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Discipline That Sticks

Every day, we correct our kids to get them to behave. But we can't monitor them forever. What our children should also get from us are the tools they'll need to remember how to act when we're not around.

And that's what self-discipline is: the ability to get yourself under control rather than depend on someone else's approval (or disapproval) to guide you. To help your child reach that point, you need to strike the right balance. If you're overly strict, she might be obedient, but she won't learn how to master her own impulses and will probably end up rebelling. If you're too lenient, she won't learn to take responsibility for her choices.

So how can you teach your child self-discipline? These seven steps are simple to put into practice.


Contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D., is a pediatrician and mom of five. Her most recent book is Dr. Mom's Prescription for Preschoolers.

It's Easier Than You Think

Accentuate the positive

It's very easy (especially on a long, hot day when you're feeling out of sorts) to dwell on what your child is doing wrong: "Don't touch that!" "Don't play with that -- it's not a toy!" "Stop whining!"

But you'll get better results by paying attention and commenting on your child's behavior when he's trying to cooperate. If your incredibly active 3-year-old plays by himself for a few minutes, you can say, "I like it when you play quietly by yourself. It gives me time to wash the dishes." Also try to step back and find something admirable in the traits that make your child difficult -- after all, stubbornness can always be reframed as a forceful personality, for instance.

When you ask him to act a certain way, briefly go over what you expect. Be specific. Instead of warning him to "be good" before you take him to a birthday party, for example, go over the rules together: "No hitting, keep your fingers off the cake, leave your gift with your friend."

Praising your child when he deserves it and making sure he can meet your expectations gives him the sense you're teammates, not adversaries.

Encourage effort

Although everyone appreciates praise, too much of it can make a child overly dependent on your opinion. That's because it tends to focus on achievement: "Wow, you didn't miss one dance step. That's what I call a perfect performance!" Comments like this can create excessive pressure and an endless need for more compliments.

Try to use phrases that describe how your child's behavior makes you feel, and why: "I'm happy when I see you dressed and ready to leave so quickly. Now we have time to go to the playground on our way to your swimming class." If she hears that, she'll begin to link cause and effect (when she gets ready without your nagging, she can do something fun with you) and see how well she can make things turn out for herself.

Explain yourself

You can help little kids develop good judgment by going over what you want them to do. For instance, if your child balks at saying thank you, a few minutes later -- in private -- you might explain: "We say thank you when someone does something nice for us so they'll know how much we appreciate it. So the next time Grandma gives you a cookie, what will you say?"

And never underestimate the power of repetition. Even older kids need to hear rules many times before they follow them on their own. One way to see whether your child has heard you? Ask him what the rule is and why he should obey it. That way, he has another chance to internalize it.

Providing a Foundation

Turn mistakes around

No one's perfect, and a child needs to know she's not the only one who slips up. Explain that it's usually a good way to learn how to solve problems.

If a playdate goes awry and a friend leaves in tears, ask your child what she thinks may have caused the blowup and what she could do differently the next time. Resist the temptation to lay blame: "You always hit when you get angry! No wonder Sophie doesn't want to play with you!"

Instead, if you ask in a nonjudgmental way, you'll probably be able to get her to figure out some solutions. And that will teach her how to correct her mistakes without losing her dignity.

Get him to think

It's a lot easier to tell your child what needs to be done than invite his input. But asking him questions gives him a chance to come up with the reasons behind your rules, which will improve the odds that he'll follow them. Plus, he'll see the consequences of his actions. So if he's ready to move on to a puzzle after making a mess in his play kitchen, you might ask, "Where does all the pretend food go after you're through playing?"

And if he can identify the problem, he's more likely to find a solution: "Can you imagine how much it hurts your sister when you pull her hair?" When given the opportunity, kids can usually figure out the right action. In this case, he might realize that using his words to tell his sister he's annoyed is preferable to getting a time-out for being so aggressive.

When you ask your child a question, try to use a respectful tone of voice. He'll probably be less defensive when you ask, "Why am I upset with you right now?" Questions can also help your child understand that it's in his best interest to cooperate: "If you keep whining, do you think I'll do what you want?"

Let her earn her rights

Kids need to know that every privilege comes with a responsibility. If your kindergartner wants to watch her favorite show before going to school, tell her she needs to be dressed and have breakfast before it starts. Otherwise, no TV. (And stick to it.)

Even a toddler can start to grasp the idea of special rights -- that playing with toys is linked with helping to pick up afterward, for instance.

Let him rule (well, sometimes)

When you allow your children to have a say in the limits you set, they tend to show a measure of self-control and respect them. Even a preschooler can help establish ground rules when it comes to playing with his siblings -- such as no hitting or name-calling, no throwing toys -- and suggest consequences for breaking them.

It's better to ask for this input when both of you are in a good mood, and to focus on one issue at a time. Explain why the problem -- say, fighting with his sister when she plays with his toys -- is making you unhappy. You can say you don't like refereeing these arguments or that you want to make playtime peaceful for the whole family. Then invite him to come up with fair solutions -- he can let his sister choose which toys to play with from the ones he's sorted through first, for instance.

All this helps create an atmosphere of goodwill. Kids will generally do the right thing if you don't treat them like second-class citizens. If you're imposing a time-out, for example, your little one can certainly set the timer himself; he most likely has a sense of how long it will take him to calm down. (Just check that he doesn't set it for 20 minutes by mistake!)

As you discipline, keep in mind these goals:

  • to help your child learn he's capable
  • to teach him that his actions have consequences
  • to let him gain control over his emotions
  • to show him how to cooperate with others
  • to enable him to use good judgment when he's making decisions

By working with your child to master these skills, you're also providing him with the strong foundation he'll need for the rest of his life.