Strong Families from the Start

Behavior & Discipline

We combed the Web and talked with local child-behavior experts Diane deRoos of the E. John Gavras Center and Patricia Beck of ChildCare Solutions to provide you with the best information available on behavior and discipline. These tips should make discipline less necessary, and more effective when needed.

Is spanking or other physical punishment okay?




1.  Be Consistent
Try to make sure that your rules stay the same for any given situation. Children find frequent changes confusing and may not understand that certain behaviors are inappropriate if they are only corrected sometimes.  If you are consistent, children will slowly learn that the negative behavior always leads to the same calm correction and eventually that child will lose interest in the negative behavior. 

2. Take Your Emotion out of the Equation
This is probably one of the most challenging, yet most important, aspects of dealing with child discipline. It is important for two reasons. Children are often testing to see what makes their parents react. By keeping calm, you are removing the child’s need to see what pushes your buttons. For example, if you don’t react the first two times the child does something inappropriate and then react very strongly the third time, children can be confused by the stronger reaction and might want to test again to see what elicits that response.  Secondly, and probably more importantly, the calmer and less frustrated you can remain, the more positive your relationship can stay with your child. Of course, if you need to, you can always leave the room and take a few deep breaths.

3. Redirect Your Child to More Appropriate Behavior
When a child is behaving inappropriately, redirect that child to engage in a more appropriate activity. This is particularly useful for the early toddler when some of the other discipline techniques are not age appropriate, while it’s also easier to redirect a one or two year old than an older child. If your child is banging a block on a table, you might suggest that the child build a tall stack of blocks or, if you sense that the child needs to release energy, you might suggest that the child bang a foam toy onto the table. This simple redirection can often distract children from the inappropriate activity.

Give your child choices4. Give your Child Choices
Toddlers and preschoolers want control over their world. By giving a child two choices that would both be acceptable to you, you are empowering them to start making decisions while listening to you. For example, many parents struggle with getting their children ready for bed. The Gavras Center’s deRoos suggests parents offer a choice that guides the child toward bed regardless of what they choose. You might say, for instance, “Do you want to put on the penguin pajamas or the dinosaur pajamas?”  Often giving a child that choice will be enough to motivate them to get ready for bed. If the child responds, “neither,” you can then give them another choice, “Do you want to make the decision on which pajamas to wear or do you want me to make the decision?” If the child still responds, “neither,” you can try saying, “from your behavior it sounds like you might want me to make the choice. Let’s see, which pajamas do I want you to wear, hmmmm…..”  Usually, by the time you pause, the child has, in fact, decided that he/she wants to make the choice!

5. Use Language to Show that You Understand How the Child Feels
This is important both because it helps the child feel understood and because it improves your relationship with the child.  Often children become very upset when you ask them to do something they don’t want to do, and part of the reason they are upset is because they think you don’t understand what they are feeling. If you start your request with a reiteration of what your child has either expressed to you or shown you with their actions, they know that they have been heard. Beck, of Child Care Solutions, recommends the useful phrase “and yet.”  For example, you can say, “I know you don’t want to leave the library right now, and yet we need to go home and have lunch.”  

6. Acknowledge Positive Behavior
Often we focus on the negative behavior of a child. This shows the child that negative behavior equals attention. We want a child to know that when they behave well, they will also receive attention. Make sure you praise the positive and be specific so they understand what it is that you are praising: “Great job sharing that toy with your brother,” “thank you so much for helping pick-up your toys.”  Also, make sure that you take the time to at least spend a few minutes playing with your child when they are playing well, so they don’t feel like they need to act out to get your attention.

7. Try Natural and Logical Consequences
Young children don’t understand the consequences of their actions, but as kids start to become aware of cause and effect, letting them discover the natural consequences of their actions can be a powerful learning device. For example, if your child does not want to put their socks on in a cold house, rather than arguing with them to put on their socks, allow them to figure out on their own that their feet will be more comfortable if they wear socks. Of course, this should never be done in a way that puts the health or well-being of a child at risk. Meanwhile, logical consequences include taking away objects that children are not using properly or activities that they are not engaging in properly. For example, if a child is throwing blocks, then that child should not be allowed to play with blocks at that time. Beck recommends using the very useful phrase, “people who,” instead of using the word “you.”  So instead of saying, “you cannot play with the blocks anymore,” you can try saying, “People who throw blocks aren’t allowed to play with blocks.” This gives the child the understanding that it is not just them or you, but a general rule for all people.

8. Time-Out
While there is some disagreement on how effective the use of time-out can be, it can be a good tool to have in your toolbox for discipline when natural and logical consequences are not working.  Time-out is generally recommended for children over the age of 3.  The concept is simple – have your child take a break (usually one minute for every age of the child) in a designated location to calm the child down and remove them from the negative activity they are engaging in. Here are a few important things in order to make time-out effective:

  • Use it sparingly – the most common reason time-outs do not work is that parents use them too often and they lose their effectiveness;
  • Follow suggestions 1 and 2 above – be consistent and take your emotion out of the equation - calmly tell your child to take a break;
  • End time-out with a positive – give your child a hug and encourage your child to apologize to someone they might have hurt or correct whatever negative behavior they were engaging in.


Is spanking or other physical punishment okay?
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the vast majority of child development experts and organizations explicitly discourage the use of any kind of physical punishment including spanking.  Studies have shown that spanking can lead to more physical aggression by the child at home and at school and a negative relationship between the parent and child, ultimately making discipline more difficult. The suggestions and recommendations listed above have been shown to be more effective at eliminating unwanted behavior without these negative impacts. 

 Visit this resource page for a list of some local resources, excellent websites, and recommended books.

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