Getting a child to behave can feel like a Herculean task. That’s because kids have the souls of scientists. All they want to do is push against the walls of their world to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not; what they’re capable of and what they aren’t. This can be confounding to parents who sometimes feel like they have to continually up the ante in order to get their kid to mind them, and this panic can lead to a slew of mistakes. Keeping the following mistakes in mind, however, can help parents build a discipline system that’s calm, consistent, and provides a kid with boundaries that guide them for their entire life.
1. Getting Mad
At its core, discipline requires communication, and nothing shuts down communication faster that anger. Parents know this to be true in their adult lives. A yelling match with a spouse rarely resolves conflict and a pissed-off boss rarely makes it easy to consider their point of view. It’s no different with children.
Going in to discipline angry removes a parent’s ability for perspective-taking. A parent who can’t see things from their child’s point of view can’t help their kid understand where they went wrong. They can’t help them think of solutions.
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From a child’s point of view, an angry parent floods them with stress. They may comply to make the anger go away, but they certainly aren’t able to listen and learn. Which means their behavior is unlikely to change in the long run.
Finally, anger makes it easy for a parent to step over the line into abuse. When a parent doesn’t have control over their faculties, they lean into their power and become bullies. Because kids learn efficiently from watching adults, an angry parent has good odds of raising an angry kid.
It’s far better to step back and enter discipline calmly. Sometimes, a few breaths is all it takes. And when parents are calm, kids can be calm and a conversation can happen. That leads to much better outcomes than a red-faced tirade.
2. Being Unclear about Standards or Values
Discipline is a system in which parents are passing down their values to their children. Because of that, it has to be based on values like honesty, or fairness, or it becomes unmoored and wishy-washy.
Do those values have to be Judeo-Christian and based in some sort of faith? Nope. But they do need to be based on the good of the family. And it’s even better when they are values which are championed by everyone in the family for the good of everyone else.
When these values are clear and codified they can be used to set clear and well-defined boundaries. Those boundaries give a child direction. Enforcing those boundaries and knowing the reasons they are enforced helps a kid internalize the values and act in accordance to them even when they are away from their parents.
Children crave routine and consistency in the family. After all, everything else in their lives is incredibly dynamic and changeable, based simply on the fact that they are growing, changing, and finding their place in the world.
When discipline at home is applied inconsistently, kids feel the instability. If discipline is applied inconsistently and harshly, it can cause them to feel as if their safety is being challenged. This kind of discipline is the hallmark of a style of parenting called “authoritarian.” Children of authoritarian parents often feel depressed, suffer low self-esteem, and are willing comply with whoever has the power, be it the parent in the moment, or the popular friend applying peer pressure.
4. Ignoring Bad Behavior
Some parents may be tempted to let certain bad behavior continue, hoping that a child will “get it out of their system.” Unfortunately, that’s not the way humans work. It turns out that bad behavior simply leads to more bad behavior.
The impetus for ignoring bad behavior comes in part from the idea of catharsis — that emotions and cravings can be exhausted to the point where they are no longer viable. Freud, for one, loved this idea. The problem is that a child doesn’t have some finite pool of curse words in their head that they will eventually run out of and replace with nice, clean words. In fact, if a parent lets them say the bad words, it’s like allowing them to practice a skill. They’ll be sailors before anyone knows it.
The better way is to address behavior right away. Stop them in the moment and offer a replacement behavior that is better. Then, allow a kid to practice the replacement behavior. One that doesn’t include the word poop. Hopefully.
5. Using Empty Threats
Threats are not a form of discipline. They don’t offer any kind of insight into why a behavior is bad. They do not give a kid a better way of doing things, and they aren’t generally connected to values.
More often they are used as a way to punish a child, or keep them frightened in order to get a change of behavior. And an empty threat may result in a change of behavior for the time being, but it certainly doesn’t hold. Because after a while a kid will get wise and understand that threats are scary, but they rarely come to pass, and that makes threats immediately ineffective.
It’s worse when the threats challenge the foundational relationship between a parent and child. Threats to stop loving a child, or threats that they will lose their home or safety, are deeply damaging. Research has shown that such threats lead to stress, depression, worse behavior, and bullying.