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 major meltdown, this is not a time to try to reason with them… they’re in their “downstairs brain”. (Learn what I mean here.)
  • Impose a Logical Consequence—make sure the “punishment fits the crime.” (Read about the CDC’s take on consequences here.)
  • 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.

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The Attention Principle

A key concept in the Incredible Years program is the Attention Principle. Children want attention from their parents, teachers and peers. They will repeat behaviors that get attention. They are less likely to repeat behaviors that are ignored.

Ideally, kids want positive attention: praise, rewards, smiles and snuggles. But, if they’re not getting enough of that, they will settle for any attention, even negative. When you see your child behaving well – being calm, cooperative, kind, taking turns, and sharing, reward that with positive attention. If your child is behaving badly, but in ways that aren’t directly harming anyone or anything, like whining or repeating the same words over and over or making vague demands rather than asking polite questions, ignore it.

I imagine this all sounds obvious and you’re probably thinking “yes, of course, that makes sense.” But I want you to think… is this what you’re actually doing?

When our children are calm, quiet, and well behaved, we often are relieved because it allows us to focus on all the other things we need to do: make dinner, pack a lunch, put the laundry away, or pay the bills. We may not say anything to them, because everything is going fine.

But then, if the siblings start squabbling, or the toddler starts jumping on the couch, or the whining begins, we jump right in with our full attention. “You two stop fighting!” “I told you not to jump on the couch – do I need to come over there?” “How many times do I have to say, no candy before dinner?”

If they’re really lucky, not only will they get your attention, but they might also get a bribe to stop the bad behavior (note that a bribe to stop bad behavior is pretty much the equivalent of a reward for bad behavior….) “If you stop fighting, I’ll get the art supplies out.” “Sit down on the couch, and you can watch YouTube.” “Fine, yes, have a piece of candy, then go play so I can get dinner finished.”

Giving attention (or even rewards) to bad behavior “feeds the monster.” The more that behavior gets attention, the more they will use it.

We do this not just with behavior, but also with emotions. We tend to say “I know you’re mad” or “I can see that makes you sad” a lot more often than we say “you’re calm and content now,” “you enjoy that book”, or “you’re proud of your work.” When noticing and validating difficult emotions, be sure to pair that with a focus on what they’re doing well in the moment. “I know you’re mad, but I saw you resist the urge to hit your brother and try to calm yourself down.” “I can see that makes you sad not to have a turn yet, but you’re doing a good job of playing with another toy while you wait.”

What can you do today to start shifting your attention toward what you want to see more of, and ignoring the behavior you’d like to see less of?

47 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids (or Their Heads Will Explode)

explode

There’s an article by Parents Magazine  that I often see shared on the internet. It’s titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Kids.” When I see that headline, I think of things like “You’re worthless.” “I hate you.” “I wish you’d never been born.” Those probably should fall in the category of things never to say to your kids. Or to anyone else’s kids, for that matter.

But what are the horrible, soul-wounding phrases that Parents magazine cautions against? “Great job.” “Practice makes perfect.” “Let me help.” “Be careful.” “You’re OK.”

Yeah. Pretty harsh, eh?

Now, when you read their article, it’s actually got lots of good content, with some helpful tips. It’s worth a read. I’m not concerned about the topic so much as the tone that is presented by the headline.

A better title would be “Translating Common Parenting Sayings into More Positive Statements Which Will Help Them Develop Into the Emotionally and Physically Healthy, Upstanding Citizens You Hope They Will Become.”

But, Parenting magazine knows the rules of modern media. When you want people to read a title on Facebook and click through to read the article, it helps to include a number in the title (“5 reasons chocolate is better for you than kale”) and it helps to convince people that if they don’t read the article something terrible will happen to them or their children. (“If you don’t follow these tips on screen time, your child will be brain damaged for life.”) Companies who advertise on a magazine’s website appreciate those “clickable” titles, because it means more people look at the article, and thus at their ads.

And it’s not just Parenting magazine – many other media outlets have used this same headline with success. Here’s just the first page of search results for “things never to say to your kids”

But, when parents read this headline, or countless others like it, how does it make parents feel? It raises anxiety. It creates stress around the sense of “I have to do everything right as a parent, or my child will end up screwed up.” It makes us feel guilty about all the times we’ve “done it wrong.”

For example, check out this anxiety and guilt  inducing intro from Parent Society:

If you’re a halfway decent parent, you do your best to not swear at your children or call them names. But other phrases that roll off the tongue can be every bit as dangerous — especially since you might not even realize you’re saying them. Take a look at six phrases you need to cut out of your conversations…

Then to read through  those six dangerous phrases, you have to click through seven pages that are so loaded with ads, it’s hard to actually find the content…

So, let’s first reality check these messages:

  1. Parents will say mean things to their kids. We do. I do – just yesterday I said some things I’m sure are on lists of “things never to say to your kids.” We have bad days, and we get angry, because we’re human. (Check out my series on parental anger – how to manage it and how to heal from it.)
  2. Luckily, kids are remarkably resilient. (To learn more about resiliency and how to help your kids build it, read this article by Jan Faull on the PEPS website.) If you have a positive, loving relationship with your child overall, a few harmful words will not damage that permanently.
  3. Almost all the things on all these lists of “things never to say” aren’t really that dreadful. I promise you that if you say good job to your child, they won’t be permanently damaged!!  However, there are many more things you might say instead, or in addition to, good job. Having an awareness of alternatives just helps broaden your list of options for how to connect with and guide your child.

So, I read through all those articles on things never to say. And I’ve gathered them all [well, almost all] into the left hand column of this table. But I am NOT saying “Never say these things.” Frankly, for most of these phrases, it would be totally fine if you say them from time to time. But, they don’t want to be the only message your child hears from you.

The middle column is just to help raise awareness of how these phrases could have a negative impact if over-used over time. The right hand column suggests other options you can try out, and gives resources for where you can learn more.

Phrase that “parenting experts” caution parents against using Negative / non-helpful ways the phrase could be heard by a child if this is all you ever said to them Alternative things to say or do (on good days when you have the time and energy) that may be more helpful
Good Job / Great Job / Good girl

 

That’s a beautiful picture
You did that just right
What a perfect building you built!

 

You’re the best _____ in the whole wide world

Empty praise – if it was something that was really easy for them to do, it’s weird to say good job.

Judgement – implies that there’s one right way to do things.

They’re reached their limit – you don’t think they can do any better.

 

They’ll someday realize you’re lying or exaggerating and lose faith in your judgment. Or they’ll feel pressure to really become the best.

Only praise things that took effort.

 

Focus on the process and HOW they did it and what they learned rather than on the product.
Give specific detailed feedback about what’s good, and what could be even better.
Read about questions to ask to extend their learning.

Read more about effective praise.

I’m proud of you

I love it when you….

It would make me happy / mad if you…

I’m ashamed when you….

I’ll never forgive you

Conditional love. Also implies that your emotional well-being as an adult is dependent on your child’s behavior of the moment. Let your children know that you will always love them, no matter what. (This doesn’t mean that their behavior is always OK – it’s not, and you do need to set limits. And it doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for them – you do want them to work hard and be good people. But your happiness is not dependent on that.)
Practice makes perfect Well, practice makes much better. But, it doesn’t make perfect because nothing is perfect. And aiming for perfect implies that mistakes are evil. “Practice and you will improve.”
“Making mistakes helps us get better.”
“If you aren’t making any mistakes, this is too easy for you and maybe you’re ready for more challenge.”
Read more about “Willingness to Fail is the Inventor’s Key to Success.”
You’re so [shy, smart, clumsy, pretty]

You’re the [strong, fast, silly, wild] one

You always…

You’ll never… [lose, win, do anything wrong / right]

You’re worthless / a loser

Girls don’t do that / Boys don’t like..

This is all labelling. Labelling your child limits them.

If you label them based on a problem behavior, It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they continue to be that way.

If you label them by a “talent” they have, then that creates a lot of pressure on them to retain that talent. They worry about losing your love / their identity if they don’t succeed in that area.

You do want to understand your child’s temperament, gender influences, and learning style and help support them in using their strengths to build confidence and work around the things that come harder to them. But don’t “label” kids or think they’ll never change.

Praise effort, not talent. Let them know that everyone can get better at anything if they work at it. Learn more about the growth-based mindset.

You’re just like [someone I don’t like]
Why can’t you be more like….Stop acting like a baby.
You’re so [bad adjective]
Big boys don’t…
Good girls don’t….
The first labels them (see above). The second means they’re always being held to someone else’s standard.
These statements are intended to shame a child. “A child’s self-identity is shaped around the things they hear about themselves.”
Let your child become the very best them they can become without worrying whether they are just like someone else.

If you disapprove of a child’s behavior, tell them how to change the behavior. Try not to attack their identity or their sense of being worthy of your love.

What’s wrong with you? Implies that the problem is with them, instead of with the situation. “What’s wrong?”
“What happened that upset you?”
Let me help you

Just let me do it for you

You’re doing it wrong, let me do it

You’re too slow, I’ll do it

Implies that they’re not competent.

If you rescue your child from every challenge, how will they ever learn to do anything on their own?

Allow them to be frustrated. When we’re struggling with something, we’re on the verge of learning something new. (If they’re miserable, that’s a different story….)
Ask guiding questions – “what happens if…”
Make gentle suggestions “Try…”
If you’re really in a hurry say “I need to help you so we can get to preschool on time. Tomorrow you can try again when we have more time.”
You’re OK (after child is hurt and is crying)

Don’t cry

What a dumb thing to get upset about

Don’t worry, it will be fine

There’s no reason to be scared, just do it

Dismisses their feelings as unimportant.

 

Tells them not to trust their intuition and just do things even if they seem risky. (This could get them into all sorts of trouble as teenagers.)

Validate emotions and pain first, then reassure. Once you’ve said “I hear that you’re scared / hurt / worried” then you can address logical reasons why you believe that it will be OK in the end. More on emotion coaching.
Don’t talk to strangers. This blanket message can make your child fearful of everyone and also limit their ability to learn the social skills they’ll need as adults who very frequently have to talk to strangers! Model appropriate ways to interact with appropriate strangers.
Talk to them about how to tell the difference.
Read more about how to help your kid judge whether to talk to strangers.
Be careful. If over-used, can create a fearful child who thinks the world is a dangerous place. Also: Teacher Tom says: “An adult who commands, “Don’t slide down that banister!” might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is… robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do.” Demonstrate / model how to be safe.
Encourage them to look before leaping.
Encourage them to tune into how they feel about something – if they’re nervous, there may be a good reason.
When the risk is just a mild bump or bruise, let them test things. Someday they’ll get that bruise, and they’ll learn something important.
Read more about teaching safety skills.
I’ll never let anything bad happen to you

Don’t worry – you’ll always be safe

I promise – I’ll never die. I’ll always be here

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. You can tell that you’ll try to do all these things. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe. I’ll try to always be there for you, for as long as I live. Sometimes bad things will happen and I’ll try to help give you tools for coping with that.”
You’re in the way.

I can’t get anything done with you around.

Hurry up. You’re making us late.

Shut up.

I have better things to do than…

Would you just leave me alone for 5 minutes?

We all know that children are terribly inconvenient room-mates who just make everything harder. But, we don’t need to tell them that every day!

These sorts of statements create stress and anxiety and make the child wonder if he is loved.

Give positive, concrete suggestions for other positive, concrete things they could be doing in the moment.

When you really need a break or need help, admit it and ask for it. That’s part of modelling self care. “Mama is really sick today. I need your help. Can you sit and play quietly for just a few minutes?”

If …. then…..  If you don’t do [this bad thing], then you’ll get [this punishment]. “I’m expecting bad behavior and am looking forward to punishing you.” When … then….  “When you do [good thing that I’m expecting you to do], then we’ll get to do [this fun thing] together.” Learn more about punishment and reward.
Wait till your father gets home… Makes someone else into a bad guy.

Implies that you don’t have enough power to enforce consequences.

Consequences should be immediate, logical, and enforced by the parent who encountered the misbehavior.
I told you so

That’s what you get for not listening

Yes, you probably told them not to do something, and yes, it’s frustrating when they do it anyway. But rubbing it in serves no purpose. “Well, that’s not what you were hoping would happen is it? What could you do differently in the future so you don’t have this problem again?”
Because I said so Implies that you make arbitrary judgments on a whim and they have no control over that. “I’m your parent, and it’s my job to keep you safe and help you grow up to be a good person and keep things running well around the house. Sometimes I have to enforce rules you don’t like. It feels unfair to you, but I will continue to do what I think is best.”

Motivation, Punishment and Reward

starsOur kids are always learning from us. They learn by observing as we role model a variety of skills, they learn by interacting with us as we play, and they learn when we actively “teach” them. There are many things we teach casually, and aren’t too worried about the exact timeline when our child picks up the idea. Things like covering your mouth when you sneeze, saying please, or putting their dish in the sink. There are other things though that we may have a sense are REALLY IMPORTANT, or that we believe MUST BE DONE BY A CERTAIN AGE and those are the things we tend to stress about our child learning. Potty training and reading both fit in this category for many parents. What happens when there is something we really want our kids to learn?

The first thing I’d ask you to consider: Is this skill developmentally appropriate? Can we typically expect a child of this age to learn this thing? Once you’ve learned it is appropriate, then you can consider teaching it.

Motivation

There will be many times in your child’s life where you want them to do something they don’t want to do, or there’s a skill you want them to learn because it will be valuable in the long run, but they aren’t particularly interested in learning at this moment in time. How can you help them find their own internal motivation? Potty training is one of our first chances to explore this challenge, so we’ll use it as our example.

First, consider your motivations. Why do you want your child to learn this new skill? Here are some common reasons and some examples from the potty training process.

  • Outside demands: Is it pressure from a pre-school or daycare that requires it by a certain age?
  • Peer pressure: Is it because other families are doing it, and you’re feeling peer pressure to keep up? The media and social media can also create this pressure of what our child “should” do.
  • What you do or don’t want to do yourself: Are you just tired of changing diapers? Or tired of paying for diapers? Or washing them?
  • What you want for your child: You want to encourage your child toward independence in all areas?

The clearer your motivation, and the stronger your motivation, the more time and energy you’re likely to be willing to commit to the process. Some parents actually find that they’re not actually motivated to teach a skill. For example, the diaper routine might be working for their family’s schedule and commitments. This is fine for a while, but at some point (maybe three years old for potty training?) it’s time to help your child move forward.

Then ask yourself: What are your child’s motivations? Try to view things from your child’s perspective and understand why they might not be as interested in learning a new skill as you are in teaching it.

In our potty training example: Why might a child prefer to continue to use diapers? Some ideas: they’re used to eliminating in their diaper – it’s comfortable and familiar. They may be in a state of regressing a bit, and not feeling bold enough to be ‘a big kid’. They may not like interrupting play time with trips to the potty. They might be frightened of the potty. They might be rebellious toddlers, defying their parents ‘just because.’ They might have a desire to be completely in control of their bodies. They might also have been constipated at one point, and found that it hurt to have a bowel movement, and be afraid of repeating that experience.

Then ask: What might motivate your child to use the potty? Some options are punishment or rewards…

Punishment?

It’s best not to use punishment. Punishment can definitely work in the short term, in that a child who is punished for doing something (e.g. eliminating in a diaper) may well try hard to avoid that punishment in the future (e.g. by using the potty). But it could also shame them and damage their self-esteem. And it also means that they’re doing something only to avoid punishment – not for any positive reason.

On the other hand, logical consequences are appropriate, as long as they are done without shaming. For example, having them help with clean-up after an potty-training accident allows them to see the consequences. Or taking back the big kid underwear, saying ‘it looks like you’re not ready for this yet… let’s go back to diapers for a while’, helps them to see what the goal is and what the reward is of accomplishing it.

Rewards

Many people use a sticker chart, or other reward system when they want to shape behavior. The general idea is: talk with your child about what you want them to do, tell them that when they do it they’ll get a reward. Then involve them in setting up the system: pick out the reward, or make the chart, etc. For rewards, it’s best to choose something cheap and easy to obtain, like a sticker. (Not candy.) For a toddler, the reward needs to be immediate for them to understand “when I do this action, I get this reward.” Older kids can work toward a bigger reward over time – “if I do all my chores this week, we’ll watch a movie together on Friday night.”

Make sure they are clear about what the behavior is you are working on, and be consistent about the response. For example: “if you sit on the potty, you get a sticker whether or not you pee there” may be a good first level. Later on, when they’ve mastered that step, you ask more of them: they need to actually pee or poop to get the sticker. You may choose to also have a cumulative goal to work toward, like “once you’ve pooped in the potty 10 times, you will have filled the chart, then you get a new toy.” It’s important to think of these rewards as short-term reinforcement, not an on-going system! Over time you will phase out stickers completely. Rewards can be a very effective tool for toddlers. However, you don’t want to over-use rewards! And you want to make sure the focus is on accomplishing the goal for its own sake, not on just doing something so they get a reward.

Expectations

If you regularly say “If you do this [bad thing], then I will punish you by [negative consequence]”, your child might come to feel that you expect him to do bad things and you look forward to punishing him. Instead, try “When you do this good thing then you get this [positive consequence].” Make sure your tone of voice implies that you have confidence that they will do the good thing because that’s what you expect of them.

Praise

When your child accomplishes something for the first time, definitely praise them. If it’s a HUGE accomplishment, make the praise really big. But honestly, if it’s small accomplishment, the praise can be just a quiet observation that they accomplished it. As they start repeating a skill again and again, on the way to mastery, we can fade out our praise. It feels silly and a little embarrassing to get praised for something you’ve mastered (as you know if your child has told you something like “You peed in the potty! Good job mama!”) Praise them for what they have done, and the work it took to do it.

Read more about praise here.

The Downsides to Rewards & Praise

Critics of rewards say they are a short-term solution to gain compliance with parental requests, not a long-term path to instilling the behaviors, qualities, and values you want your child to attain. And, research has found that kids who are raised on a series of rewards can become more self-centered, materialistic, reward junkies looking for their next fix from parents who can become exhausted by coming up with new rewards.

Research has also shown praise can backfire. If we continually praise our child for being “smart”, “beautiful” or “strong”, then they may be afraid to take risks – not wanting to do anything that they might not succeed at… fearing that then we will realize they’re not so smart or strong or beautiful after all – and thus not lovable. Also, when a child is vigorously praised for every little thing she does, she may not know whether praise is genuine.

Experts recommend that when you want your child to learn a new skill, think about what it is you are really trying to teach and stay focused on that. Work with your child to find their motivation for learning this new skill. As they make attempts along the way, give specific praise for their efforts and their commitment, and specific recommendations for how they might improve. The emphasis is more on the process than the product, more on the work they do than on the “talent” they have. When they accomplish a goal that they set, then it is totally appropriate to celebrate that with something (Stickers? M&M’s? A special toy?) as long as the emphasis is on the value of the accomplishment itself, not on having done whatever they needed to do just to earn the reward.

Sources on Internal Motivation, Rewards and Praise

photo credit: Pewari via photopin cc