When we think of discipline, we may think of threats and punishment. They
may be the most common ways that parents deal with their children's
What is wrong with threats and punishment? One thing that is wrong with them
is that they teach children bad things. Can you think of some bad things
that are taught to children by the use of threats and punishment?
Consider threats. It is common for parents to get frustrated with their
children and yell at them. "If you do that one more time I'm going to whip
you, young man! "I've told you a thousand times. If I have to tell you once
more...." Threats are bad because they insult children. They are likely to
make the child feel dumb and put-down. The child may feel angry with the
parent for treating him that way. Threats are also bad because they may tell
the children that we yell a lot but we never do anything. Consider the
A mother was loading her children in the car to go to the store. Just as she
got them all in the car, the neighbor came over to talk to her. As the two
ladies talked, the children became restless. One of the boys began to climb
out the car window. The mother yelled for him to get back in the car. Then
she returned to talking with the neighbor. The boy sat in the window and
played. The mother yelled at him to get in the car and threatened to spank
him. He sat still while his mother yelled at him, but as soon as she
returned to talking, he climbed out the window onto the hood of the car. The
mother continued to talk to the neighbor.
This boy did not think his mother was very serious. She yelled a lot. But
she never did anything - unless she became really angry. It's common for
parents to be yelling, "Don't touch that!" "Leave her alone." "Go away."
Using threats may teach children that parents are unkind and that they don't
mean what they say.
There are also problems with punishment. Sometimes parents punish because
they are angry. They may spank their children in anger. What does spanking
teach a child? For many children it teaches that the world is a cruel place.
It may also teach them that parents are mean. It may teach them that it is
all right for big people to hurt little people. Those are not the things we
want to teach our children. The most effective parents rarely or never use
When a parent spanks a child for bad behavior, the parent may think that
making the child suffer teaches him or her not to do bad things. What it
usually teaches the child is to feel angry or unsafe. Or it may teach the
child not to do bad things when the parent is around. But it does not teach
the child to be helpful or to have self-control or to feel safe.
There is something better than making children suffer. It is teaching. We
want to teach our children that rules are important, that people can work
together and solve problems without using physical means.
Teaching is more than talking. It includes how we act. In this publication
are some ideas to help you more effectively teach children respect for
rules. You can use these suggestions to find better ways to discipline your
children - ways to be sure you are helping, never harming your children. You
can help your children develop into strong, caring people you will be proud
Be careful about the rules you make.
Sometimes parents make too many rules. For instance, the lady who yelled at
her children to stay in the car while she talked to the neighbor might have
been wiser to talk to the neighbor later, or to give the children something
to do while she talked, or to let the children play for a few minutes on the
lawn until she was really ready to go. Those would have been better rules
than just asking the children to sit still while she talked.
Another place where parents have trouble is the grocery store. Sometimes
parents (and children) are tired and frustrated as they enter the store. Mom
may ask her one-year-old to sit in the grocery cart, be quiet, and not touch
anything while she shops. Is that reasonable? Or would it be more reasonable
to give the child a toy to play with, or to talk with the child, or let the
child hold purchases that will not get broken as she sits in the cart? The
child may enjoy holding the broccoli and talking about it as mother selects
other purchases. An older child may be sent to get the vitamin pills or corn
flakes for the family.
Another example: Parents sometimes ask their children to sit quietly with
nothing to do in long meetings. That may not be reasonable for a child.
Maybe a child could play with a doll or look at a book or draw. Can you
think of other things we ask children to do that may not be reasonable?
If we make rules that are sensitive to the children's needs, it will teach
them to respect rules and to see their family's world as a safe place.
Sometimes the best rules are a result of a discussion between the parent and
the child. A parent might say to the child: "I am very frustrated that you
don't take care of the dishes right after dinner.
What do you suggest?" The parent and child might work on the rule together
until they agree. It might be that the child should be allowed to do some
chore other than dishes. It may be that their favorite television show comes
on right after dinner and they should be allowed to watch television for 30
minutes before doing the dishes. If you cannot agree on a rule, the parent
may have to say, "Let's go by my rule until we can think of a better one."
Emily wanted to go to a high school dance. We felt that she was too young.
We proposed that she have a party with her friends at our house instead of
going to the dance. She thought it was a dumb idea. But she couldn't suggest
anything that she and we both felt good about. She had the party at our
house. She and her friends had a great time.
Enforce rules consistently.
I remember seeing a mother tell her boy to stop picking at the cake that was
on the table. But he kept picking. She kept shouting. He kept picking. She
Maybe the mother should give the boy a piece of cake right away. Or, if the
rule is important, it should be enforced.
When parernts make rules they don't enforce, children get the idea that we
are not serious about rules. The mother might not be wise to leave the cake
on the table in view of a hungry child. But if she asks the child to leave
the cake alone and he does not, she might move the cake to the cupboard and
distract the child with a different activity: "Son, will you help me get out
the plates, please?" If the child insists on trying to climb to the cake,
then the parent either needs to get him some dinner or take him to his room.
Being consistent in enforcing rules does not mean that the parent cannot
adapt to circumstances. We make allowances for tiredness, age, influence of
other children, and so on. Consistency means that when we make a rule that
we think is reasonable and when a child violates that rule, the child will
normally experience the promised result. One mother found that when she went
to the grocery store her children would whine and cry for candy. Sometimes
she would give them candy. Sometimes she would get mad. She decided to be
more consistent. She made the rule that when she took a child to the grocery
store she would get the child a small box of animal cookies to eat while
they were in the store but she would not buy them any candy. She
consistently held to the rule. The kids stopped begging for candy.
Consequences are different from punishment. Punishment hurts children. It
makes them angry. Consequences teach children. They show the child that when
she does certain things, certain things will happen.
Each of the children has assigned chores. If the children have not finished
their chores by the time we sit down for dinner, they may not join us until
the chores are finished. If they start to whine, we ask them to go to their
rooms until they can get along with the family.
Consequences must not be used when a child is in danger. It is not
appropriate to teach children the dangers of a hot stove or of busy traffic
by allowing them to touch the stove or wander into trafhc. But in many
things we allow our children choices.
We like our children to have clean rooms. Our son likes a messy room. We
finally decided that the reasonable consequence for a messy room is for him
to live with the mess. We close his door if it drives us crazy. Once in a
while we make a request that he clean.
Using consequences can take a lot of wisdom. The objective is to allow
children to see how their choices affect their lives. "Consequences" should
not be used to punish.
Beth had a hard time getting up on time for school. We were always shouting
at her and threatening her. Finally we bought her an alarm clock and told
her that if she missed the bus she would be walking to school. She almost
immediately became very good at getting herself up on time.
Learning to use consequences effectively is very difficult. Think of
problems you often have with your children. Can you think of appropriate
consequences for them that teach them the importance of following the rule?
Are the consequences you have chosen a natural and reasonable result of
their choices? Do the consequences allow you to avoid nagging and punishing?
Learning how to use natural consequences may be one of the most important
skills that parents can learn.
Give children real choices.
If a child kicks the puppy, we can offer the child a choice: "We don't kick
dogs. Would you like to kick a ball or play with the puppy? Either choice is
Sometimes children resist us because we try to force them to do things. When
we do not give them choices they are more likely to rebel.
We used to have trouble getting Sara to go to bed. It helped to give her a
choice. We asked, "Would you like Daddy to tuck you in or would you like
Mommy to tuck you in?" or "Would you like to pick a storybook for me to read
to you, or would you like me to pick one?" If she said that she did not want
to go to bed, we repeated the same question.
We should give children choices only when we feel that either choice is
acceptable. We do not let a small child decide to play with knives or do
Keep it positive.
Sometimes children act up because they want us to notice them. They are
especially likely to act up for attention if it seems that acting up is the
only way they can get attention.
Tommy was always whining and pulling on his dad's pantleg. The dad would get
angry because it seemed that his little boy always wanted his attention. One
day he decided to take more time for his son. When his son would pull on his
pantleg he would pick him up and talk to him, take a walk with him, or play
a game with him. He found that his son whined far less.
Sometimes we get so caught up in enforcing our rules that we start to use
Gwen could not get Melissa to take her nap. Sometimes she would yell at her
or lock her in her room to get her to take a nap. But that only made Melissa
angry. Gwen felt bad about the conflict she and her daughter were having
about naps. Gwen found that she could read Melissa a story or start her
watching a movie on television. Melissa would fall asleep without any
battle. Or Gwen could ask her to play quietly on her bed during rest time.
This wise mother learned how to get her daughter to get a rest without
fighting with her. A mother should also be sensitive to the age at which a
child no longer needs to take a nap. Distracting a child can also be a very
useful way to redirect the child.
Tommy was playing on the floor with the pans, making a lot of noise.
Normally I can stand the noise. But one day it was driving me crazy. Rather
than jerk the pans away from him, I got out the play dough, went to the
table and started to make things with it. He became interested and left the
pans to join me.
Behavior problems with children can be divided into two groups: the
once-in-a-while problem and the frequent problem. Once-in-a-while problems
can be dealt with by using the five suggestions in this publication. If your
child has a frequent behavior problem that you cannot control with these
ideas and seems to get worse in spite of all your efforts, you should talk
to a counselor. It is wise to get help before a problem becomes a
To teach our children to behave well we must work at it. We can learn to
make reasonable rules, enforce them consistently, use consequences
appropriately, teach children to make good choices, and keep the
relationship positive. Because parenting is so challenging we should
continue looking for better ideas for handling our children by talking to
effective parents and reading about parenting. It is worth all the effort to
develop loving relationships with our children while teaching them to become
strong, caring adults.
If you want to learn more...
Faber, Adele, and Mazlish, Elaine (1980). How To Talk So Kids Will Listen
And Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York: Avon.
Ginott, Haim (1956). Between Parent And Child. New York: Avon.
Ginott, Haim (1969). Between Parent And Teen. New York: Avon.
This publication was written by H. Wallace Goddard, Extension Family and
Child Development Specialist, Department of Family and Child Development,