Discipline is one of the toughest challenges of parenthood. It can frustrate, discourage, and humble you. When faced with the challenges of getting your toddler, preschooler, or big kid to behave, you may look back on the gritty baby months with utter nostalgia and wonder why you ever thought feeding and sleeping dilemmas were so tough.

The right expert advice can be instructive and reassuring. It’s just a matter of finding a philosophy that fits your personal style. But how do you choose when the discipline field appears to be one big, messy mishmash of information?

You’ll be relieved to know that you don’t have to pick just one discipline style. You may like certain aspects of several different discipline styles. It’s okay to select the things you like and leave the rest.

Also, it’s important to pay attention to how you feel when you read about a particular style. For example, Brooklyn mom Popi Pustilnik says, “One book made me feel like such a failure that I threw it across the room.” She then turned to a book with a completely different approach and felt much more hopeful. “It was a much better fit for me,” she says.

Start by learning about a few of the major “categories” of discipline philosophies. Once you get a handle on these, it will be easier to choose books that are a good fit for you.

Where the discipline theories differ

One expert suggests that time-outs last a minute for each year of your child’s age, while another says your child should decide how long the time-out lasts, and another says that time-outs are not a good idea at all. One book instructs you to firmly tell your child, “No hitting,” and another book cautions against using negative words like “no” and “don’t.” One author promotes the use of rewards, whereas another says rewards are nothing more than bribes.

The wide variety of advice can be frustrating and confusing, but it also proves that there’s no one right way to discipline. You are the true expert on what works for you and for your children. While professional advice is helpful, it needs to match your own intuition and ideals.

5 basic discipline philosophies

Take a look at these categories of discipline approaches and see what appeals to you.

  1. Boundary-based discipline

    Children need boundaries to feel safe. If they don’t know where the boundaries are, they’ll “test” until they find them. “What happens if I throw my spoon?” a toddler wonders, clanging his spoon noisily onto the floor. “Hmm … not much of a reaction. How about if I throw my entire plate?” An older child might test limits by leaving her colored pencils in a glorious mess on the rug, or by taking several decades to get ready in the mornings.

    Clearly communicate your boundaries (for example, “Please put my things back in my purse when you’re done looking at them”). If this doesn’t do the trick, follow through with a consequence. Try to make the consequence a logical fit for the behavior. For example, if your child leaves your wallet, hairbrush, and car keys strewn around the living room floor, she loses purse-inspection privileges for a while.

    Use “natural consequences,” too. For example, if your child forgets his lunch box, don’t rush it to school. Instead, let him experience the consequences.

    Provide “limited choices” to give your child some wiggle room. Suppose your 5-year-old is loudly banging on her electronic toy piano, with the volume on maximum. Through your migraine, you respectfully ask her to turn it down. She ignores you. Offer a choice: “You can either turn the volume down now, or I’ll put the piano away until tomorrow.” This puts the responsibility in her hands.

    What does the research say about boundary-based discipline? A 2021 survey of 2,600 parents in the Phillipines with 2,600 parents discovered boundary-based discipline was the most widely-used method (other than “punishment”) with 37 percent of the parents recommending it. Another study in nearby Indonesia showed the strategy is similarly popular in school settings there. The study reveals the boundary-based learning was implemented in an authoritarian manner as a punishment. This is unfortunate because an authoritarian parenting style — unlike authoritative parenting — has been shown to be associated with increased delinquency and issues with depression.

  2. Gentle discipline

    A child can’t learn much about behavior when she’s screaming and crying. She (and you) can benefit greatly from daily preventive techniques — strategies that reduce opportunities for misbehavior.

    For example, create routines so that your child feels grounded. Offer choices to give her a sense of control, such as, “Would you like to wear the red pajamas or the blue?” Give warnings before transitions, as in, “We need to leave the playground in five minutes.”

    Frame your requests positively. For example, say, “Please use your big girl voice,” instead of, “Don’t whine.” When possible, use “when, then” statements instead of outright no’s, as in, “When we’re done with dinner, then we can go outside.”

    When misbehavior occurs, turn to diffusion. First see if there’s an underlying problem, such as tiredness, boredom, or hunger. Once you address this need, the misbehavior may magically disappear.

    If not, turn to what author Elizabeth Pantley calls a “laundry bag” of tricks. This is a large collection, including silly games, distraction, redirection, validation, and self-soothing. You can pull a trick out of your hat — er, laundry bag — whenever it’s time to derail your child from the misbehavior train.

    For example, if he refuses to take a bath, try making the washcloth “talk” to him in a playful voice. If this doesn’t work, you can try something else, such as validation and redirection (“It’s hard when you have to do something you don’t want to do. How about if we see how quickly we can get it done? I’ll get a clock.”)

    What does the research say about gentle discipline? A article published in the July-August 2019 issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology,
    looked at parents using gentle discipline with their 18-month-olds and then again when their children were 4.5 years old in the contexts of play time and clean-up time and in relation to the children’s temperaments. The results were interesting and mixed. For example, gentle discipline of children of average temperament during play time as a toddler related to poorer self-regulation later — however for exuberant children, it related to better behavior self-regulation later. The researchers note, “These results provide further support for temperament- and context-specific relations between different parenting qualities and children’s later regulatory skills, which may inform the development of more effective temperament-based parenting interventions.”

  3. Positive discipline

    The essence of positive discipline is the idea that children behave well when they feel encouraged and have a sense of belonging. Misbehavior happens when children are feeling discouraged.

    Talk with your child and try to find out what the underlying cause is for her misbehavior. For example, suppose your 3-year-old refuses to bring her plate to the sink. Is she afraid she’ll break the plate? Is she trying to get attention? Perhaps it gives her a sense of power. Or maybe she’s hurt about something else and is trying to “get you back.”

    Once you know the reason, you give her the right kind of encouragement and work out a solution. For example, if she’s struggling with powerlessness, you could encourage her by saying, “We need to get the table clean. Can you help me figure out how to do it?”

    In positive discipline, misbehavior is seen as an opportunity for learning, and children are actively engaged in coming up with a solution. It’s okay for a child to enjoy the solution — in fact, it’s preferable.

    For example, if your 8-year-old spills soda on the couch and the two of you decide that the solution is for him to steam-clean the stain (using his allowance to pay for the steamer rental), he might enjoy this task. This doesn’t mean he’ll continue to spill soda on the couch in order to get to use the steamer. It means he’s learning how to take responsibility for a mistake — and better yet, he’s invested in his own learning.

    Research on the effectiveness of positive discipline by Paul Carroll at University of California, Merced followed parents of 7-year-olds who participated in a free seven-week training course on positive discipline. Three months later, parents reported less permissive parenting, less authoritarian parenting, and less stress. For the kids, their parents’ training was related to doing better in school and less acting out. Another study, from the University of Ottawa in Canada sought to assess the long-term associations between positive and harsh parenting in children’s and adolescents’ behavior and mental health. Their research suggests positive parenting protects children against depression and anxiety and decreases suicidal ideation among girls ages 10 and 11.

  4. Emotion-coaching

    When children can recognize and understand their own feelings, they make better choices. You can teach your child to do this, and it will help strengthen the connection between the two of you.

    Know your own standards for what is and is not acceptable behavior. Make sure you’re up front with your child about these, and talk with him about some of the feelings he might experience in certain situations.

    For example, if he’s been known to hit other kids and several friends are coming over, you might explain that it could get overwhelming for him. Suggest to him that if he starts to feel frustrated, he can spend some quiet time in his room — but hitting the other children is not acceptable.

    Learn the skill of empathy. This means putting yourself in your child’s shoes: What are the “real feelings” behind her misbehavior? Reflect these back to her, as in, “It’s hard when we really want something and we can’t have it. I bet you’re feeling really disappointed right now.”

    When your child feels that you understand her, she’ll trust you. Within this context of trust, she’ll be open to you when you teach her about responsible choices. (“We can’t buy candy every time we see it. Too much candy isn’t good for our bodies.”)

    Researchers running a 2014 University of Memphis study sought to examine the relationship between emotion coaching and negative outcomes from peer issues. Participants were 129 fourth through sixth grade boys. Results showed that parent emotion coaching may buffer the effects of poor peer relations, such as feeling lonely or being bullied.

    In a Belgian study of parents of 4- and 5-year-olds, parents who were prompted to use emotion coaching practices were more emotionally and behaviorally responsive to their children and their children showed higher persistence and enthusiasm when they dealt with frustration.

  5. Behavior modification

    Positive reinforcement helps children increase good behavior and negative reinforcement helps them decrease misbehavior. This approach is similar to boundary-based discipline in that it emphasizes clear limits and backing them up with consequences. But in behavior modification, there’s more emphasis on warnings and rewards.

    Use warnings to help your child take responsibility for stopping the misbehavior on his own. For example, if your child is arguing with you because you told him he can’t have a cookie before dinner, don’t get caught up in the skirmish. Tell him to stop arguing about it, and that this is his first “warning.” If he persists, give him a second warning, and if he doesn’t stop, calmly tell him to take a time-out (these should be brief — just a few minutes long).

    For more “serious offenses,” come up with a consequence other than time-out. For example, if your child persistently teases the dog and is old enough to know better, you might take away her television privileges for a couple of days.

    Rewards motivate your child to do well. This could be as simple as parental praise. In some cases you might want to set up a charting system with more tangible rewards. For example, for every morning that your child is ready on time to go to daycare, she gets a star in her chart. When she racks up five stars, she gets a treat.

    Hundreds of studies suggest behavior modification is effective in multiple categories. A University of British Columbia study of 371 obese adolescents used a behavior modification app to increase their confidence and motivation, and a meta-analysis of 157 reports by Mark Wolraich, a leading ADHD researcher, found behavior modification alleviated problem behavior in hyperactive and disruptive children.

These brief descriptions don’t tell the whole story, of course. It’s not as if boundary-based discipline doesn’t include preventive techniques — it does. And gentle discipline includes the use of consequences.

In fact, all of these styles overlap. The differences are more a matter of what they emphasize. Think about the primary colors — red, blue, and yellow. They contain no common elements. Discipline philosophies are more like secondary colors (orange, purple, green), which contain blends of more than one hue. Some may have a dash more red, and others may pour on the blue. What color will your discipline style be?

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