How to Discipline a Child

Jamie Lynne Grumet is the founder of I Am Not the Babysitter, the cofounder of Raise It Up, and she once appeared on the cover of Time. Follow her on Twitter @MsJamieLynne.

As parents, we want to help guide our children into adulthood. Correction is often part of childrearing, but the goal should not be for it to be scary or traumatic. We want to help lay the foundation for our children so that they can lead independent adult lives, not scare them into submission. The tricky part is finding the balance of consistency and compassion.

Toddlers and Kids Aged 3 to 6

Teach appropriate touch. Try to keep things simple when addressing this. Using simple phrases helps. Say “yes touch” to give approval to touch an item, “no touch” when something is off limits, and “gentle touch” when approaching people or animals.

Distractions and diversions. These work well to keep toddlers safe and to help them learn boundaries. It's always important to try and make eye contact when distracting. If you cannot get in between them and the object they are headed to, try using a cue word to stop them in their tracks. That word could be something as simple as their name. Once you have their attention, you can divert them to a safe alternative. 

Take a moment to think before saying “no.” Consider if the opportunity is one for the child to learn. Think about if there's a real reason to say “no.” Even when you absolutely need to stop something, try to use a reason or other verbage. Saying “no” too often can take the power out of the word and they may not listen when it becomes necessary in an unsafe situation.

Pick your battles. Consider how important it is to approach and correct a situation. Ask yourself if the fight, tantrum, and debate over the issue is worth it, or if your child’s actions are actually somewhat harmless. Sometimes, cleaning up a mess (which you can elicit help for and turn into a lesson) is far easier than trying to deal with the aftermath of a “no.”

Tweens, Ages 7 to 12

Discussion. While this age group presents a whole new set of challenges, it also presents a new tool in parenting: the ability to have a meaningful conversation.

Work together. When a problem arises with a tween, you can help them identify the issue, discuss possible solutions together, and choose what you think is the best approach.

Time-ins. When they cross a line or overstep a boundary, try using a modified version of the time-out approach you applied when they were younger. Calmly sit down together and talk about what they did wrong, what kind of behaviour you’d prefer to see, how it makes you (or anyone else affected) feel, and what they can try next time instead.

Teenagers

Be flexible. Let your kids negotiate and make their case if they want a rule changed. Give in a few times here or there. For example, if they have a really good case for getting an extra hour of curfew on a Saturday night, let them have it. These negotiation skills are actually good skills to have in life. It will also give them a sense of control over their life.

Get them involved. Teens tend to be less resistant if they are involved in creating the consequences in their home. Try a family meeting, where the hard rules are set and consequences for breaking those are discussed among everyone. Put these down in writing so there is consistency within the home.

Stay involved. It has never been more important to actively stay involved in their lives and to make an effort to keep the lines of communication open. Your teen will feel more comfortable coming to you with their problems, asking for your help instead of hiding and lying, and approaching you with minor problems before they become major. Mealtime is the best opportunity for conversation and making connections. Try to keep daily dinners as family time.

Allow freedom. Remember that, in just a few short years, your teenager will be an adult. They’ll be able to move out on their own, and will be expected to be functioning members of society. To prepare them for that, you need to find that delicate balance between being very present in their lives, and giving them the freedom to make choices while you step back into more of a guiding role.

All Ages

Children of all ages are still learning to navigate their own emotions and are going through so many changes, we can’t expect them to know how to handle all of them.

Remember the “monkey see, monkey do” rule: Model the behavior you want to see from your children. We can't expect our children to remain calm in a moment of frustration if we don't model that same behavior for them.

Above all, remember that all kids are different and that no parent is perfect. We're all going to make mistakes or have our slipups, and that's okay. It's how we handle them that matters. Admitting you were wrong, and apologizing to your child, will not make them lose respect for you. In fact, it will do the opposite.