The Language of Good Discipline

At a parent workshop, one mother had a long list of complaints about her children that included the following: "They don't help around the house. They don't do their homework. They defy me, and they're generally disrespectful."

Another parent advised her to clamp down on her kids: "We need to lay down the law with our children and follow through with consequences. Children need to pay a price when they disobey us. You've gotta be tough."

The first parent said: "I've been doing that. I punish my children. I give them time-outs. I even yell at them. The problem is that nothing works. They still don't mind me."

As the discussion continued, it was clear that both parents felt the need to set higher standards for our children. I agree. I think that by doing so, we can help our children have better manners, watch less television, play more cooperatively with one another, participate more in work responsibilities at home, and be more caring and respectful to others.

However, as one of these mothers learned from experience, being tough is not everything. The danger is that we get involved in power struggles in which our children simply defy us. Instead of rigidly digging in our feet all the time, we need to carefully pick and choose our battles and expand our strategies to include more clever kinds of intervention.

We can give our children choices. Instead of a standoff about milk at lunch, we can say: "You can either drink it now, or later during snack time. It's your choice. Which would you prefer?"

We can use incentives. Instead of arguing that the salad must be eaten at this moment, we can make it attractive: "After you finish the entire meal, you can have the ice cream you wanted for dessert."

We can prepare children for transitions. Instead of suddenly interrupting a play session for dinner, we can give a five-minute warning and a one-minute warning about the approaching meal. Then we can make it fun: "Let's see who can wash their hands and be to the table in 60 seconds."

We can give children a voice in family matters. Instead of dictating a list of chores, we can include children in discussions about the division of labor in the home.

We can appeal to our children's best judgment. Instead of saying that they must stop doing something (such as playing with a ball near breakable items), we can ask them what they think will happen if they keep doing what they are doing.

We can provide helpful structure. Instead of creating a mad rush each morning, we can help our children lay out their clothing the night before and give them a morning schedule, including times for when breakfast begins and ends.

We can use finesse and/or humor. Instead of locking horns when a child says, "No, I won't put on my jacket," we can smile and say, "C'mon, I'll be the zipper guy (or lady) if you get the jacket on."

The list could go on and on, but you get the idea. If we don't combine some of these strategies with our firm commitment to higher standards, we're not likely to get the desired results, no matter how tough we get.

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