, take time to cool off.
- Offer choices.
- Learn to manage your own anger.
- Provide encouragement and positive feedback.
- Let your child experience consequences to behavior.
- Beware of holding grudges. Once the behavior has been addressed, give your child a clean slate.
Differences between discipline theories
One expert suggests that time-outs last a minute for each year of your child's age, while another says your child should decide how long the time-out lasts. One book instructs you to firmly tell your child, "No hitting," and another cautions against using negative words like "no" and "don't." Trying to make sense of contradictory advice can be frustrating and confusing, but it also shows that there's no one right way to discipline.
You are the true expert on what works for you and for your children. Professional advice is undoubtedly helpful, but it needs to align with your own intuition and values. It's fine to adapt philosophies and use what makes sense to you.
Five basic discipline philosophies
Boundary-based discipline: Children need boundaries to feel safe. If they don't know where the boundaries are, they'll "test" until they find them.
A toddler may test boundaries by throwing her spoon (or even her whole plate) to the floor. An older child might test limits by leaving her colored pencils in a glorious mess on the rug or by taking an extremely long time to get ready in the mornings.
Clearly communicate your boundaries: "Please put my things back in my purse when you're done looking at them." If your child doesn't heed your directions, follow through with a consequence.
Make the consequence a logical fit for the behavior. For example, if your child leaves your wallet, hairbrush, and sunglasses strewn around the living room floor, she loses the privilege to inspect your purse for a while.
Give your child limited choices. Suppose your 5-year-old is loudly banging on her electronic toy piano with the volume on maximum. You respectfully ask her to turn it down. She ignores you. Offer a choice: "You can either turn the volume down now, or I'll put the piano away until tomorrow." This puts the responsibility in her hands.
Use natural consequences, too. If your grade-schooler forgets her lunch, don't rush to school with it. Instead, let her experience the consequences.
Gentle discipline: A child can't learn much about behavior when he's screaming and crying. He (and you) can benefit greatly from daily preventive techniques – strategies that minimize opportunities for misbehavior.
Create routines so that your child feels grounded. Offer choices to give him a sense of control. Try something like, "Would you like to wear the red pajamas or the blue?" Give warnings before transitions: "We need to leave the playground in five minutes."
Frame your requests positively. For example, say, "Please use your big boy voice," instead of, "Don't whine." When possible, use "when, then" statements instead of outright no's: "When we're done with dinner, then we can go outside."
When your child misbehaves, first consider if there's an underlying problem, such as tiredness, boredom, or hunger. The misbehavior may disappear once you address this need.
If not, turn to what author Elizabeth Pantley calls a "laundry bag" of tricks. This is a collection of go-to strategies, including silly games, distraction, redirection, validation, and self-soothing. You can pull a trick out of your bag whenever it's time to refocus your child.
For example, if he refuses to take a bath, try making the washcloth "talk" to him in a playful voice. If this doesn't work, try something else, such as validation and redirection. ("It's hard when you have to do something you don't want to do. How about if we see how quickly we can get it done? I'll get a clock.")
Positive discipline: This concept is based on misbehavior as an opportunity for learning and engaging the child to help come up with a solution. Kids behave well when they feel encouraged and have a sense of belonging and self-worth. Misbehavior often happens when children feel discouraged.
Talk with your child and try to find out the underlying cause of her misbehavior.
For example, suppose your 3-year-old refuses to bring her plate to the sink. Is she afraid she'll break the plate? Is she trying to get attention? Perhaps it gives her a sense of power. Or maybe she's hurt about something else and is trying to "get you back."
Once you know the reason, give her the right kind of encouragement and work out a solution. If she's struggling with powerlessness, you could encourage her by saying, "We need to get the table clean. Can you help me figure out how to do it?"
Another example: Your 8-year-old spills juice on the couch and the two of you decide that the solution is for her to steam clean the stain (using her allowance to pay for the steamer rental). This is a task she might actually enjoy. It doesn't mean she'll continue to spill juice on the couch in order to get to use the steamer. It means she's learning how to take responsibility for a mistake – and better yet, she's invested in her own learning.
Emotion coaching: When children can recognize and understand their own feelings, they make better choices. You can teach your child to do this, and it can strengthen the connection between the two of you.
Know your own standards for what is and is not acceptable behavior. Be up front with your child about these, and talk with him about some of the feelings he might experience in certain situations.
For example, if your preschooler has hit other kids out of frustration in the past and is having friends over, explain that you understand things could get overwhelming for him. Suggest that if he starts to feel frustrated, he can take a break to spend some quiet time in his room, but hitting another child is not acceptable.
Focus on empathy. This means putting yourself in your child's shoes to try to understand the true feelings behind his misbehavior.
Reflect these back to him by saying, "It's hard when we really want something and we can't have it. I bet you're feeling really disappointed right now."
When your child feels that you understand him, he'll trust you. Within this context of trust, he'll be open to you when you teach him about responsible choices. ("We can't buy candy every time we see it. Too much candy isn't good for our bodies.")
Behavior modification: Positive reinforcement helps children improve their behavior, and negative reinforcement helps them limit misbehavior.
This approach is similar to boundary-based discipline in that it emphasizes clear limits backed up with consequences. But in behavior modification, there's more emphasis on warnings and rewards.
Use warnings to help your child take responsibility for stopping the misbehavior on her own. For example, if your child is arguing with you because you told her she can't have a cookie before dinner, don't get caught up in the skirmish.
Tell her to stop arguing about it, and that this is her first warning. If she persists, give her a second warning. If she still doesn't stop, calmly tell her to take a time-out. (These should be brief – just a few minutes long.)
More serious offenses might require a consequence other than a time-out. For example, if your child persistently teases the dog and is old enough to know better, you might take away her television privileges for a couple of days.
Rewards motivate your child to do well. This could be as simple as parental praise. In some cases, you might want to set up a charting system with more tangible rewards.
For every morning that your child is ready on time to go to daycare, she gets a star in her chart. When she racks up five stars, she gets a treat.
Decide what works best for you
These brief descriptions don't tell the whole story, of course. It's not as if boundary-based discipline doesn't include preventive techniques – it does. And gentle discipline does include the use of consequences.
All these philosophies overlap. What makes them different is what they emphasize, and you may decide that your values best match a particular philosophy's main focus.
For a roundup of the above five philosophies, see our quick-read chart of discipline styles.
Also: Get age-specific advice about discipline for your toddler, preschooler, or big kid.