You are here

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.

Squabbling at a playdate

Why your child wants discipline: Little kids are just learning how to play with their peers, and even half an hour can be a long time for them. Your child doesn't have the social grace to say, "Hey, I'm a little pooped right now. Anyone mind if we continue this get-together another time?" By grabbing toys or bursting into tears over her friend's choice of block color, she's not purposely trying to be difficult. She's telling you, in the only way she knows how, that she needs your help.

What to do: Give her the words to describe how she's feeling -- or tell her, if necessary, that her behavior is not okay.

You can say to your child, "It looks like you're tired of playing with that toy. Let's try the blocks over here." Or help her calm down by putting her on your lap and quietly reading a book together.

If your daughter does something like bop her pal on the head with a doll, saying "We don't hurt other people" is enough. If you're at someone else's house and decide to end the playdate, don't lecture your toddler. She's learning by your example: When her behavior gets out of hand, it's time to go home. She may be relieved to get back home to her own toys and routines.

You might call this common sense. But guess what? It's also a positive form of discipline.

Talking back to grown-ups

Why your child wants discipline: Kids can't help trying out words and ways of talking they've overheard from friends. Believe it or not, though, they want you to teach them how far they can go -- to set the boundaries of acceptable talk. So ungrit your teeth and consider sassy talk a plea for disciplinary guidelines: "Can I talk like this to grown-ups? Will you let me?" Your answer (in more helpful words, of course) will be: "No way, buddy!"

Kids also want to be reassured that adults are different from playmates, that they can't speak to you the same way they would to another child. Respectful talk implies that adults are in charge, which means your child feels safe and doesn't have to guess about how to behave.

What to do: Insist that your child use polite words, even if he has to repeat the sentence three or four times to get it right. Some life lessons are like multiplication tables: They require constant repetition before they sink in.

That means you've got to resist the urge to snap back, "Don't you dare talk to me that way!" That's only showing him you think that kind of talk is effective, says Elizabeth Pantley, a parenting educator and author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution. "Instead, squat down to your child's level, look him in the eye, and calmly but firmly say, 'I'd like you to try again. How about 'Mom, I really want to play a bit longer on the playground,'" suggests Pantley.

If you can comply with his now-polite request, do so. Otherwise, say, "I hear you and I know what you want. But we don't have time to stay today. It's time to leave."

If your child mouths off to another adult, take him aside and give him the words to apologize. Remember: He's a rookie in the art of polite conversation. If he refuses to change his words, offer the apology yourself, and talk to your child later about how you expect him to speak to adults.

Breaking rules with a buddy

Why your child wants discipline: Children -- especially very young ones -- don't do well with peer pressure. They need you, the adult, to help enforce the house rules. And once your child's 5 or so, she'll be relieved to know she can use you as her excuse to get out of stuff she doesn't want to do ("That's against our rules -- my mom will just make us clean up"). It's a chance to teach your child how to handle peer pressure so she'll be ready when she's older and the stakes are higher, says Pantley.

What to do: Channel your inner actress and try to remain calm while telling the kids you're unhappy about, say, the way they've colored on the wall. It's tough, no doubt about it. It's tempting to flip when you know your child knows better, but it can tickle kids to know they got under your skin.

Sit the pair down and ask (sternly -- remember, this is discipline), "Where do we draw with crayons? Are walls the same as paper? What can you do now?" Then get out the cleaning supplies and show them how to scrub. Yes, you might have to do more later on, but rest assured: They've learned that when they make a mess, they clean it up.

If the kids have broken some other rule, like jumping on the bed or pestering the dog, you should still step in and tell them what's what, but you don't need to make up a punishment. Getting in trouble will chastise most kids. And you probably don't even need to send the other child home. "If you've handled the situation well, the kids will likely be sweet as pie afterward," says Pantley.

If your child seems downright relieved when you firmly step in, here's why: She can't verbalize it, but she may be thinking: "Thank goodness! The cavalry has arrived. I don't have to handle this battle alone."

And that's an important experience for her: When she's older, that feeling of safety and order will become the cornerstone of her own self-discipline.

Teri Cettina is the sometimes-calm mom of two mostly well-behaved daughters. She also writes for Real Simple and Better Homes and Gardens.