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When Kids Want Discipline

Ever heard your kid say, "Hey, Mom, I'd really like you to send me to my room"? Of course not. But that's because "discipline" isn't the same as "punishment." The best kind of discipline is more akin to teaching: showing our children how we expect them to behave in the world. Clear rules -- and parents who stick to them -- are what a child needs in order to feel secure. Here's when your child is actually begging you to set him straight:


Battling over bedtime

Why your child wants discipline: Young kids don't have the willpower to give up something seemingly fun (staying up late) for something good for them (more sleep). But their little bodies crave dependable sleep cycles. Your child wants you to teach her how to calm herself consistently at night.

What to do: Give her a little control. It might sound backward, when what you're trying to do is discipline. But if your child has some power (or thinks she does), it'll actually help her follow the rules that matter most.

You may be dying for a chance to flop down in front of a grown-up TV show for the first time all day, but resist the urge to bark orders: "Brush teeth! Put on jammies! Into bed! Now!" Instead, insist on a bedtime that you name, but get there in a way that your child chooses. Options like "Do you want to put on your jammies or brush your teeth first?" help guide her through her night routine and allow her to start taking more responsibility.

A poster with pictures of each nighttime ritual is great for keeping kids as young as 2 1/2 on track and well-behaved at bedtime. You may still need to cue your child to take each step by asking her things like "What do you do after you take your bath?" but she's likely to spend less time battling the road to bedtime if you seem more like a guide than a drill sergeant.


Melting down in public

Why your child wants discipline: It may look like he's just being a brat, but there's more going on here. Young children lack impulse control. If yours wants you to buy him a special snack while you're shopping and you say no, he honestly doesn't know how to shut off that really strong feeling of want.

"He's crying out for you to teach him two things: how to deal with disappointment in a socially acceptable way and what to do with his intense desire for the treat," says Sharon Silver, founder of the California Bay Area coaching firm ProActive Parenting.

What to do: Break the cycle by leaving the store. As calmly as you can, ask a checker or the store manager to watch your cart while you take your child outside. Sit with him on the curb or in your car, and say, "I'll be ready to listen when you stop crying." (Keep a book or magazine in your car. It might take a few minutes.)

Once your child is calm, help him think through what went wrong, rather than lecture: "Why did we leave the store? How do we look at things in a store, with our hands or with our eyes?" This is what makes it discipline -- you don't cave, but you do teach your kid a little lesson -- rather than punishment.

After you go back inside, help your child handle those irresistible, wiggle-in-the-grocery-cart material desires: Tell him that today is for family shopping and that he'll be able to pick out a treat when it's a special occasion for him. Together, you can list what those might be -- birthday, last day of school -- for extra distraction.

The lesson for your child is about limits: We'll come back to your "wants" at a more appropriate time; you don't call the shots by throwing a tantrum.