I am often approached by parents looking for advice on disciplining their children. I don’t think I have ever met a parent who didn’t struggle with this task. Parents clearly get that their role is to ensure children know right from wrong. They are responsible for teaching their children how to behave, and to demonstrate for their children that there are clear consequences when they act poorly or make the wrong choice. Though they are clear about their role and the desired outcome, most parents struggle on how to get there.
My first piece of advice is that the relationship between a parent and child needs to be built first. Parents often make the mistake of trying to manage their child’s behaviors, yet have not established a trusting relationship with their child. It is critical that the child identify the parent as the person they can count on. Parents who are responsive to the needs of their children are more likely to have children who will respond to them. Children who feel attached to their parent are more likely to want to please the parent.
Attachment begins with infants. Picking up your baby when she cries, cooing back to her while you hold her and holding her while you feed her are three ways to start the bond with your young child. As your child grows this attachment is further nurtured by your emotional responses. Listening to your child, reassuring him when he is frustrated and continuing to soothe and hold your child are ways to nurture that attachment.
My second piece of advice is to “do what you say.” Doing what you say is not limited to discipline. Children need to know that you will follow through. Do not make promises you can’t keep. If you make a commitment to play a game or watch a TV show then it is imperative that you do that. Children who know their parent will “do as they say” are less likely to test limits set by their parent. But this sense of respect is earned. I have heard many parents say that children just need to respect authority, but know that they will respect you as a parent when you have demonstrated behaviors that can be trusted and respected.
Discipline will be more successful once you have established a bond with your child and your child is able to trust your actions. Consequences tend to be more effective when they are clearly connected to the behavior you are addressing. For example, if a child breaks something, then taking toys away may make sense. A child who refuses to get ready for school in the morning has to go to bed earlier and a child who tells a lie needs to learn that lying limits your ability to trust.
Lastly, just know that your style of discipline and the type of discipline children respond to is based upon you and your child. There will be some trial and error, but you will truly see that discipline is easier when a trusting relationship comes first.