Parenting in the Early Years


Children need reasonable limits to feel safe and secure. Discipline is the process of teaching our children to live within certain bounds of conduct, abide by appropriate rules and master self control. This is best achieved by positively reinforcing good behaviors and setting reasonable limits that are consistently enforced.

Here are some suggestions to help in the challenging, but crucial parenting task of discipline.

Discipline is About Boundaries, Not Punishment

Have the goals of discipline clear in your mind. Be sure they are age appropriate. If parents and significant others, including routine care givers, set limits consistently, they will be more easily achieved.

Rules need to be clearly defined, and consequences for breaking rules need to be clearly stated. When stating rules and enforcing consequences, try to be calm and matter of fact.

State rules in positive terms. Tell your child what to do rather than what not to do. For example, say "Use your voice for inside," instead of "Stop shouting in the house," or "Use your fork and knife," instead of "Stop eating like a pig."

Consequences for breaking rules should be logical, and should be enforced immediately. Some examples are "Biting is not allowed, take a time out now" and "You are not allowed to ride your bike in the street but you did anyway. Now, you are not allowed to ride your bike for the next two days."

Follow through with what you say. Idle threats undermine your ability to affect discipline.

The use of time out is a very effective tool to help your child learn limits. Discipline in private. Being reprimanded in public lowers self-esteem and builds resentment.

Dictators are not effective disciplinarians. Don't attempt to control all your child's actions. Minor misbehavior should be redirected or ignored. Confrontation isn't necessary to teach a child appropriate behaviors. The use of humor can be very helpful in teaching rules, and also lessens household tensions.

Although some experts feel that a rare, single slap on the behind or hand may be effective and appropriate, be aware that more than a single slap is a vent for your own anger or frustration and is not enforcing discipline.

Remember violence teaches violence.

Positive Reinforcement

Praise your child for desirable behaviors. Your child needs your attention for good behavior more than for inappropriate behavior.

Positive reinforcement and attention encourages appropriate behaviors and builds self-esteem. Examples of positive reinforcement are "I liked the way you looked both ways before you crossed the street," or "You cleared the table. That makes my work easier."

Interacting with your child in a positive way should be done on a minute by minute basis. "I see you are building blocks. What are you building?" Lets your child know he has your attention and make it unnecessary to misbehave to be acknowledged. To positively reinforce does not require that you state everything that your child does is wonderful or great. Just sharing the moment and acknowledging the child is plenty of reinforcement.

It is important to tell your child that you love him. Do it often!

When disciplining, be sure your child understands it is the behavior you don't like, not your child's total person.

Be a good listener to your child. Try to listen without interrupting or judging. Respond so your child knows you understand.

Be sure to tell your child when he does something you appreciate. A thank you tells your child that he is important.

Help your child use words to express feelings. This means helping him identify when he seems sad, frustrated or angry. The ability to use these words may prevent acting out the feelings.

Time Outs

Time outs work by stopping a misbehavior and indicating disapproval. At the same time they give your child the opportunity to calm down.

Tell your child ahead of time that you will use time outs for discipline. You may want to practice ahead of time so that your child knows what is expected of him.

  • State the rule, the misbehavior and the consequence clearly. "No biting. You bit. Time out." You should be very selective when using time outs. Try to limit their use to aggressive behaviors against others and purposeful destruction of property.
  • Use a time out chair in an uninteresting place. Avoid placing him by the TV or window. A hallway or corner works well. If possible, avoid the use of the child's room, as you want that to be a fun, safe place. For a younger child, or if the child will not stay in a time-out spot, a safe room with a gate or a playpen may be used.
  • Time outs should be brief. A frequent recommendation is initially 2 minutes and then 1 minute per year after the age of two. Your child is expected to be quiet in time out. The time out starts once the child is quiet. The first several times you may accept some fussing.
  • It may help to set a timer. State that when the timer goes off the child may return from the time out. If your child leaves before the time is completed, restart the timer. If your child is noisy in the time out, restart the timer.
  • If your child is having a violent temper tantrum and you fear he may hurt either himself or someone else, restrain him in the time out. Hold him facing away from you. Remain calm. Once your child has calmed down he should be released. If violent outbursts occur frequently, contact your physician. You may need additional counseling.
  • Once the time out is over, the incident is considered done. Avoid lecturing or rehashing the misbehavior. Look for some activity that you can comment on positively and reset the tone. Some experts have recommended a variation of time out. This involves asking the child to remove himself until he stops an unacceptable behavior. This reinforces the point that the child is making a choice in his behavior.

Some children have severe behavioral problems. These can be the result of family stress, such as illness, parental alcoholism or divorce. Other children have personality traits or mood disorders that can cause major behavioral difficulty. If you are having serious discipline problems with your child, please discuss the matter with your doctor.