For many parents, the words “discipline” and “punishment” are synonymous. And in some ways, they are. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s first definition of discipline is punishment. However, I would like to propose a more definite difference between the two words in order to possibly change some parents’ way of thinking when it comes to “disciplining” their child. Merriam-Webster’s fourth definition of discipline begins, “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” Training is the first word, and it can also be interchanged with the word “teaching.”
It’s important to remember that correcting our children, or “teaching” them, is more about showing them the difference between right and wrong than about making sure we have their obedience. It’s more about helping them practice self-control than to have them obey because we, as parents, are bigger and stronger than they are. I think all parents want to raise children who are well-adjusted as well as considerate, compassionate, and thoughtful.
All parents can agree that every child benefits from expressions of love and support, no matter how badly he or she is misbehaving. So how do we “teach” or discipline our children in a way that preserves their dignity and also firmly teaches them what behavior is expected of them?
First, what is “good behavior?” It differs from family to family. What your family thinks is bad manners may be totally acceptable to another family. So how do you as a parent keep your child from getting confused?
You have to remember that a child can’t understand what is expected of him if you don’t make it very clear. Children feel more comfortable in their world when they are sure of what their boundaries are and what is expected of them. This requires consistent forms of discipline, or your child will become confused.
For example, if your child throws a toy and breaks a vase on the table, you may tell him not to throw toys in the house and put him in time out. Your goal as a parent is not to show him who is in charge and that he needs to obey you without question. Your goal isn’t even to get your child to stop throwing his toys. Your goal is to ultimately teach your child respect for personal property and to respect the idea that breaking things in the house is destructive and unacceptable behavior. You will probably have to reinforce this idea with your child several times for it to sink in and understand that with self-control things don’t get broken.
Also, make sure the discipline is age-appropriate. This is very important in teaching your child the difference between right and wrong. Usually, by the time a child is 2 years old, he or she is beginning to understand that there is a difference. However, what used to take just a stern word to get the child to stop an undesired behavior at 1-year old may now take something different now that he is a defiant 2- or 3-year old. Just remember that, even though you feel like you are going to explode with frustration, it’s the behavior you dislike, not the child.
Discipline should not be delayed so your child can have time to think about their behavior. Of course, if you or your child needs to calm down, separating yourselves into different rooms is completely acceptable. Just keep in mind that the longer you delay discipline the less of an impact it will have on a child.
Timeouts are actually effective forms of discipline for children of all ages. It’s just as appropriate for an over-tired and cranky toddler as it is for a rebellious teen who is testing your patience. The difference is that for your toddler, time out is for a few age-appropriate minutes (one minute for each year of age), while your older child may spend as much time as needed in time out as it takes for her to accept your terms or apologize for her behavior.
One reasonable form of discipline would be to allow logical consequences for bad behavior. It would make sense to a toddler if after throwing a toy he had it taken away or that hitting or biting results in him being removed from the situation until he can calm down.
Logical consequences evolve as your child gets older. For an older child who doesn’t follow through with doing his chores, he could miss out on going to the movies with his friends. Or a rude or disrespectful attitude can result in being alone in her bedroom without a computer, TV, phone, iPod, or any other form of electronic escape. It doesn’t make much sense to send a child to her bedroom to think about her bad behavior if she is just going to find comfort in a movie or on the Internet.
It is natural for your child to have a drive to learn independence, so try to keep your expectations reasonable while he attempts to navigate this big, confusing world. Be diplomatic and offer choices to your child.
Lastly, be firm but loving. Never punish your child by withholding affection. When you discipline a young child, always follow up with a quick hug and kiss and telling them “I love you” as soon as you can after the time out or other discipline. Your child should always feel like they are loved unconditionally and that they can come to you for praise and positive words.
Discipline (or punishment) can be one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Being aware of what expectations you have of your children’s behavior will better enable you to convey them to your children so they can understand what is expected of them while they learn self-control.