It can be hard for parents to know where to draw the line between being too permissive, or being too strict. Try to think about discipline as guiding your child to be an adult who can make decisions that are good for them and those around them. This means as they get older, you need to start holding back more and letting them make their own decisions, and bear the consequences of those decisions themselves. Take clothing for example:

The caregivers of a baby completely decide what is appropriate clothing to ensure the baby will be comfortable, the child doesn’t get a choice in the matter. A toddler could get a couple of choices – the blue shirt or the red shirt? A preschooler could be more involved in the decision – check out the weather today, discuss what activities they will be doing and help them select appropriate clothing. The adult’s input will become less and less until the child gets to the stage where they go and buy their clothes with their allowance or money they earn themselves.

Where people go wrong is often giving too much freedom too young, not enough freedom when they are older or giving the freedom without teaching them how to make a good decision.

These tips will work for most ages:

  • Spending time with your child and giving them lots of affection and affirmation will ensure you have a strong relationship to deal with the rocky times.
  • Know your child, if there are situations you know set them off, try to minimise these whenever possible.
  • Show respect for your child. Don’t choose discipline strategies that belittle or embarrass. Think about how you discipline your child in front of others so as not to embarrass them. Maybe you could have a hand signal to tell them they’ve stepped over the line?
  • Walk the talk! Modelling appropriate responses is the most effective way to teach your children.
  • Give affirmation for what they are doing right, and for who they are.
  • Be consistent, but within reason. Make sure your child knows that when you say something, you mean it and will follow through. However it is important to allow room for negotiation or flexibility. If you are bending a rule, make sure you can explain to your child why. For example, if you have a rule that your child does the dishes, but they are really tired from a family outing and have a test the following day, by all means let them go to bed and do the dishes for them – but tell them why! This is different to the inconsistency where one day they are allowed to jump on the couch, but the next they get yelled at.
  • Keep your child’s emotional and physical needs topped up. A hungry, tired or attention starved child is more likely to push boundaries.
  • Give a warning or reminder before imposing consequences.

Once they are past the baby stage:

  • Involve your children in setting rules for the household.
  • Create a team feeling by using phrases such as: In our family we…
  • Use natural consequences. This lets your child understand the result of their action. So, rather than battle with them to put their coat on, you could let them go outside and get wet and uncomfortable. Hopefully the next time it rains, they will remember and put their coat on without fuss. Some consequences would be unsafe to allow, so make sure you pick these carefully.
  • If natural consequences are unrealistic, try to make the consequences related to the child’s actions. If they have drawn on the furniture, the related consequence to that could be cleaning it off. You may also set a time frame for this which could mean they miss out on something while they are cleaning.
  • Help them right their own wrongs. For young children that might mean fetching the brush and shovel so you can clean up their mess, for older children it might mean getting a job so they can pay you back to replacing the neighbour’s window.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Allowing your child some control over what happens to them goes a long way to creating a positive relationship.
  • Try to limit saying no as much as you can. If you find yourself saying no contantly, try:
    • “Yes! When… then…” Eg, “Yes! When you’ve tidied your toys, then we can go to the park.”
    •  “Convince me!” If your child wants something, instead of immediately saying no, say “convince me”. If you’re not convinced, say so and let them try again.
    • If you see them being “naughty” ask them to explain what they are doing. Maybe it looks like your child has made a huge mess in the kitchen and wasted lots of food, but really they saw you were having a bad day and were trying to make you a surprise cake to help you feel better!

Use these techniques sparingly:

  • Time out. Time out works best when it is a break from an overwhelming situation, rather than an isolating punishment. Most people use 1 minute for each year of the child’s age. Young children may benefit from sitting with an adult watching the play and going back when they feel they are able to follow the rules.
  • Rewards: Rewards are a part of our adult life – there are few people who would continue in their job if they weren’t being paid for it! The trick with using rewards is to ensure your child is not rewarded for everything. They should have some chores they do simply because they are part of the family. Other things they should do because they can see the value in the task itself.
  • Removing privileges: Diane Levy suggests using a GST approach to withdrawing Goods and Services. If your child has not complied with a request, and you have ensured they heard the request; wait until they ask for something and then use the Yes! When.. then… technique. Eg. Yes! When you have emptied the dishwasher, then you can have your pocket money. This seems to be more effective than withdrawing possessions for set periods.
    • Be careful when considering grounding an older child as you are effectively punishing them by having to hang out with you. Not really the message you want to send! Instead, limit their curfews or where they can go with their friends.

Primary aged children (5-10)

For primary aged children, keep these things mind:

  • Most children will now have the ability to empathise with others.
  • Children at this age love to feel part of a team, so try and include this in your approach.

Preventative management

  • Involve your children in family decision making or tasks. If they colloborate in a plan for keeing the house tidy, they are much more likely to stick to it.
  • Help guide your child through decision making as often as possible, evaluating possible consequences and then deciding on the best course of action. This will help them recognise consequences and hopefully make better choices.

What works:

  • Reminding them of the rules they agreed to.
  • Setting clear consequences so all of you know what will happen if a rule is broken.
  • Following through with consequences consistently.
  • Don’t rush in to save your child from bad choices, as long as no one is going to be hurt. Make sure they deal with the consequences from their choices, don’t be the way who stays up til midnight finishing off their homework!
  • Time out

Primary-aged children have the ability to take some responsibility for decision-making in your family and can also be expected to take some responsibility for their actions. You might be surprised what your primary-aged child is capable of if you give them a chance!

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Frank McColl is a primary teacher and writes teacher resource materials for primary and secondary schools. She has one quirky toddler who keeps her on her toes.

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