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My top three discipline tips

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  June 27, 2012 03:40 PM

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Discipline is one of the hardest parts of parenthood. It may even be the hardest (it's definitely up there with cleaning up vomit--or being covered by it). 

It's not easy to teach children to behave well and be good people. It takes incredible perseverance and patience, and both can be really hard to come by when you are frustrated or exhausted or furious or terrified--or some combination of all four.

But doing discipline right matters; it has so much to do with how our kids turn out. If we do it right, there's a better chance that our kids will turn out well-adjusted and well-behaved. If we do it badly, both are less likely. If we end up hitting them, as many parents end up doing, a study just released says that they are more likely to end up with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

No pressure, huh?

In the more than 20 years I've been a mom and a doctor I've gotten and given lots of advice about discipline. Of all of that advice, there are three pieces that I've found most useful and use consistently with my own children.

1. Understand where your child is developmentally. A 10-month-old isn't trying to hurt you when he bites--he's expressing frustration or, maybe, soothing teething pain. A preschooler is showing normal curious behavior when she climbs up on your dresser and breaks your favorite necklace trying it on. A thirteen-year-old is expressing a normal need for independence when he refuses to wear the clothes you bought him. I'm not saying that you should let these behaviors go by. But how you react to anything your child does should take into account what is going on in his life, and what he is capable of understanding and doing.

2. Be consistent. Kids are smart. If it's fun to wrestle your little brother, and sometimes Mom lets you do it and sometimes she says to stop, well, it's worth a shot to try wrestling. This is one of the hardest parts of discipline, I think--sometimes kids wear us down, or we are just so tired, that we let them do things that we don't really want them to do and would normally stop them from doing. For kids this mixed messaging is confusing--and an opportunity. So you've got to be consistent. No means no. If something is against the rules, it's always against the rules.

To make this work, as our pediatrician pointed out to us when my eldest was a toddler, you have to pick your battles. Decide what things really matter to you (safety and not hurting people are high on my list, cleanliness lower). It's also really important that all caregivers are on the same page; talk with all of them and make a plan together. It may be an awkward or even difficult conversation, but trust me, you'll be glad you had it.

3. Try the "consequences" approach. I learned this from my best friend. Her then 3-year-old was about to do something suboptimal, can't remember what, and Lisa looked at her sternly and said, "Consequences." Emma stopped.

The thing is, it's not always easy to decide a punishment (or one to threaten with) in the moment. It's really easy to overdo it or underdo it when you are upset or don't know the whole story. And when the punishment doesn't fit the crime it doesn't work out well in the short or long term. Saying that there will be a consequence lets your child know that what they are doing (or about to do) isn't okay--and gives you some time to choose the punishment that makes sense. Which is often easier to do when you've had a chance to calm down (and hear both sides of the story). You also have the option of including the child in choosing the appropriate consequence.

Over the years, I've found it really effective with my children. It's also great for in-public reprimands. "There will be consequences" or just "Consequences" gets the message across really well (as long as you are consistent about following through--see #2) without embarrassing you or your kids. 

I probably should have called this blog "my top four discipline tips" because there is one more thing I always say to parents: don't be afraid to ask for help. I meant it when I said discipline is one of the hardest parts of parenthood, and none of us should have to do anything that hard alone. And with some kids and some situations, we simply can't do it alone. Whether it's advice from a friend or professional help, discipline often works much better if it's a team effort. 

In that spirit, I'd love to hear from all of you: when it comes to discipline, what has worked for you?


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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