Discipline is one of the hardest parts of parenthood, but it’s also one of the most important. The word itself is loaded with meaning: a disciple is “a follower of a person or idea” and discipline means “to guide with love.” In other words, the goal of discipline is not to punish the snot out of the kid but to guide future behavior with as much love as you can muster in those tense moments. So when you find yourself having one of those days, take a deep breath and keep the following in mind:
Check your reaction
Shouting begets shouting, disrespect begets more disrespect. You are the adult and need to set the tone: don’t get sucked into unnecessary arguments, discussions, or disagreements. Use a respectful tone and insist that the child do the same. Your tone of voice conveys just as much as spoken words do. If you or the child cannot manage to speak civilly, take a time out and revisit the situation when tempers cool down. But be sure to address it within a reasonable amount of time (definitely before bedtime) so the child doesn’t think you’re overlooking the problem.
Check their age
Toddlers cannot be held to the same standard as school-aged children, but middle school students should exhibit more self-control than a kindergartener. In other words, the child’s age matters. A good rule of thumb is to think of the child’s age in years when doling out discipline. A three year old should be able to sit in time out for three minutes, whereas a five year old should be able to withstand a five minute discussion. Most teenagers can be expected to complete disciplinary tasks on their own (like cleaning up a mess that they made), while younger kids will probably need assistance (have the toddler help clean up the mess, but don’t expect her to do it all by herself). It may not sound fair, especially if children of varying age levels are involved in the same event, but discipline should be equitable, not equal (or similar but not the same) based on age and development level.
Be clear with your expectations
As harsh as it sounds, some misbehavior is the parents’ fault. How can that happen? Children thrive on routines and consistency. They like to know what the boundaries are and then choose whether or not to adhere to them. Some parents make this difficult by not having clear expectations or enforcing expectations inconsistently. How can the kid know how to behave if a different set of standards is enforced every day? If a bad behavior is tolerated once, it’s natural to assume it will be tolerated again. Some parents let infractions go by once, twice, three times, before wham! They nail the kid for something that seemed perfectly acceptable before. Think about the expectations before you jump in to punish a child. Did Junior eat in his room last night? Did he know it was a one-time treat? It’s hardly his fault if he didn’t.
Use natural consequences
For discipline to be most effective, it must match the child’s actions. Try to find cause and effect methods to help reinforce the actions that need modified. If, for instance, a child forgot to feed the dog, don’t take away the cell phone. What does a cell phone have to do with feeding a dog? Instead, make the child take over dog duties for the rest of the week. Daughter broke her sister’s toy? Either make her give her sister money from her allowance to replace the toy, or have her choose a toy from her own stash to give. Consequences need to be a natural flow of cause and effect to reinforce the message and emphasize the desired behavior. Think about your own life: if you don’t do the laundry, does someone swoop in to take away your laptop?
Make sure it’s warranted
Parenting is stressful and sometimes a child’s actions grate on the nerves of even the most patient parent. Stop and consider whether or not discipline is needed before dishing it out. Constant acts of discipline render it meaningless when a child used to getting punished for everything tunes out parental intervention. Make sure the action warrants a response before turning to disciplinary actions.