The Biggest Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Discipline

Myths, half-truths, and urban legends run amok: Here what really works when it comes to raising well-behaved kids.

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For every person who has a child, there’s an opinion about how kids should be raised. Be firm. Go easy. Set boundaries. Loosen up. And while there is certainly more than one way to discipline, some less-than-effective methods seem to capture public imagination and become go-to strategies, despite most experts advising otherwise. Are your discipline tactics taking you down the wrong path? Check out these five popular theories that just don’t work (and learn what actually does).

Lie #1: Punishment Prevents Spoiled Kids

It’s natural to think kids are spoiled because they have parents who give them whatever they want. But it’s a mistake to equate discipline with punishment, says parenting specialist Bonnie Harris, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. You don’t need to send a misbehaving child to her room in order to reinforce house rules. “Discipline comes from the word for teaching,” says Harris. “Use a child’s inappropriate actions as an opportunity to discuss alternative behaviors in this situation, so she has the tools to do better next time.”

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Lie #2: No Pain, No Gain

Let’s start by clarifying that spanking a child is never the best solution, and does not yield the long-term changes in behavior that you seek. Painful punishment can take a psychological form as well, and is just as detrimental to your child’s development. Berating a child, sending them to their room, or removing a favorite toy highlights the negative without teaching him ways to do better next time. “If I take something away from a child and make them unhappy, how does that help them grow?” asks Harris. Without a two-way discussion over what they might do to improve next time, there’s no reason to expect a different outcome. “The idea that making someone feel bad will make them do better is flawed,” says Harris.

Lie #3: They’re Trying To Be Bad

When your child does something you don’t like, you can be sure she’s doing it because it seems like a good idea to them, not because they want to be a bad person. In the heat of the moment that can be hard to see, but the most effective way to parent is to resist criticizing the child, and focus on the behavior. “It’s a common mistake for parents to think, if I tell her she’s bad and punish her enough, she’ll want to be better,” says Harris. But actually, what you are telling your child is that they aren’t liked or wanted, and that they’re not good enough — emotional scars that can last far into the future.

Lie #4: Establishing Authority Is Crucial

What you really want to do is establish a healthy respect between you and your child. Children who respect their parents are more likely to do as they are asked the first time, because they have learned through experience that there is usually a good reason for the request. “Authority is saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because you have the power to do so,” says Harris. “That doesn’t make a child respect you, it just means you have more power. Respect comes from explaining your decisions to a child, and involving them in the process of understanding why an idea is good or bad.”

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Lie #5: Compromise Is a Dirty Word

Somewhere along the way, the concept of negotiating with a distraught child got a bad rap — as in, discussing her tantrum-laden demands is akin to caving in. Actually, it’s teaching your child life skills. “You want to raise a child who knows how to compromise,” says Harris. How it works: You ask your child to empty the dishwasher. A few hours later, they haven’t done it. Now, they want you to drive them to a friend’s house to play. “That’s your opportunity to say, ‘I remember asking you to do something for me; now you’re asking me to do something for you,’” says Harris. “Tell them, ‘Something doesn’t feel right — can you think of a way to fix it?’” These conversations teach your child that the world is full of give and take. No punishment can have that effect.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, punishment, and behavior.

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