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.