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.

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.

This guide aims to give some advice as to what approaches are appropriate at different stages of development.

Babies (0-1.5)

Keep in mind at this age:

  • Babies are not intentionally naughty, they just don’t understand what they should and shouldn’t do.
  • Crying is not naughty behaviour, it is their only way to communicate with you. Try to work out what it is they are saying – if possible!
  • Discipline will mainly be around safety issues.

Preventative management

  • Shower them with love and affection. You can’t spoil a baby by loving them too much!
  • Remember that all children are different. Don’t expect them to react to situations the same way their older sister did, or your friend’s child. Try to work out what sets them off, and avoid or minimise these situations.

What works

  • Removing the child or the object to a safer place.
  • Distraction, give them another toy or direct their interest elsewhere.

Remember that babies are really too young to understand discipline and your best approach is to make sure that any potentially difficult situations are removed!

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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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