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HomeHealth & BehaviorBehavior & Discipline

Top discipline mistakes parents of tykes make

How to get your child to behave, and achieve more harmony at home.

By GreatSchools Staff

“I’m gonna’ count to three, and you better get over here! One, two, two and a half, two and three-quarters …” Sound at all familiar?

Disciplining kids is one of the most important, confusing, and difficult jobs parents have. And as kids are trying our nerves, it’s worth remembering that testing limits is their job.

It’s not always easy, but there are a few simple ways to make discipline easier for you and your child. You can start by remembering that young children respond best to positive messages. Instead of “Don’t run,” try “Please walk.” They also need consistency. Congratulations! You’ve already helped avoid the top-three discipline pitfalls below.

1. Bribing

The problem: You’re in the grocery store, desperately hoping to get through the checkout line without a scene. Meanwhile, one child starts begging for a candy bar. The other wails that she hates! hates! hates! the icky, healthy cereal you bought. To quiet them down, and quiet your nerves, you relent and buy them each a candy bar. Ah, no more whining children. Until next time.

Sure, bribes are quick and easy, and they often do the trick to head off chaos. But the peace you buy with that candy bar is fleeting — nothing but a short-term solution. In the long run, bribes teach your kids that they can misbehave and get rewarded for it.

Try this instead: On the way to the store, remind your children why you’re going: To buy only the things on your shopping list. Once there, give each child an assignment: helping you find items and checking them off the list (a bonus: These tasks keeps them distracted, teaches planning, and strengthens reading and writing skills). At the store, if they plead hunger and start caterwauling for that candy bar, say you’ll be happy to buy them a banana or apple.

When they've behaved like angels for the entire shopping jaunt, remember the importance of praising them. “I really appreciate how much you helped in the store!” Very often this kind of positive reinforcement is all a child needs to behave well the next time. (It's cheaper and healthier than a candy bar to boot.) If you want to give them more than praise, consider something that isn’t a toy or treat. A trip to the playground or an extra story at bedtime reinforces the message that good behavior has its own rewards.

2. Yelling

The problem: Have you ever screamed at your child, “Just be quiet!”? Seems pretty silly to be yelling about being quiet, right? When kids push our buttons — a talent many 6-year-olds have mastered with uncanny precision — it can be difficult for even the most patient parent to stay calm. But yelling is one of the least effective forms of discipline. Kids don’t hear the words you’re saying. They just hear the anger. And worse, after all that yelling, they rarely change their behavior (and you feel like a monster after seeing the frightened look on your child’s face).

Try this instead: If you find yourself in a situation where you feel like yelling, try your best to walk away. Because this can be easier said than done, it helps to have a “stop yourself” word (“stop” works) so you don’t start yelling without thinking. Or try counting to 10 before yelling. If you can get to 10, chances are you'll have lost the impulse to yell. It also helps to leave the room for a minute to regain your composure. When you return, calmly tell your child why you are angry: “I asked you to pick up your toys before you could go out to play.” Then tell him what you want him to do: “Pick up your toys now. Then you may go outside.”

3. Not following through

The problem: “If you don’t turn off the TV right now, no TV for the rest of the week. I mean it!” Really? We often make threats we don’t — or can’t — follow through on. Our kids know this. As a result, they don't take the promised punishment seriously.

Try this instead: Do your best to think about the consequence of your child's misbehavior before you announce it. And make sure it's one you can live with. (Do you really want the whole family to skip the Fourth of July picnic?) Once you start following through, your kid will know you mean business. And remember: Keep it short and sweet. “If you clear your plate, you’ll get dessert. If you don’t, no dessert.” Simple, relevant, and very effective.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/30/2012:
"helpful.. being consistent is the most difficult....... "
04/23/2012:
"I motivate my kid to read by discipline when they in bad behavior. When my was 7 years old he was a lazy reader, doesn't matter how I did, so I figure out one day he was misbehave, I pick one of his book shell and make him read out loud by the dinning table while I do my cooking. . At beginning, he was not please with it, I told him, if he read not clearly he would had to read until I was please. By coinsidencely, he started to realize he have learn a lots from read and now he is a super reader. I use the same discipline to my 5 years old daughter now, of course some words she could not read, I make her write down what she could not sound out and read on another paper, and help her throughout whenever I have my spare time or use it to discipline my son in his future misbehave. "
02/28/2012:
"How to motivate a child's reading? I have let them pick their own books, take them to the library but once they have the book at home, they don't read willingly. "
10/14/2011:
"these tip are helpful and true i have a problem yelling cause my kids are so high-per and loud they cant hear me when i talk so now i will get down to there level eye to eye and tell them what i want them to stop doing or to clean up "
04/27/2011:
"Great advice, except for the example of cleaning your plate for dessert. I find this encourages my daughter to eat past her point of fullness, only to pack in even more with the dessert! We limit sweet treats to special occasions or Saturdays, so it isn't a daily expectation or interference with meals."
08/16/2010:
"Great advise! I use to promise a toy or candy just to keep my daughter quiet but this only created a problem. Every time we went shopping she expected me to buy her something. That was not the message I was trying to send. I recently went shopping and she wanted to hold the grocery list, so we played the I spy game and she really enjoyed helping look for items on the list. Not only was it fun for her but it kept her occupied and I was able to have a more peaceful shopping experience."
07/27/2010:
"thank you ! as a single parent these are wonderful! when you have no one to turn to and need help so thank you!."
07/23/2010:
"I also have a 3 yr. old who yells, likes to hit, and almost impossible to deal with. I've tried everything from time out, to every other disciplinary tactic. My oldest is 10 and they are like night and day. I'm also constantly questioning my parenting skills. Eventually I came to the realization that they are two totally different children with totally different needs. For the most part I also realized that when my little guy goes to the sitter or bible class two times per week, he does fairly well. My hope is that when he starts school on a full-time basis he grows out of those unnerving habits. Hang in there it can only get better...."
07/20/2010:
"I have a three year old who yells and hits adults. I am trying to talk to him to explain why I want him to do things but it isn't working. Every day I vow not to lose my patience with him and everyday I fail. I have two older son who gave me very little problems but this child leaves me questioning my ability to parent. My friends tell me to spank him to make him listen to me but that won't teach him him how to behave in public. Does anyone have any strategies they can suggest?"
07/19/2010:
"Thank you this was very helpful."
07/19/2010:
"If only those stratagies actually worked for the long term. I found they might work for awhile and then boom. They start not caring about the dessert or the loss of tv or not being able to play. "
07/19/2010:
"I like this advice...I'm very guilty of tring to over yell my 7 and 5 yr old (boys) so they can hear me...usually they look at me, laugh, and say to one another....Mom wants to play the screaming game w/us....NO! mom doesn't, but to them I do.....so thank you...now I have to figure out how to control a 13 yr old girl who's hormones have her liking a different boy every other day and she thinks she's 'OLD' enough to do what she wants....HELP!!!!!! Any advice?"
07/19/2010:
"Isn't offering dessert for finishing dinner a bribe?"
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