It isn’t always easy to decide what discipline strategy to use, and for what behavior, and it isn’t uncommon to doubt whether the consequences we choose for our kids’ behavior “make sense”. For many parents, adopting the right discipline approach is one of the hardest things in parenting.
Numerous studies have shown that all kids need discipline to thrive. But these studies have also shown that not all discipline strategies are effective.
In other words, not all discipline strategies are “created equal”, and some strategies may actually make your child’s behavior worse or harm your parent/child relationship.
Here are four misconceptions that lead to ineffective discipline strategies.
Misconception 1: Discipline is synonymous with punishment
There is a very thin line between discipline and punishment, but the two have nothing to do with each other. Many parents who mistake punishment for discipline end up making their child’s behavior worse and causing sometimes irreparable damage to their parent/child relationship.
While both discipline and punishment ultimately seek to modify children’s behavior, the former is about teaching appropriate behavior over the long term, and the latter is about using control and fear to force your child to behave in a certain way.
Several studies have shown that common punishment approaches privileged by parents, such as physical punishment, can lead to increased aggression, mental health issues, and lower cognitive ability.
Punitive approaches include measures that are disproportionate to a child’s behavior or to their level of development, strategies that have a negative impact on children’s sense of self-worth, and strategies that instill fear or withdraw affection.
Positive discipline strategies are aimed primarily at helping children to develop self-discipline. They privilege clear communication (clear rules and limits), clear consequences, consistency, empathy, respect and firmness.
Diane Baumrind, who undertook numerous studies on the most effective discipline strategies, found that an authoritative discipline strategy leads to greater self-discipline and self-esteem among children.
Parents who use an authoritative strategy set firm and clear guidelines, consistently apply consequences, and are warm and receptive to their children’s needs.
Misconception 2: Discipline is a “one size fits all” affair
The same discipline strategy can have a very different impact on different children. Also, different types of inappropriate behavior often require different discipline interventions.
This may sound contradictory because we know that one of the factors of effective discipline is consistency. For example, consistently applying specific consequences increases the chances of developing self-discipline.
While this is true, it is also true that this consistency refers to specific behavior. For instance, if you want to stop your child’s aggressive behavior, you must set clear rules concerning this behavior and consistently apply the consequences whenever your child acts aggressively.
That said, you cannot apply the same consequences for impulsive behavior, for example, if your child interrupts you when you’re speaking.
Discipline is also a personal and a family affair. Determining what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior and choosing the best discipline strategy depends on social, historical, personal and even cultural issues. The best discipline strategy is therefore the one that takes into account both you and your child.
Several studies have shown that the success of your discipline strategy also depends on your child’s temperament. In other words, it is important to align your strategy to your child’s personality (and to your own).
Here is a free download to help you determine your child’s personality (16 types) – it also proposes tips to parent with that personality in mind.
Misconception 3: There must be consequences for all misbehavior
If there are consequences for everything that you view as “misbehavior”, your child will find it difficult to identify what really matters.
Effective discipline must revolve around your values: what really matters? What would you like to teach your child? What is non-negotiable in your view?
Being aware of your values will make it easier to be more flexible on less important issues.
Misconception 4: Discipline is about consequences
Consequences are the last phase in a long process, not the first. Consequences can only work over the long term if there has been clear communication from the outset: what do you expect from your child? Is your child aware of your expectations? How can you tell whether the expectations have been met? What are the rules and limits? What is non-negotiable?
Once all this is determined, you can decide on the consequences of inappropriate behavior.
While there are many misconceptions that influence the effectiveness of your discipline strategy, we now know that good discipline strategies share a few similar characteristics.
Here are five common characteristics of effective discipline strategies.
Five effective discipline strategies that work
1) Clearly distinguish between acceptable and inacceptable behavior
When dealing with your child’s behavior, it is important to clearly differentiate between acceptable and inacceptable behavior, between what you view as negotiable and what you view as strictly non-negotiable.
Although it can be challenging to handle opposition at age two, or your child’s tantrums at age three can drive you crazy, it is vital to understand when your child’s behavior is normal for their age and to deal with that behavior using an appropriate discipline strategy. For instance, positive reinforcement is a particularly effective strategy for young children.
2) Recognize your child’s triggers
Knowing what triggers your child’s behavior will make it easier to manage it.
If you are experiencing particularly bad behavior, start by observing your child for a week to understand the reasons underlying that behavior. Remember that issues such as hunger, fatigue, or even a lack of routine can have a huge impact on children’s behavior.
3) Build an effective discipline toolkit
The most effective discipline strategies are the ones that align with your child, your family context, and your personality.
Find out about the different positive discipline strategies available, then select the ones that are most relevant to your specific situation. Identify what you need to establish an effective discipline plan for your family.
Resources such as The Discipline Bundle provide step by step practical advice to help you adopt a positive discipline strategy at home.
4) Clearly define your expectations
If you want your child to behave appropriately, they must understand what appropriate and inappropriate behavior means.
It is easier to deal with negative behavior when you both know the behavioral expectations and the consequences of specific behavior.
Once your child is aware of your expectations, let them know the consequences of misbehavior and apply those consequences consistently.
5) Take a moment before responding to your child’s behavior
Reacting “in the heat of the moment” almost always leads to regret.
Take a step back from the situation, take a deep breath, then react to your child’s behavior when you are more in control. Never forget that love and discipline go together.