How do I handle discipline?

Disciplining is a difficult job that gets a little easier when children reach the early elementary years. Six- to nine-year-olds have integrated many of the rules they’ve heard over and over, and they usually behave in socially acceptable ways. As they get older, they need fewer reminders, their impulsive exploration slows down, and they give more thought to what they’re doing. They also become more capable of listening to reason. Parents of a six- to nine-year-old can reasonably expect her to consider other people’s feelings, behave well in public, give of herself, and share with others.

Of course, the need for discipline continues. The purpose is to get children thinking about their misbehavior so they won’t repeatedly do things they shouldn’t. Setting limits is still one of parents’ major responsibilities. Unfortunately, some parents don’t deal with their child’s misbehavior. They may be overwhelmed by their own stressful situations or feel they can’t control her and thus give up trying. Other parents don’t discipline because they’re afraid of making their child unhappy or angrier and more unmanageable. Whatever the reasons, parents who don’t set limits do their child a great disservice. They also reinforce unacceptable behavior as she quickly learns she can act as she wants without significant rebuke or punishment.

All parents must set limits. Kids need to know what is and isn’t acceptable and that there are consequences for bad actions. The consequences don’t always have to involve punishment. Often, kids feel a surge of guilt over wrongdoing: “It really was an accident. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to do it.” Such uncomfortable feelings may keep a child from repeating certain actions. Her parents can say, “I see you feel bad about what happened on the playground; now remember to play more carefully.” When the child’s guilty feelings don’t deter her from misbehavior, her parents have to state the consequences: “If you don’t stop fighting with Cara, you’ll have to go to your room.” Depending on the nature of her actions, the consequences can be stronger: “If this continues, you can’t play with your friends after school.” Parents usually know which disciplinary methods work best. Taking privileges away from one child might be effective, while another just needs to hear the threat. Some children respond best to being separated from the family for a “time out” in another room.

Many adults use the same disciplinary methods their own parents used: “They spanked me and I turned out OK. Why shouldn’t I do the same to my child?” Yet, if parents remember the feelings they once had – especially humiliation and resentment – they may recognize that there are better ways to discipline children. They should not follow the examples of their own pasts if the examples include spanking, slapping, or verbal abuse.

Effective discipline is neither harsh nor lenient. Harsh punishment, including spanking and other physical punishment, makes children angry and resentful. They aren’t motivated to change their behavior, only to sneak and manipulate and try to get away with more misbehavior. They’ll think about the unfairness of the punishment rather than their own actions. At the other extreme, discipline that’s too lenient is ineffective. A chronically misbehaving child who only has to say a fast “I’m sorry” or tolerate a brief, easy punishment, won’t learn to control her misbehavior. Parents shouldn’t be too quick to forgive and to renew their child’s privileges.

Kids may misbehave because they want more attention paid to their words, interests, and activities. A child who feels left out or unconnected – perhaps because of family problems, a new baby at home, sibling rivalry, or a mother’s return to work – may seek negative attention if that’s all she can get. For example, one sibling may fight frequently with her brother because she feels he gets more of their parents’ time. Then her anger and jealousy might be directed at him.

Sometimes children act out their frustration and sense of helplessness by misbehaving because they’re unhappy, insecure, or unsuccessful in school. In such a situation, parents should talk with the teacher, consider tutoring, offer more encouragement, and closely monitor their child’s progress and behavior.

As you discipline your child, you should look for the source of her misbehavior; otherwise, you’ll spend time treating the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. You may see dramatic changes in behavior when you give your child more time and positive attention or when you address situations that are troubling for her: a difficult school year, problems with friends, uneasy sibling relationships.

If you’re unhappy with your child’s behavior, set limits, of course, but also talk to her. When she shares her feelings about specific problems you’ll gain insight into her behavior. You also can reason with her: “When you act that way, Matthew feels left out. I don’t think you’d feel good if you were in his position.” Ask, “What can you do to change your behavior?”

Be flexible and give encouragement and praise to reinforce positive actions. If you worry about how her behavior is viewed by other adults, take comfort in the fact that kids who misbehave at home often don’t misbehave when they’re out. More struggles take place between parent and child than between child and peers or child and other adults. A child who says, “You’re mean!” to her parents usually knows it’s unacceptable to say that to her teacher or her friends’ parents. All people act and express themselves differently in the comfort of their homes.

Discipline is a difficult issue. If you’re concerned about your child’s behavior or unsure of your own ability to set limits, take parenting classes on discipline or consult with a professional who understands child development. Such specialists can help guide you in the appropriate direction.

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