Consequences

Two tools in your discipline toolbox are natural consequences, and logical consequences.

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence is what will happen if the child keeps doing what they are doing, and an adult does not intervene. Some examples:

  • If the child pulls the cat’s tail, the cat is likely to scratch the child’s hand.
  • If the child plays with a toy too roughly, the toy may break.
  • If they leave their cookie unattended on the picnic table while they play, the crows may steal it.
  • If the child doesn’t eat at a meal, they will be hungry later.
  • If they don’t bring their comic book inside, it may get ruined by rain.

We, as adults, might be able to foresee all of these natural consequences. But a child may not realize that these things could happen. So, it’s only fair that the parent advises the child of the possible problem: “If you [do this], then [that] will/might happen.” Sometimes, the parent might give a command to the child to stop the behavior and prevent the consequence. Or, sometimes the parent might inform the child of the possible result, then let the child make their own decision about what to do, and perhaps live with the consequences of their actions. Many parents think it’s important to do this at times – if we always protect and rescue our kids from all possible mistakes, they may not learn important lessons about the impact of their choices.

Natural consequences are best used when the results of the mistake will be a little painful so a lesson is learned, but not too painful. For example, if the child might break a $5 toy, you might not intervene, but if they’re about to break your laptop, you should stop them! If they might get a bump or a bruise, you might let that play through, but if they’re risking a broken bone, you will stop them.

Natural consequences are not administered by the parent. They’re the responsibility of the child – they took the action that caused the consequence.

Logical consequences

Logical consequences are imposed by the parent for misbehavior.

When entering a new situation, it’s the parent’s job to make sure the child knows what to expect, and what’s expected of them. We teach them how to be good. If they start a mild misbehavior, we might start correcting that by telling them what TO DO instead. But, if the misbehavior is getting worse, a consequence may be appropriate.

Generally*, you will give an “if / then” warning to let them know what’s coming so they have a chance to change behavior and avoid the consequence. Some examples, sorted into categories:

  • Removing the child from a situation where there’s an issue:
    • “If you run near the parking lot, then we’ll have to leave the playground.”
    • “If you knock the books off the library shelf, we’ll go home instead of going to story time.”
    • “If you are loud in the restaurant, then we won’t be able to stay to have dessert.”
  • Removing the problem item from them:
    • “If you don’t put away your toys, I will put them away and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
    • “If you two can’t share that toy nicely, then I will put it away for the rest of the play date.”
    • “If you knock your plate on the ground, then lunch is over and I won’t get you more food till afternoon snack time.”
  • Removing a privilege
    • “If you don’t finish your homework tonight, then no screen time tomorrow.”
    • “Since you hurt your friend, I can’t let you play tag anymore.”
    • “If you don’t put all your laundry in the basket, then no candy today.”
  • Requiring the child to do something to repair a situation.
    • “If you spill the water, you will have to clean it up.”
    • “If you break that, you’ll have to use your allowance to buy a new one.”

Make sure:

  • the consequence is developmentally appropriate
    • For a toddler, it has to be immediate and short term – if they start throwing blocks, you immediately pick them up and take them away from the blocks. Then you help them find a new activity to do. A few minutes later, they might wander back to the blocks and play with them appropriately.
    • For a preschooler, the consequence should still follow closely after the behavior but can last a little longer. If they are playing in a way that could break a toy, you take it away right away, and say “I’ll keep this safe till tomorrow, then we can try again.”
    • For an older child, the consequence can be more delayed and last longer. For a teenager, it could even be something like: “if you don’t do well on fall semester grades, then I won’t let you try out for the spring musical.”
  • the consequence is in proportion to how bad the behavior was
    • If a child spilled juice, you wouldn’t say “no drinks at the next five meals.” But you could say “no more juice today. If you are thirsty, you can have water.”
    • If a child failed to put away toys one time, you wouldn’t throw away all the toys. But the toys could “take a break” for a day or two.
  • you choose a consequence you can and will follow through on enforcing
    • Kids need to know they can trust their parents to keep their promises. That includes being consistent when applying consequences. Don’t go easy on the consequences and back down… if you do this once, they’ll try to beg you down on the next several times.
    • No empty threats. When you tell your child “if you don’t come right now, I’m leaving you here at the store and not coming back.” They know that’s not true. (And if they thought it was true, that would be very scary for them.)
  • you carry it out calmly, not with anger and shaming – consequences are not about punishing your child or making them “really regret” their choices – they’re about learning that their choices have impact and helping them learn the importance of better choices in the future.
  • as I said above*, generally you want to warn before imposing a consequence, so they have a chance to make a better choice. However, if they are hurting someone or something, there’s not a warning – it’s an immediate consequence. “You bit your friend. We are leaving the park now.” At a family meeting, when all is calmed down, you can discuss your rules with your child and establish in advance what behavior you consider unacceptable that will always warrant an immediate consequence.

For lots more on discipline, read The Discipline Toolbox, and follow the links in that post to find lots more tips.

 

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When/Then and If/Then

Two useful discipline tools for parents are the “when / then” and the “if / then” statements.

When / Then

This statement basically says “when you do [this positive behavior], then you will get [this positive social reward].”

The statement first tells your child what you want them to do, then it implies that you are totally expecting your child to do this positive thing, now that you’ve explained to them what’s expected. And in return for doing it, they can expect to continue to have your loving, positive attention.

Some examples:

  • “When you’ve brushed your teeth and gone potty, then we get to read a bedtime story.”
  • “When you finish cleaning up your Legos, then we can play a game.”
  • “When you’re ready for school on time, then you can work on a drawing.”
  • “When you’re sitting down in your chair, then I will give you your dessert.”
  • “When you’re sitting in your car seat, then I will tell you a joke.”

If / Then

“If you do [this negative behavior], then you will get [this consequence.]”

This statement assumes they are likely to do something wrong, and tells them that if they do, they will experience a negative consequence.

You don’t want to start here: First, assume the best of your child! Giving a “when / then” first gives them the best chance at making a positive choice and being rewarded for that.

If the when / then didn’t work, that’s when we turn to if / then.

  • “If you can’t finish getting ready for bed in the next five minutes, then you’ll have to go straight to bed without a bedtime story.”
  • “If you don’t put your Legos away in the next five minutes, then I will have to put them away, and you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.”
  • “If you’re not ready for school on time, then you won’t be able to draw today.”
  • “If you don’t sit down now, then you won’t be able to have dessert tonight.”
  • “If you don’t sit in your car seat by yourself, then I will have to put you there and buckle you in. Then I can’t tell you the joke I have saved up for today.”

Think about your tone when presenting these statements. These don’t need to come off as angry threats that sound like “If you don’t cut that out, you’re going to be in big trouble with me!!” They can just be matter of fact statements about the natural or logical consequences of their actions. You may even let your tone know that you’re a little disappointed that you won’t be able to read the bedtime story or tell them the joke – that encourages them to try harder to win back that positive social reward from you.

Learn about lots of other tools for your Discipline Toolbox here.

Your Discipline Toolbox

There are lots of different discipline techniques you can use to guide your children toward good behavior. Learning about them is like stocking your toolbox for home maintenance. If your house has a good solid foundation, and you perform regular, routine maintenance, then you may not need to pull out your toolbox very often. But we all have those little repair jobs to do from time to time that require a basic, all-purpose tool, and some days we have really big issues that we need to pull out specialized power tools to address, and sometimes we even need to call in a professional to help. This post will orient you to all the tools in your toolbox, and help you figure out how to use the right tool for the right job, in the right way.

[Note: This post is intended as an overview… there are LOTS of links in this post that will take you to other articles I’ve written with more details on these techniques.]

What is Discipline?

Discipline means guidance. It means good modeling, setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming that they know how, and setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we will tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

Building a Strong Foundation

All discipline is grounded in a positive relationship. Here’s some ways to build that foundation:

  • Play together—often!
  • Have snuggle time and special time and let them know that you love them.
  • Talk and listen to them—build a “Love Map” of what’s important to them.
  • Validate their emotions—their feelings are always OK. (Some behaviors are not.)
  • Be consistent and trustworthy.
  • Ask for respect from them and treat them with respect.
  • Teach how to be good: talk about values; model, coach, and praise good behavior.

Do Routine Maintenance

  • Take care of yourself. Get the support you need in order to have enough energy to be a calm, thoughtful parent.
  • Whenever possible, ensure your child is well fed and well rested.
  • Avoid overstimulation (it leads to meltdowns).
  • Spend time in kid-friendly environments where it’s easy for them to succeed.
  • Set expectations: warn of transitions, and explain what the plans are.
  • Create predictable routines & clear rules so they know what’s expected of them. Set appropriate limits on behavior. (Be sure that your expectations are developmentally appropriate. Don’t ask more of them than they are capable of.)

To Improve Behavior

When there’s not really bad behavior, but there are places where if your child was behaving better, your family life would be smoother and happier, here’s how  to move things in a positive direction:

  • Use the Attention Principle: pay attention to positive behavior you want to see more of.
  • Use When / Then. “When you do [positive behavior], then you get [something positive.]”
  • Create a Reward System. (Read more about praise and reward here.)
  • Create a Routine to address any chronic challenge in daily family life.
  • Clarify rules—your child may do something that they didn’t realize was wrong. You can explain what the problem is and how to avoid it in the future.

To Correct Minor Misbehavior

(Note: If your child is hurting someone or something, skip to the next level.)

These tools are meant to correct problematic behavior. As parents, a big part of our job is to help our children learn to be good people, as this helps them succeed in school, work, and in all of life. To do that, we need to set clear limits on what’s OK and what’s not OK. (Learn here about the authoritative parenting style, which balances high expectations for our children with high responsiveness to them as individuals.)

To Correct Major Misbehavior

These are your power tools. You’re not going to pull them out of the toolbox every day, but they’re there when you need them.

  • Use Time Out from Positive Attention. This gives them (and you) an opportunity to calm down.
    • Note: If your child is in the midst of a meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them… they’re in their “downstairs brain”. (Learn more here.)
  • Impose a Logical Consequence—make sure the “punishment fits the crime.”
  • Seek peer advice, parent education, or professional support as needed.

You may notice that I haven’t talked about one discipline tool: Physical Discipline. Many parents discover that, in the short term, spanking can be an effective way to get a child to stop doing something bad. But, in the long term, it can damage the relationship, cause fear and anxiety in the child, and teach the child that anger and violence are the ways to get things done. It also doesn’t teach them much about why the behavior is bad – they may avoid doing it when you’re around so they won’t get hit, but there’s no reason for them to avoid it when you’re not there. Read more on physical punishment and spanking here.

Sometimes handling our child’s misbehavior can make us really angry. Look here for tips on “What if you’re angry at your child?“.

Move On

When misbehavior stops, or after a time out or a consequence is complete, then re-engage with your child, providing positive attention and praise for good behavior.

It’s especially important to do this if you got angry at your child. Read more about Resolution.

Self Discipline

Our goal for discipline, in the long-run, is to make ourselves obsolete. Our children need to learn to
discipline themselves. We want to raise adults who are capable of controlling their impulsive behavior, capable of working hard for a delayed reward (or even no reward other than their satisfaction with a job well done), and who have such a strong internal sense of right and wrong that it guides their every action, and who do what’s right simply because they can’t imagine behaving differently. Read more on self-discipline and how to begin to teach it.

Handout

If you’d like a free, printable handout that summarizes all this information, just click here for the Discipline Toolbox in color or Discipline Toolbox,  Black and White.

Speaking with the Voice of Authority

In class last week, a mom told me how overwhelmed she was by her kids. She felt like they didn’t listen to her. Not only did they not follow her rules, they would sometimes hit or bite when she tried to enforce those rules. She was feeling out of control and powerless. She asked: “How do you get that voice that puts ‘the fear of God’ in your kids?” In other words, that tone of command that says “That’s it. I mean business! You will now do what I am telling you to do.” It’s the “Stop – do NOT run out in traffic” tone or the “It’s not OK to hit” tone.

I said “It’s all in the voice” and demonstrated my sternest tone.

But really, it’s more than the voice. It’s the body language and the facial expressions too. Gone is the soft and gentle mama (or papa) who will let them get away with anything just because they’re so darn cute. Gone is the tired looking mama they know will let them get away with it because she’s too tired to do anything about it. (Believe me, I know you may FEEL this way, just try not to let it show.) This is the serious mama who Needs Them to Listen to Her Now. (Note: you don’t need to be a mean mama, or an angry mama… you can still be loving and respectful and in calm control of your own emotions when you are being authoritative.)

But really, it’s about much more than how you talk, stand, or look in the moment. It’s about your whole relationship with your kids. Are you generally respectful, loving, playful, and encouraging them to adventure and explore? Have you built a relationship of mutual trust? If so, then when you put on your serious tone, they trust that there’s a reason for it.

It’s also about your discipline style in general. The Voice only has power if they know there will be Actions that follow it up.

Do your children know that you set limits and stick to them? Do you tell them what’s expected of them and what the consequences will be if you disobey? Do you follow through on those consequences? Do you follow through every time? Even when you’re in public? Even when you’re tired? Even when you’re busy? Don’t set consequences unless you can follow through on them in that moment! Find a consequence you’re willing to enforce and enforce it.

This is where the discipline flow chart comes in: step 3 – tell child what to do; step 4 – alert child to the problem by putting on your command voice; step 5 – calmly enforce consequences, and step 6 – move on.

You might say: “When we are in the parking lot, you need to hold my hand. If you let go, I will pick you up.” Then, if she lets go, calmly pick her up and carry her. Even if she’s kicking and screaming. When she’s buckled into her car seat and calmed down, explain that your job is to keep her safe, and one thing you need her to do is hold your hand in a parking lot so the cars know she is there.

You might say: “I want you to use a gentle voice and nice touch with your sister. If you hit her, I will pick you up and carry you out of the room.” Then if he hits, calmly pick him up and carry him out of the room. Then help him take a few deep breaths and calm back down. Even if you have other things you need to do in that moment (like work on dinner), the consequences need to be there and need to be immediate.

You might say: “I want you to share the toys nicely. If you two fight over something, I will need to take it away and put it on the time-out shelf.” When they fight over something, calmly take it away. Then help them re-settle into playing with new toys. You do this even if you’re tired, and really just want them to play by themselves for a moment while you rest. You don’t give up and just toss the toy back down to them when they fuss about you taking it away. And if they bite or hit you, you should clearly say “It is not OK to hurt me. It’s never OK to hurt other people. I’m going to leave you here in your room by yourself for a while, and I’m going to go somewhere else.”

How do your kids know you mean business when you say something? They know because you consistently follow through with actions and consequences if they don’t listen to you when you say it. You “say it like you mean it” because you do mean it.

I promise I didn’t put the photo of Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter at the top of this post because I think you’re being a witch when you enforce limits. I put it there because I think this character (in both the books and the movies) exemplifies the gentle authority. There is no doubt that she loves the children. There’s also no doubt that she means business when she tells them what they need to do. You can find your own loving voice of authority with your kids. Your life will feel more in your control when you do this, and your child will also be reassured – although they may act like they want to be in charge, it’s actually a little scary for them to feel like they are. Kids prefer it when they have a strong loving authority in the house.

 

The Discipline Flow Chart – 6 Easy (or not always-so-easy) Steps of Discipline

DisciplineFlow

When many people hear the word Discipline, they think of punishment – the consequences for bad behavior. Discipline is so much more: it’s Prevention of problems – setting up an environment where your child can be successful. It’s Picking Your Battles – deciding which lessons are the most important to teach. It’s Teaching your child about the right way to behave (not assuming they were born knowing.) It’s Setting Limits – letting your child know when there is a problem and giving them the opportunity to correct it. Then, as step 5, not step 1, come Consequences. After consequences, we Move On – making clear to the child that their behavior was not OK with us, but they are! Let’s look at the 6 steps in more detail.

Step 1 – Prevent Problems

There are lots of things we can do to set the stage for good behavior. It’s easier for your child to behave when they are well-rested and well-fed. It’s easier for your child to behave when you have predictable routines for your day and they know what’s expected of them. We can plan our activities so that each day the child has plenty of kid-friendly times and places where we can say yes to them – yes, it’s OK to run here, yes, it’s OK to be loud here, yes, you can touch and play with all the things here. Having this time will make the “No” times easier.

Effective discipline is grounded in relationship. If your child trusts you, and trusts that you love them, discipline will be easier.

A key step of prevention is to teach your child what to expect, and what is expected of them. It will take them a while to learn what is appropriate behavior for church, stores, the doctor’s office and so on. On your way to an activity, talk about what you will be doing, and how you would like them to behave.

Step 2 – Pick your Battles

When some questionable behavior begins, think before you intervene.

If something is clearly bad behavior, we move on quickly to the other steps… especially if there’s imminent danger of harm to a person or a possession – then we’d jump straight to step 5 – consequences. Or if your child is having a full-out tantrum, you may need to just remove them from the situation and explain later.

But sometimes the ‘misbehavior’ that we notice and react to is really not that big of deal. Sometimes the behavior is just annoying to us but not really bad. (If this is the case, can you just ignore it?) Or sometimes, our kids just surprise us by doing something we didn’t expect them to do and we react negatively before we really think about it. And then next thing we know, we’re caught in a battle of wills about something, and we realize part way through that it’s a battle not worth fighting, but we don’t want to back down because then our child learns that they can out-argue us.

When you encounter one of those moments of “I can’t believe she just did that!”, stop and think before reacting. Share your thought process with your child….  “hmm… I need to think about whether it’s OK to do that.” Once you’ve decided, explain your decision to them so you both know the rules for the future.

[Note: when I say things like “explain”, remember that you always have to act in a developmentally-appropriate way with your child. So, explaining to a toddler may be “no, no, too hot” and an explanation to a 5 year old will be a lot more specific.]

Step 3 – Tell Your Child what TO do

[If the situation is escalating quickly, we might need to jump to step 4 or step 5. But ideally, we can spend a while on step 3… ]

We need to ask for the behavior we want to see. Toddlers don’t understand the word “don’t” very well, so if you say “don’t bite”, they hear the verb, and continue to bite. Also, even if they grasp what they shouldn’t do, they may not be able to think of any alternatives for what they should do instead. Tell them what they should do.

Connect to Correct: Don’t call out suggestions from across the room. Go close to your child, establish eye contact, and then give suggestions. Engage them in the new activity before moving away.

Model: Act the way you would like your child to act. Point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see. “Let’s touch the doggy gently. See, this is gentle.” “Watch how I walk carefully down the stairs, and I get to jump off just the very last stair.”

Re-direct: Tell them what other action they could do with that object. So instead of “don’t pour the rice on the floor”, say “keep the rice in the bowl.” Instead of “Don’t drop that!!” say “Hold it very carefully” and say “when you’re ready to set it down, I’ll take it from you.”

Substitute: Tell them what other object they can do that action with. “I can see you’re in the mood for throwing. Let’s go find a ball.” “I can see you want to bang on things. Where’s your drum?” Sometimes it’s delayed substitution: “I know you want to jump and run today. Later, we’ll go to the playground and you can do that all you want. For now, I need you to sit quietly.”

Offer Choices: “You have 3 cars. Bobby wants to play with one. Which one do you want to give him?”

Note: don’t offer choices to a child who is very upset. It will only make it harder for her to calm herself down. A tantrum-ing child needs to be given clear direction about what to do.

Explain the Reasons: “I want you to stop banging on that, because it might break. That would make us sad.” “I need you to be safe. When you go head first down a slide, it can hurt you. Go feet first.”

Step 4 – Alert Child to the Problem, set Limits

If re-directing has not been working, and misbehavior continues, we need to take action. [If there is imminent risk of harm, jump to step 5.]

Get serious. By this, I mean: change your tone of voice to calm but stern, change your body language. Let them know you mean business. Tell your child that his behavior is not OK. (He might not know. Or he may know and is testing the rule – and you.)

Remind your child what the expectations are and encourage her to behave better. Let her know what the consequences will be if the misbehavior continues.

Try for logical consequences, where ‘the punishment fits the crime.’ The most common consequences fall into two categories: remove the child from the situation until they can behave well, or remove options from the child (i.e. take away toys, buckle them into the high chair, stop them from using the slide.) Make sure the consequence is in proportion to the issue. Some examples: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away for the day” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach.”

Don’t set any consequences you’re not willing to enforce!

Step 5 – Calmly Enforce Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence. Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Your role is to be the authority who helps your child stay safe and grow into the best adult they can be. Although you can be loving and friendly to your child at all times, you can’t always be their friend. Sometimes you’ll be the “bad guy” who blocks them from doing what they want.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just do it.

Step 6 – Moving On

Once the consequence is complete (your child has calmed down enough to return to the situation or the time limit on taking the toys away has run out) then you move on.

Remind your child you still love himhis behavior was the issue. Make plans together for how to prevent or manage this sort of situation in the future.

Over time, we want our children to learn self-discipline, so as they get older, we need to “fade” back a little with our guidance. We ask them to tell us what the appropriate behavior is for a situation, we wait a little longer to correct, we let them experience some of the problems we’ve warned them about (instead of always protecting them from consequences), and take more responsibility for behaving properly.

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Would you like a cheat sheet version of this article to print and post on your fridge? Download PDF: Discipline Flow Chart

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If you want to learn more parenting skills, and get expert advice customized to your family, look for parent education classes in your community! I teach for Bellevue College – on the Eastside of Seattle. (For other classes in Puget Sound, look here.)

Sample Tip from the CDC: Using Consequences

On the new CDC website on Essentials for Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers, they offer these 5 steps for using consequences as a discipline tool.

1: Identify the behavior. Be specific about what is wrong. So, instead of “be gentle”, say “you are being too rough with those toys when you crash them together like that.”

2. Give a warning. Let them know the behavior needs to change, and if it doesn’t, there will be a consequence. (Make sure you pick a consequence you’re willing to enforce!) If-then statements work well: “If you keep crashing your toys, then I will put them away for a while.”

3. Give a consequence. If they behave well, give a positive consequence, like praising them or playing with them. If they continue to misbehave, follow through on the negative consequence that you set.

4. Tell them why. Explain the action, but keep it brief – now’s not the time for a lot of talk. “You were rough with your toys, and I’m afraid they will break, so I need to take them away from you for the next five minutes.”

5. Go back to positive communication. After the consequence is complete, let go of what happened, and return to positive communication and positive expectations for your child. “The five minutes are up, and I can see that you are being gentle with your other toys, so I will give those toys back to you. You are welcome to play with them gently.”

Want more info on discipline? Check out my tips here.

Discipline

DisciplineFlowLooking for tips on discipline? Read on to learn about: having developmentally appropriate expectations, helping kids understand what is expected of them, modelling and rewarding desired behaviors, setting limits, and enforcing consequences.

What is discipline?

Discipline does not mean punishment after misbehavior has happened.

Discipline means guidance. It means setting clear expectations for how we would like our children to behave, not assuming they know how. It means modeling for our children the kinds of behavior we would like them to display. It means setting clear limits about things they cannot do. And, it means that when they misbehave, we let them know that the behavior was not OK, but we do still love them, and we tell them how to be better in the future. This style of discipline not only guides behavior, it also builds trust and respect between parent and child.

The first step in discipline is to consider how old your child is…

Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate

From birth to three, your child is going through massive developmental changes, with more brain growth than ever again. They learn through hands-on exploration of the world, which means they get into everything, and have no sense yet of what is safe and what’s not. Your role is to protect them as needed, but also allow them to explore and learn within limits. They learn through repetition, which means they need to do something over and over to learn it, and that includes misbehaving over and over and experiencing consequences over and over before they really remember the rule. Your role is respond consistently each and every time to misbehavior to help reinforce their learning.

Discipline will be more effective (and you’ll be less frustrated) if you keep your child’s developmental capabilities in mind at all times. Do encourage them to stretch themselves and work on impulse control, but don’t expect more than they are capable of. Learn about developmental capabilities by reading books, looking online, taking classes, and by watching other kids. (Though it’s also important to remember that individual temperaments have a big effect on what kids are capable of, no matter their age.) For example, typically toddlers are not yet capable of sharing, have a hard time waiting and controlling their impulses, will bite and hit at times, and can’t always “use their words.” We ask them to do better, but we shouldn’t be surprised when that’s too much for them.

Learn more: www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/9-development-reasons-why-toddlers-can-be-difficult-discipline and Discipline that works: Ages & Stages Approach: http://umaine.edu/publications/4140e/

Explain what to expect, and what is expected of them

Remember how little your children know about the world. They don’t know that you’re supposed to be quiet in some places and that it’s OK to be loud in other places until you teach them that. They don’t know that they need to stay at the table at the restaurant until you teach them that (and remind them again and again). The more you can tell them ahead of time what to expect and what is expected, the better. When they are young, keep it very simple: “this is a quiet place”, “you need to sit with me here”. As they get older, you can have codes. Like in our family “theater rules” means a place where you sit in a seat, and are quiet, unless everyone else is clapping or singing.

To learn more about ways to guide your child in what TO DO, rather than focusing on what NOT to do, see my post on “Saying Yes.”

Model desired behavior and praise them when they manage it

Act the way you would like your child to act. Also, point our other kids who are behaving well. Children are great at copying what they see.When you make mistakes, say so, and apologize for it. “I tell you not to use bad words, and I just used a bad word. I need to work harder on using nice words.”

“Catch” them being good – praise them for the positive behavior they demonstrate. Some people recommend you shoot for a ratio of 4 – 5 times where you tell them they’re doing something right for every 1 time you tell them they’re doing something wrong.

Setting Limits and Consequences

When misbehavior begins, let them know that what they’re doing is not OK. (They might not know. Or they might, and are testing to be sure they understand.) Use a firm voice and a serious expression to convey this. It is confusing to toddlers if we use our regular sweet smile and playful voice when we’re telling them what not to do. Also, the louder your child gets, the calmer you need to be.

Remind them what the expectations are and encourage them to behave better. If they don’t, let them know what the consequences will be if misbehavior continues. Try for logical consequences, where the ‘punishment fits the crime.’ For example: “when you throw your Duplos, I need to put them away” or “when you don’t stop when I say red light, I need to carry you to keep you safe” or “I need you to help put away toys. If I put them away all by myself, I will put them up high on a shelf out of reach” or “when you dump your food on the floor, it tells me you’re done, and I’ll put it away.”

Consistently Follow through on Consequences

If the misbehavior continues, you must impose the consequence.  Although it’s hard to “punish” a child, it actually builds more trust if you do what you said you would do than if you “let it slide.”

Punish the behavior, not the child. Let them know you still love them, but the behavior was not OK. Use a calm and firm voice and expression, not an angry tone.

No need to discuss this or re-hash it or re-negotiate it. Just be clear and move on.

Handling Quickly Escalating Situations (including hitting and biting)

When anyone (or anything) is in imminent danger of harm, we need to act more quickly. There may not be time to suggest better behavior nor time to tell them what the consequences will be. You may just need to act quickly and explain later.

Also, if your child is in a full meltdown tantrum or very wild and out of control, you won’t be able to reason with them. They’re not understanding language at that point. You may just need to remove them from the situation, go somewhere quiet till they calm down, and then explain things.

How does your child respond to your no’s? How do you respond to that?

When you set a limit, does your child beg, whine, and plead? Or throw loud dramatic tantrums? Or try to make you feel like a bad parent, shouting “you don’t love me!”? If so, do you give in? If you do, you teach your child that whining, tantrums, and guilt trips are effective tools and they will use them again. And the toddler tantrums that seemed overwhelming at the time won’t compare to the battle your teenager will be able to put on after years of learning how effective tantrums are against you.

Try to stick to your no, no matter what. If you change your mind for some reason, be very clear about why “I’m not saying yes to this because you begged for it. I’m saying yes because I talked it over with your dad, and now that we’ve had more time to think about it, it seems fair to do. In return, here’s what we expect from you….”

Remember that giving in can make things easier in the moment, but it doesn’t accomplish your long-term goals, and can reinforce behaviors you dislike. Sticking to your consequences can be really hard sometimes. One year we had to bar our daughter from participating in a school play – something the whole family was looking forward to – due to one really bad week of homework issues. My husband and I were a strong united front in her presence, and did our own grieving behind the scenes.

Discipline Tactics that are Less Effective

Avoid empty threats: Saying “I’ll just leave you here in the store” or “I’ll throw away all your toys” can be very frightening to a child and scare them out of proportion with the offense. Then someday they figure out you don’t mean it, and then it’s pointless. Either way, it’s not effective at helping the child behave well.

What about spanking? It works in the short term to discourage a particular misbehavior. But it’s not beneficial in the long-term. Murray Straus, after 4 decades of research, says “Research shows spanking corrects misbehavior. But … spanking does not work better than other modes of correction… Moreover… the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a… partner. Spanking also…lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.”  www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131211103958.htm
It also harms brain development: www.cnn.com/2014/07/23/health/effects-spanking-brain

What about time-outs?

  • Time outs work very well for some families. It depends on the temperament of the child and of the parent. Successful time-outs are not a punishment. They are a chance for a child to go somewhere quiet and calm down. They come back out when they’re ready to get along again. A typical rule of thumb is for a maximum time-out of one minute per year old. So a 5 year old would have at most 5 minutes.
  • If your child views a time out as a rejection, it might make her very sad. That child might need a “time-in” where the two of you sit quietly together until she calms down.
  • Some children view timeouts as a call to battle, and they only escalate the situation.
  • Some parents take time-outs themselves, saying “I need to go to my room for just a minute to calm down, then I’ll come back and we’ll talk about this.”

Think before reacting – Pick your Battles

As much as possible, think ahead of time about what the limits are. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where you need to set a limit in the moment… take a little while to think it through before acting. For example, my first daughter wanted to wear her dress-up clothes to the grocery store. I said no, which turned into a battle of wills. Halfway through, I realized I really didn’t care. But at that point, I couldn’t just back down – I had to stick to the rule I had set. So, what I should have done is when she asked for something I didn’t expect, I should have said “Hmm… I need to think about that for a minute and decide if that seems OK with me.”

Some parents have tried a system where they have in their minds three categories of behavior. Green light options: things that are always OK, that they can always say yes to. Red light options are never OK, and they can never say yes to them, no matter how much the child asks or how embarrassing the public tantrum may be. (Safety issues are a good example.) And there’s a whole lot of yellow lights: things that are sometimes OK, and sometimes not. Then when their child asks them “Can I wear my swimsuit today” they might say “hmm… that’s a yellow light thing. Let’s think it through: if it’s warm out and we’re playing outside, that’s OK. But it’s not OK if it’s cold out or we’re going somewhere like church. So, today, since it’s so cold out, I have to say no.”

Think before reacting – See things from your child’s perspective

Children love to explore but sometimes that means they make a big mess. Before getting upset, try to see things from your child’s perspective to see the joy they may have found in making that mess. And try to see that they might not have realized that the mess would be a problem. Say “It looks like you had a lot of fun playing and exploring here! But, next time you want to play with that, we need to figure out how to do it without making a big mess. Can you help me clean up now?”

Steps in the Discipline Process

Check out this flowchart for steps which help your child to behave well.

Helpful resources

Webinar on Discipline: www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX0MQ5ZXVio&list=WLsMLXfBPSxoG3J_FkZGqnxVV2P34cr_S_

Overview Handout: www.parentingcounts.org/professionals/parenting-handouts/information-for-parents-discipline.pdf

8 tools for babies/toddlers. www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/8-tools-toddler-discipline

Tantrums: https://bellevuetoddlers.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/toddler-tantrums-and-emotional-meltdowns/

If you have a hard time saying no, check out:
www.empoweringparents.com/saying-no-to-your-child-how-to-be-a-more-assertive-parent.php?&key=Effective-Parenting
www.empoweringparents.com/No-Means-No-How-to-Teach-Your-Child-that-You-Mean-Business.php#ixzz2rlUqTBC9