Discipline: the word can make your skin crawl and your hair stand on end. It can incite strong feelings in parents and children alike, and it brings different connotations for everyone based on personal experiences. It is up to us to take these feelings and experiences and apply the positive things we’ve learned to our own parenting, which isn’t always easy. But when it's done out of love and respect, discipline doesn’t have to be painful.
I cannot say there is one right answer on how to discipline a child, but I’ve learned a few things along my parenting journey of what works and what doesn’t. As you navigate your own parenting adventures, do what you can to avoid these big discipline mistakes.
11 Getting Angry
This may seem counterintuitive, especially given the fact that you are probably disciplining your child because he or she made you angry. But showing anger or frustration with our children tends to bring up more emotion and tension, not just in ourselves, but also in our children as they respond defensively to us.
While I won’t say it’s not okay to get angry sometimes, the majority of the time we can avoid escalating a disagreement with our children by responding as calmly as possible. They are more likely to hear us and respond when we speak calmly, kindly, and rationally.
10 Not Listening
This may seem ironic given that we are likely disciplining our children for not listening to us in the first place. But when our children make us upset, we need to listen to what is behind the behaviors. Why are they acting out and seeking attention? What is the bigger issue?
If your child is communicating with you, make sure to listen to what they have to say. Be responsive and do not interject your opinions or criticisms. The more you are available and respond, the more your child will trust you.
9 Disrespecting the Child
While it may not seem possible that we could ever disrespect our children, it happens more often than we realize with eye rolls, exasperated sighs, and name calling. Disrespectful comments can make a child feel like their behaviors identify who they are. “Why are you so naughty all the time?” “Why can’t you do anything right?”
While our intentions may be good, and we just want our children to listen and be well behaved, we need to take a step back and realize that we need to treat our children the way we want them to treat us, with respect. We need to model the behaviors we want our children to imitate, or we will see the same negative behaviors from them.
8 Punishment That Doesn’t Fit the Crime
Let me share a scenario: a child throws a huge tantrum for not getting something he or she wants. The child is sent to his or her room or to the corner to be punished. After several minutes, the child is able to play again. But then the child gets into a fight with a sibling and more anger ensues. Screen privileges are revoked.
While the intention may be to teach the child a lesson and to enforce listening and good behaviors, the child is not clearly receiving that message. The child is learning that trying to communicate (even if in a loud, obnoxious or inappropriate way) results in an angry parent who doesn’t want to interact with the child, leaving the child feeling angry and alone.
A more appropriate response would be to remove the child from the situation that caused the anger or the fight with the sibling. Have a conversation. “Why did you get mad?” Or, “I know you were mad because your sister took your toy. I would be mad, too. But she deserves a turn to play, too. You need to take turns. What else can you play with while you wait?” This is an opportunity to listen to and connect with your child. The best discipline provides a learning opportunity.
The best time to take something away from a child is if they are abusing it, e.g. too much screen time, playing with food, or if you want to enforce listening. “If you don’t listen to me, you won’t get ABC privilege later.” Try to use this form of discipline sparingly.
7 Being Too Lenient
You can be firm and stand your ground without giving in. Children need our leadership and guidance. We are their parents first. It is our job to teach them how the world works and how to respond to those around them.
Sometimes, it can be difficult when you see your child going through a hard time. You want nothing more than to keep your child from struggling. We can still help our children as they need it, but we also need to be appropriately responsive if our child acts out and displays negative or inappropriate behaviors.
The goal is to find a happy medium between too lenient and an overbearing, control freak. Focus on providing appropriate consequences, creating learning opportunities and displaying positive behaviors.
6 Not Following Through
“If you keep doing ABC you’re not going to get to do XYZ.” Then, your child does the behavior again and you feel terrible at the thought of taking something away that your child loves.
We need to make our actions consistent with our words. If we tell our children that a certain behavior will result in a consequence, we need to follow through. This is how our children will learn how the world works. Actions have consequences, both good and bad. When we don’t follow through, our children are more apt to think they can toe the line at any time and make up their own rules along the way.
5 Playing Good Cop and Bad Cop
This can be an easy trap for parents to fall into. One plays the role of disciplinarian, telling the child what to do and how to do it, and responding in anger when the child gets angry. The other parent swoops in and offers condolences to the child. Both parents are trying to enforce a behavior in the child and encourage listening. Instead, the child is busy receiving mixed messages and is confused and hurt. They just want to be comforted by the “good” parent instead of listening to what either of them has to say.
Make sure you and your partner are on the same page with disciplining your children. It's important for them to receive consistent messages. To make this happen, parents (or caregivers) need to come across as a united front.
4 Not Supporting Your Partner
Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s discipline choice, it is your partner, not your child, that you need to support first. Children are easily confused by mixed messages. If they do not hear the same thing from both parents, they are likely to continue trying to get away with negative behaviors because they are not clear on expectations and appropriate behaviors.
Children are always watching their parents or caregivers, looking to their elders for answers, wisdom, and understanding of how the world works. This is how kids learn how to act, how to live, and how to respond.
Don’t let your selfishness or need to be right dictate a situation. If you don’t agree with how your partner handles a situation, wait until after the moment has passed to address it and have a conversation on how this might change your parenting responses going forward.
And if a follow-up conversation is needed to clarify or correct the message, both parents should sit down with the child to talk about what the appropriate behaviors should be.
3 Oversharing on the Internet
I have a friend who shares way too much all the time. She posts videos of her children throwing tantrums, uploads pictures of them playing naked in their own poop or simply just complaining about being a mom and how exhausting it is.
We get it. You’re frustrated and tired and feeling alone but the oversharing has got to stop. You’re not getting any sympathy (from me, anyway). You knew what you were signing up for before becoming a parent.
Don’t be the parent that shares every mistake your kid makes to the outside world. Don’t shame your children. We are here to support them and love and encourage them through their mistakes. We need to take the time to simply be present with our children rather than feeling the need to have others sympathize with our every struggle. Yes, it’s hard. You’re not alone. You will get through this. Share cute pictures, but spare the commentary, disciplinary action, and complaints.
2 Not Choosing Your Battles
Oh, it’s so easy to get agitated at every little thing. Kids have a way of driving you crazy. How many questions can they ask? Will it ever stop? Can they move any slower? Sigh.
And the opinions. Oh, there's opinions on everything from what to wear to what to eat and how things should be organized. Sometimes, you just have to let it go. Don’t let everything be a power struggle or you will end up frustrated 99 percent of the time. It’s important to let your kids feel like they have some control, even if we are the ones pulling the strings.
When we still need our control but want our children to feel like they have some, the best thing to do is to provide choices. Two is the magic number. “Which outfit should we wear?” “What dessert do you want?” We still have power over the choices but the child feels the power in making the decision.
1 Being Too Hard on Yourself
We are our own worst critics. We are going to make mistakes as parents but that’s okay. We need to take mercy on ourselves and remember that we are not perfect.
As parents, it is our tendency to focus on everything we are doing wrong and feel like we are not measuring up. Susie and Larry down the street seem to be the perfect neighbors raising the perfect children. Stop, just stop. Don’t compare your family to anyone else’s. We don’t know what things are like in their house. Focus on what is happening in your house.
Even though we may make a lot of mistakes as parents, each day is a new day. Each action is a new opportunity to provide learning for both parents and children. Discipline doesn’t have to be as difficult as we’ve made it out to be. Find ways to listen and mutually respect one another. When we realize we all just need to give a little more grace, discipline will fall into place and provide the appropriate direction and learning opportunities for your family.