How to Discipline a Child

I’ve tried many methods of disciplining children over the decades (yes, I’ve been a mom of three different 3-year-olds over a period that’s spanned 20 years). And I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. It’s not that complicated or hard; however, it takes patience, and confidence in the importance of being a consistent parent.

My third 3-year-old is almost four. Soon I won’t need to remember how to discipline a child. But for now, it’s still a fresh, often daily occurrence in my house. When you are a kid, there are all sorts of obstacles on the road to becoming a civilized person. These 5 tips work for handling all sorts of petty crimes:

1. First, check to see if the child is tired or hungry. Most childhood misbehavior stems from these two primal needs—the need for food, and the need for sleep. Food is easy: Get some in them (healthy food, of course, like fruit, cheese, or crackers, or a cup of milk). I am often shocked that fighting and screaming children, after a snack, turn into singing and laughing children. If they are tired, give them a snack before you either make them take a nap or make them have “quiet time” on the bed or in a comfortable place (not just in front of the TV—although that does work, which is why kids today watch far too much TV).

2. Threaten to count to three. For some odd reason, this trick has been my most effective, powerful disciplining tool, and it still works on my 28-year-old. Let’s say someone is doing something you want her to stop (or, let’s say you want her to pick something up and she is resisting). Give the child a stern look, and in a fierce but quiet voice say “I’m counting to three. One…two…two and a half…two and three quarters….” Rarely, if ever, do I get to three. Ironically, it is my third child who has gotten to three more times than all the others combined. What happens when they get to three? See point 3.

3. Put them on the naughty chair. The naughty chair can be anything from a stair step to a chair to a spot on the floor—it’s a state of mind, not an actual thing. But what it becomes is a place where they have to sit, isolated from others, until they repent their ways, stop crying, calm down, and just in general become human beings again instead of naughty little monkeys. I just put my 13-year-old on the naughty chair a week ago for slapping someone. It’s remarkable how effective it is.

4. Use THE VOICE. I am amazed at how many parents think shouting is an effective way of communicating with a child. Sure, it works sometimes—especially when you want the impact of sudden surprise, when you want someone to stop doing something immediately because her life might be in danger, or you need to call them down for the third time to set the table for dinner. But more often than not, the best voice is the quiet, stern, spare voice that doesn’t overexplain or defend, but just communicates in a nonnegotiable way that this current behavior is “unacceptable.” The voice is especially powerful when accompanied by…

5. The LOOK. You know the look. I’m sure you have experienced it once or twice in your life. It’s when parents put power into their eyes and communicate to the child that if you don’t stop doing what you are doing right now, not only am I going to count the three, put you on the naughty chair, and use the voice, but there might also be a spanking involved. No, I am not morally opposed to spanking (I am morally opposed to physical abuse of children of any kind—but a good spanking should be more of a strong physical message reserved for severe behavior, not a harsh attack).

I am majorly opposed to verbal abuse, which I think can be more damaging than physical abuse. I will never call any child stupid or an idiot or any of the many other things that harm a child’s spirit. Because, after all, a child’s process of learning is to push boundaries, experiment, and get into and cause trouble. But it’s a parent’s job to guide, set boundaries, and control the experiments so that children can grow up into loved, loving, and respected grown-ups…who every once in a while STILL get tired and hungry and may need to sit on the naughty chair.

What techniques have worked in your disciplining efforts? What did your parents use to tame your bad behavior?

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14 Responses to How to Discipline a Child

  1. Emily June 21, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    Great post! An additional point I’d like to make is that it is never too early to communicate right and wrong with your child. Our 14-mo is rather well-behaved, but not because she’ special, or we do anything out of the ordinary. We do what we do out of love, communicate what is okay and what isn’t, and are most of all consistent. Sure she throws fits, and at this age she doesn’t understand time-outs, just whether or not she gets attention, but she knows that if she wants something she has to calmly say “Please?” or it’s a no-go every time. And msot of the time, she’s just tired or hungry.

  2. Jean Nick June 21, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Be consistent (the rules are the same today, tomorrow, and the day after and always follow through with what you promise/threaten). Allow kids to suffer the consequences of their actions — not like getting run over if they stray into the road of course, but missing a favorite activity or doing without something if that was the original deal, or dealing with the teacher or their disappointment if they forget something. Never, ever give in to wheedling/screaming/or even rolling round on the ground kicking — those behaviors must have pre-set natural consequences (whatever is age appropriate for the child and highly motivating to avoid) that always happen. Follow through calmly but firmly a few times and the behaviors will be (mostly) a thing of the past. Give in, even once, and you’re in for lots more in the future. When my kids were ‘tweens I took them on our first vacation as a single mom and it seemed as if at least one was whining the entire time, and nothing I threatened/acted on had any effect. The following year I told them that I was giving them a daily allowance while we were on vacation — a $5 a day allowance — but with two conditions: they had to buy their own candy/soda/tee-shirts/postcards etc. and every time they whined or refused to do something they were told they would lose a buck. Each of them lost $1 a couple of times, one lost $2 one day (for whining after losing the first dollar), and after that we had a very nice vacation, thanks you. They learned about budgeting in tempting situations and I think I came out ahead cash-wise and certainly with far less stress. The moral of that last is that money is a great motivator, use it wisely! And one final bit of advice for those of you with pre-teens and teens: As the mother of one of my son’s friends said to me when the boys were 11-ish: — If he doesn’t scream “I hate you Mom,” stomp to his room, and slam the door at least once a day I figure I’m not doing my job. Remembering that my kid’s toxic reaction meant “I’m doing my job and being a good Mom” has gotten me through many situations where I was tempted to cave in just to make the behavior stop for the moment.

  3. Sarah Stack June 21, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I appreciate you sharing your many years of wisdom on this most important topic! I especially love how you said “when you’re a kid, there are all sorts of obstacles on the road to becoming a civilized person”. Isn’t that the truth?! Although, my children are teens now, I think I will re-institute your advice and go back to the basics with the “naughty chair”. After a quiet sit, “the voice” and “the look” might regain their power! I enjoy your blog…please keep blessing us with your wise words.

  4. Dana June 21, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    My mom was a yeller- which worked to discipline my siblings and I in its own way. But my dad was calm; all he had to say was “I’m disappointed in you” and it was 10 times worse than the discipline tactics from my mom.

    As a former summer camp counselor/babysitter/swim coach, the best technique for me is to stay calm and as Jean said- be consistent. I’ve refused many a kid Friday Fun Day privileges because of their poor behavior throughout the week. To a 7 year old, missing out on a water balloon toss is almost life shattering!

  5. Maya June 21, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    Hilarious & true, Jean! ” If he doesn’t scream “I hate you Mom,” stomp to his room, and slam the door at least once a day I figure I’m not doing my job.” I remember doing that…

    I will also doing anything to avoid The Look or The Voice to this day. I also still get very cranky if I’m tired or hungry :)

  6. jean June 22, 2010 at 12:02 am #

    Oh the Look and the Voice, those are my best options. I’ve also used the Counting to Three and when he was little the Spanking. Since my son is now 14 spanking is not an option for me. He knows he has pushed me too far if I say “that’s it”. Seriously though he is a very well behaved, respectful, good kid. Now that he is older if he does go over the line I need only to take away his electronics. It’s very effective.

  7. Jonathan June 22, 2010 at 2:04 am #

    I used to threaten my kids with “ructions” as in – “If you are not in your room by the time I count 3, there will be ructions.” To this day, my kids (now in their 30s) wonder what ructions would have been. Actually, so do I!

  8. Ray June 23, 2010 at 6:53 am #

    No wonder your kids turned out so nice.

  9. Amanda June 25, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Oh, how I needed this pep talk! As a first-time mom of an incredibly head-strong three-year-old, this reinforced the discipline path we’re trying to follow. Our latest battle is how to keep him on the “naughty chair” (the step in our home). Oh, and what in heaven’s name do you do when they decide to bite and kick during a temper tantrum?!

    Next time I see your 28-year-old, I’m totaly going to count to three and see what happens ;)

  10. Barbara June 26, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    I would also suggest explaining things well, but briefly. Even if the child does not completely understand, he/she will know that you have a reason behind your decisions and be more likely to go along. I find that even at less than a year old, a child will appreciate an explanation, though not a long one.

  11. Cathy June 16, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    I do all but #2 listed. I refuse to count. If my daughter (21 mos) doesn’t do what I ask, ie: pick something up after throwing it, I take her over to it & help her do it & then thank her. If she does something like bang at the diner table & doesn’t stop when I ask her, & the look & tone isn’t working, I hold her hand (to prevent the banging), give her the look (again) & she stops. Over all, my daughter listens very well & is of course smart. :) She already knows her alphabet in English & Spanish, including identifying them out of order. My advice is, as parents, we must be consistent & of course spend as much time with our children, loving them & playing with them. And, when you do need to discipline them, they are not just getting negative attention.

  12. Joe June 16, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    It’s also important to keep your expectations realistic. Toddlers ability to comprehend what you ask of them is far different from slightly older kids and so on. Sometimes it’s the parents that need a time-out.

  13. Lauren M June 16, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    Yep, yep, do all this. I like to count from 5 to 1. I find it’s great for getting a child to “snap-out-of-it” or to move faster. For instance, I can just say “fiiiiiive, foooouuuur” and my daughter will realize I’m serious about what I told her to do. Another way I use it is when my oldest (8 years old) is giving me the stink eye after I’ve given her instruction. She likes to stand and stare at me or just plain move slow. I start counting from 5 to 1, but quickly. By 2 she’s running to do what I said. And if I get to 1, then it’s time out. Our time out is standing. Sitting didn’t work for either of my girls. They’d just use their imaginations and entertain themselves. Standing for the number of minutes that is their age works. As they’ve gotten older, though, if they’re just being whiny or nasty, I do the quiet time more frequently than the time out. Quiet time is in their room and sometimes they even sleep! They come out much happier, even if they just played or read.

  14. Lauren M June 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

    I forgot to mention the silent countdown wherein I hold up my hand and put one finger down at a time. And yes, the countdown works for people of all ages. I teach high school and I’ve used it when too many people are out of their seats to get everyone seated. I’ve used the silent countdown after I’ve verbally told a student to do something (like go to their next class and stop talking!) and it really works.

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