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14 Tips for Disciplining Children

Jonathan Swinton, licensed marriage and family therapist - May 17, 2011

One of the most common issues parents ask me for help with in counseling is how to appropriately discipline their children. Kids can be a wonderful joy in the lives of parents, but they can also become stressors when their behavior starts to get out of control. I have compiled a list of helpful discipline strategies that can help parents improve the behavior of their children.

1. Be parents, not peers. Don’t get stuck in society’s trend toward parents and children having peer relationships. Healthy family hierarchies need to differentiate parents from kids. Of course it’s important to develop and maintain healthy relationships with your kids; however, this is different than acting like their teenage friend. In this process, parents need to always be equals.

2. Couples on the same page. Couples (or separated/divorced parents) always need to be on the same page when it comes to discipline. Often, parents disagree with something the other parent did to discipline a child. If the other parent issues a punishment that you disagree with, support them in front of the kids, then talk with the other parent about it behind closed doors. Never threaten the other parent’s authority in front of the children. Research has shown that parents who take a united approach are better able to manage the stresses of parenting. If you find it difficult to take a united front because of disagreements, couples counseling may be helpful.

3. Consistency between parents. Building on the previous issue, there should not be one parent that lays the hammer down and the other that is a pushover. If your kids gravitate to one parent for certain things, this should be a sign of inconsistencies in parenting. Stereotypically, we see dad as the one to manage the tough stuff. All this does is makes one parent bad and the other good in the eyes of children. This is not fair to the parents or the child. If one parent cannot get the kids to act appropriately, potential disparities may exist in how they manage the children compared to the other parent. Take a balanced approach in who disciplines the small and big issues. The only exception to this rule is if one of the parents is a step-parent. Typically children will respond better to big discipline issues from their non-step-parent. In homes with step-parents, it is often better for the non-step-parent to deal with the big discipline problems.

4. Age-appropriate rules. Have clear, age-appropriate rules and ramifications for breaking these rules for each child. Each child may need separate rules depending on their age. Ensure each child knows what the rules are. It can be helpful to write them down and post them in a visible place. This can reduce complaints regarding the fairness of the rules when they break them. I have found it helpful to involve each child in setting their rules. This doesn't mean they make the rules and parents hope they come up with good ones. Parents should direct the rule setting process. If kids are included in the process, they are more likely to be sold on the rules. You may even be surprised with the strict rules some kids come up with. When setting rules, don't go over the top. More than 10 rules (especially for younger children) may be excessive. Choose your battles.

5. How to use good punishments. If you are not sure how to punish your child, a good rule of thumb is to make the punishments directly related to the offense. For example: if there is a rule that the kids can only watch one hour of television per day and they break the rule, take away their television privileges. If they are not supposed to ride their bike in the street and they do, don't take their cell phone away or ground them. It would be better to take their bike away for a time.

6. Timeout. What about timeouts? Using time out procedures for kids 1-10 years of age can be effective. How long should they be? Parents often tell me they heard it should be one minute in timeout for each year of the child's life (i.e. 9 minutes for a 9 year old). Contrary to this popular belief, research has shown that 3 minutes is the magic number for effectiveness (for all ages). When kids are in timeout, don't respond to their tantrums.

7. Physical punishment. Physical punishments should never be used, period. This includes spanking. The goal with discipline is for kids to learn what is appropriate and why. Physical punishment does not do this. If you think spanking helped when you were a kid, I promise there could have been better ways to discipline. Research has shown that the only reason physical discipline (such as spanking) works is because it instills fear. Do you really want your kids to be scared of you?

8. Don’t yell. Yelling at kids is a poor way to tell them they shouldn't yell. Like physical punishment, yelling just instills fear and makes them think yelling is okay. If they are emotionally charged, stay calm and they will eventually follow your example.

9. Correct the behavior, don’t criticize the child’s character. An example of correcting behavior would be: “Use a quiet voice.” An example of criticizing character would be: “You are a loud-mouthed brat." Even if kids make mistakes, they never deserve criticism of their character. Correct with love.

10. Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement can be five times more effective at changing behavior than negative reinforcement. The strange thing is we focus too much on negative reinforcement as parents. You will get a lot further as parents catching your kids doing what’s right, rather than only punishing when they make mistakes. Praise them for following rules. Establish a reward system. If kids know there may be a reward for them they will be much more motivated to follow the rules. Rewards should not be excessive and may be as simple as thanking them for following the rules today. For example, if you have trouble getting a child to do their chore of sweeping the kitchen floor, praise them when they do it. Tell them the child how great they are at sweeping. Don't be surprised if you come home the next day and the child is grinning, broom in hand, having swept the floor.

11. Parent timeout. You should take a timeout when you get too upset. Kids will feed off your emotional state. If you start to lose control, they will too. Go in the other room for a few minutes and calm yourself down.

12. Choose your battles. If you have 30 rules for kids, or you feel like all you do is discipline, perhaps you should evaluate if you are trying to be too strict. Kids will be kids. They will never understand things at your level. Research has shown that the human brain does not fully develop until the early 20s. This is why they often don't intuitively understand why they should do certain things or act certain ways. To help with this, choose your battles wisely and be patient. Focus on the most important things to discipline. This can help keep your kids from getting too rebellious. When you choose your battles, make sure you win. Parenting is not about winning, but it is about keeping appropriate hierarchies. Kids try so hard to get parents to do what they want. If parents give in, they are allowing the child to run the household.

13. Be 100 percent consistent. I can't emphasize the importance of this enough. If you are 95 percent consistent, the kids will know they can sometimes get away with things and will push you to the limit. Don't rationalize away by thinking, "I will let it slide this time," or "It's easier to not deal with it." Kids keep a tally of every time you give in. Don't give in. Be 100 percent consistent.

14. Show love. Nothing motivates kids more than knowing you will be proud of them. Show them you love them. After all, isn't that why we discipline in the first place?

Relationship expert Jonathan Swinton is a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Swinton Counseling in Utah: 801-647-9951, www.swintoncounseling.com.

© LDS Living 2011.
Comments 18 comments

willow77 said...

10:27 AM
on May 26, 2011

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wondering if the author has children?

sunflowerblueyez said...

11:55 AM
on May 26, 2011

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@willow77 - I was wondering the same thing...I think not

jespy06 said...

12:51 PM
on May 26, 2011

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The well-intentioned, educated and licensed therapists can never replace the inspiration righteous parents receive on how to teach and discipline the spirits for whom they have stewardship. Making "absolutes" does not always allow for the inspiration needed in extremely difficult situations. Even God, the ultimate parent, uses physical punishments.

tevster said...

04:47 PM
on May 26, 2011

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Okay, I thought it too....Does this guy have REAL experience, ie. his own kids? I don't believe in beating a child, but mine do get a smack on the butt now and again...usually after they've been spoken to about whatever the issue is, likely followed by a count to 3, and if they haven't made the expected adjustment, they know a swat on the behind will follow. Sometimes kids know "what is appropriate and why", and they continue to do the wrong thing anyway. I think a "spank" is a different sort of reminder or reinforcement in certain situations. My children know I love them. We express love and affection freely and often. I don't think they "fear" me because of an occasional "spank". Besides, I think a little fear can be a healthy thing. For myself, I do what is right because I desire the good reward, but also because I fear the negative consequences of doing what is wrong! All the other things...timeout, consistency, positive reinforcement, choose your battles, etc., I mostly agree with and think they should be common sense. I do think physical punishment can be misused, and that's what one needs to be careful of.

hearthnhome said...

09:08 PM
on May 26, 2011

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Really interesting comments...so surprised to see such hostility! I am a real mom of 5 real kids - I'm also an early childhood mental health specialist for my school district. These tools really do work in the real world, with real kids, even kids with some really challenging behaviors (and I mean, way above and beyond challenging). Am I perfect at not yelling at my kids...nope! Do they know I love them, not matter what and that I'm human trying to work this thing out just like they are - I hope so. But, I see the results daily of parenting gone awry, families ruled by fear and hatred, distrust and disharmony. Children need consistency, to know what to expect, to have a safe place - home and parents should always be the safest place (not the wimpiest place, but the safest). I am saddened that anyone could feel that having a child fear them is relationship they'd like to have. It makes an impact all right, but not the one you'd probably think it's having. The Savior and our Father teach us in love - why would we strive (note I said STRIVE) for anything less than that and try to justify it? And Brother Swinton is not the only person that teaches these principles - I don't know whether he has children or not, but it doesnt' matter - the principles are sound and work...maybe it's more about changing our hearts to guide rather than to rule our children. They will make mistakes, even big ones, like we do as parents, but that's when they need love the most, not the least. Richard and Linda Eyre (who do have lots of kids and grandkids!) have taught for years about principles of stewardship in parenting. Gerald Lund teaches similar principles. Even outside the church, these are principles taught by well-known and respected teachers - T. Berry Brazelton...the Love and Logic series...could go on and on. Heck, general authorities even talk in conference about parenting in love. Fear has no place in a relationship that matters...if it was a spouse, would anyone think that "fearing" your spouse was a good way to have a relationship. Of course not - we'd be saying it was dysfunctional, abusive, self-centered. Why is it okay with kids?

hearthnhome said...

09:30 PM
on May 26, 2011

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Ooops...must self correct before I get slammed - I meant John (and Joy) Lund, not Gerald, and was actually thinkin at the time of a particular book that I love by Gene Cook, so it was all messed up... principles still remain true, even in an imperfect parent like me!

mcwhite98 said...

09:32 PM
on May 26, 2011

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I usually find this site very helpful and the articles very informative and insightful. This one really seems like this guy does not have a clue. I am a special Ed teacher and a parent. These tips he has came up with seem beneficial but......try applying them in real life, simply fantasy land. I think he needs to place his ideas out of academia and try them in a real world situation, he might have a rude awakening. Just on a personal note......there are situation where spanking is not only justified but very effective form of behavior management.

ett22 said...

03:08 AM
on May 27, 2011

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I think this is a great article. When I was a kid I got spanked, smacked once, and our heads knocked together a few times, as well as random yelling for stupid things like losing a mitten or whatever my mom happened to be in a bad mood for after working her grave yard shift that day, and quite frankly I don't want to use "fear-instilling" physical punishment on my kids unless I'm to the point where I literally need to call the police and have them taken to juvenile detention. I've seen that happen in my house too... I think this article gives me a lot of hope for future parenting and makes a lot of sense. Thank you! :-)

jbean said...

01:31 PM
on May 27, 2011

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I am a parent of 4 and do not have any kind of parenting or counseling degree. I agree with Swinton 100%. Am I a perfect parent? No. Do I have perfect kids? no. But I have lived and practiced these guidelines as a parent and was brought up with them as well. It works. Self-discipline and self-control go a long way. I still have a long way to go as my oldest is 14 and my youngest is 8.

rachelclaussen said...

10:48 AM
on May 28, 2011

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I am not a parent, but my parents used fear tactics with me, and our relationship is seriously messed up now. I don't think I will ever look up to or trust my father as a daughter should trust a father. He always said he "showed an increase of love" but that just made me question the validity of the gospel since he used it as a tool to promote bad behavior on his part. As a relatively well adjusted/gospel loving adult now, I can say I am far more likely to agree with the author then with some of the people who have made harsh and negative comments.

jimm said...

03:43 PM
on May 31, 2011

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Wait- he can effectly parent w/o yelling, spanking, or fear, and never give in? Unbelievable. I think the author has 1, maybe 2 kids, probably girls, and probably are the compliant, mild mannered type. I have 6 (14-4) and to spend 10 minutes explaining why they should be good during a meeting or FHE would take up all the time. By the time I'm done w/ the first 4, the first one would be bored and and start acting up, and I'd have to start all over again... Let along explaining why we shouldn't be late. "Now Johnny, it's important to be on time. People are counting on us to be there. . . etc etc. (Next kid): Now Susan, we must not be late. It's disrespectful and sets a bad example. . . etc etc. " But if it works for him, who am I to judge?

merryg said...

10:58 PM
on Jun 05, 2011

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I am currently reading a great book called Christlike Parenting by Glen Latham. A lot of what Swinton says would be supported in this book. When we react with frustration and anger, the bad behavior is only fueled. When we react calmly yet firmly (remind you of Christ?), our children will EVENTUALLY respond the same way. It takes a lot of patience and practice, but the results are a million times better than making our children fear us, or worse yet, making our children into the out of control parents that we were.

merryg said...

11:01 PM
on Jun 05, 2011

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...I have 5 children by the way, and I have been the out of control, yelling, spanking mom. My home was not a nice place to be at times. Since I have started responding in a calm voice, with clear limits, I feel so much better about the kind of mother I am , and the kind of people my children are becoming.

almostthere said...

04:06 PM
on Jul 26, 2011

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Wow! I'm surprised at the number of people who find fault with this article! I have a degree in Early Childhood Education, but more importantly...I'm a mother of 5 (4 boys!) and I think that he is right on the money!! And as another reader pointed out, he is not alone! There are many phenomenal books out there along the same lines by both LDS and non-LDS authors. If you doubt the effectiveness of his tips, I would print it out, post it on your fridge, and give the ideas a good solid effort for a couple of months! Physical punishment does absolutely zero for changing behavior long-term. Sure you may see some modification in their behavior now, but you're also building resentment in your children. Not a good thing. Especially in a kid with a rebellious nature! Positive reinforcement goes a long way! And when issues arise, I'm all about picking the important battles and then following through with logical consequences. And I truly believe that "charity never faileth." You can't love them too much!

bgtaylor4 said...

01:23 PM
on Dec 26, 2011

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Came to this article via the year end Top 10. The comments below this article criticizing the author's naive approach are far closer to truth than those who criticize those making those comments as harsh or hostile. Referencing one of the latter groups comments, our brains don't fully develop for awhile. Obeying rules for the sheer joy of doing so, seeing the wisdom of them, and understanding rules -- comes later. What comes first is fear -- of consequences. In other articles found here are issues of entitlement. I fear, because that fear is realized daily, the consequences of having as adults children coddled in this manner. Adults that do whatever they please, who selfishly think the world entirely exists to give them joy, peace, and "understanding," or feel that their wants and needs trump all others, and are shocked when the world meets them with anger and hostility. It is, as said, a naive approach. the reality is that most of the suggestions by the author are good to consider... patience as adults and parents. But not guilt. If you're tired, cranky, frazzled, sick or simply not being heard, that's pretty normal and so is lashing out. Do so. Try to do it safely. Show love afterward.

racheljl said...

12:25 AM
on Apr 11, 2012

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I think these are great rules, and also the ones we've tried to use, and have learned elsewhere. The only one I'm worried about is the "be 100% consistent." And that 95% isn't enough. I agree in principle, but I fear that this one might be misinterpreted and cause a lot of angst and guilt with parents who are already doing all they can. Aim for 100%? Sure. Make rules and stick to them, even though the kids whine and complain, and it causes us as parents discomfort, and we think it will be easier to give in? Yes! And stick to it. It's better in the long run. But think that you're going to make it 100% of the time? That you'll never, ever let your kids go to bed without brushing their teeth after a once a year trip to Disneyland and they fall asleep in the car? Don't beat yourself up.

racheljl said...

12:27 AM
on Apr 11, 2012

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bgtaylor4: It depends on what your definition of "lashing out" is.

petterborg said...

11:42 AM
on Apr 08, 2013

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For anybody who still believes in corporal punishment: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2003/10/at-home-with-the-hinckleys?lang=eng From the article: "Church magazines [interviewing President Hinckley]: You have said that your father never laid a hand on any of his children when disciplining them." "President Hinckley: That’s right. I don’t believe that children need to be beaten, or anything of that kind. Children can be disciplined with love. They can be counseled—if parents would take the time to sit down quietly and talk with them. Tell them the consequences of misbehaving, of not doing things in the right way. The children would be better off, and I think everyone would be happier."
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