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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

father talking to young son

How to Practice Positive Discipline

Nobody ever said being a parent was easy. Kids can behave in ways that drive us nuts – after raising my three I know this for sure!

The word discipline comes from the Latin for “teacher.” Let’s look at the basics of teaching a child how to behave well.

Be clear about the rules and consequences, and follow through. Structure gives kids a feeling of security that encourages them to do well. Kids usually behave if you follow 3 steps to let them know:

  1. How they’re expected to behave.
  2. What will happen if they don’t.
  3. That you’ll always follow through. The follow through can be hard! If they know ahead of time what’s expected, then you should follow through without more warnings or discussion.

Logical or “natural” consequences allow your child to experience the downside of their behavior and teaches them that they’re accountable for their choices.

Remember, consequences don’t work unless parents enforce them. Children will test to see if you’re serious or not. If you don’t follow through on what you said would happen (e.g., take the toys away, or leave the store), your child learns you don’t mean what you say.

Get all the grown-ups on the same page. Kids will always test their limits – and yours. If one parent or caregiver responds differently than the other it’s confusing.

Here are some ideas for you and your partner:

  • Understand and agree on a common set of rules and consequences for not following them. Kids need to know what’s expected of them – and it’s confusing if the expectations change from day to day or person to person.
  • Be sure you stick to the limits you set. Otherwise, they’ll get the message you’re not serious, or the rule isn’t important.
  • Discuss changing the rules or making exceptions together without the kids around.
  • Talk when you can’t be overheard if you disagree with each other’s parenting. When the child is present, parents should have each other’s backs and act as a unified team.

Kids do best with routines! Routines make them feel safe and help them learn how to behave. With young children, it helps to talk through the routine in advance:

  • Give a preview of what’s happening next. You might prepare for bath time by saying, “We can play until the timer goes off; then you’ll need to take your bath.”
  • Remind them. “In 5 minutes, the timer will go off and it’ll be time to take a bath. Please start cleaning up.”
  • Follow through. When the timer goes off say, “It’s bath time now.” This strategy helps avoid delays and negotiations. If you hear “5 more minutes? please?” don’t give in!
  • Reward cooperative behavior. Remind them of the next enjoyable event that’s coming up. “After you take your bath, we can snuggle and read stories.”
  • Prepare your child for changes in the routine. “Tomorrow after we get up we’re going to the doctor and she’ll look in your ears. After that we’ll get groceries on our way home.”

Plan ahead. For situations you know are stressful for your child, think about ways in advance to help them behave well. This helps you avoid meltdowns by being prepared:

  • Carry crayons, a deck of cards, a book, or silly putty to entertain your child during a long wait or boring errand.
  • Have them be well-rested by sticking to a consistent, age-appropriate bedtime.
  • Provide regular nutritious meals and snacks.
  • Avoid overscheduling when possible. Time pressure and being on the go can create stress that impacts everyone.

Save “No” for when you really need it. When we say “No” too often, kids tune us out. If you’re saying, “Stop doing that,” or “No, don’t touch that,” all day, it might be time to step back.

  • Think about what the most critical rules are, though parents shouldn’t compromise on safety. If your child is reaching for a hot pot on the stove, say “NO” and mean it.
  • Don’t compromise on “deal-breaker” rules. These might include no screaming inside and no hitting.
  • Remember it’s okay to ignore behavior that’s annoying, but not dangerous. Ignoring that kind of behavior can help it go away!

Don’t offer a choice if there isn’t one. Asking “Do you want to take your bath now?” opens the door for your child to say “no” or to negotiate. Similarly, saying “okay?” after you give a direction sends the message that the child gets to decide whether to cooperate.

Do offer choices whenever you can. Having choices helps children feel more in control and can turn a potential power struggle into cooperation. This works best when:

  • You give 2 acceptable choices. “Do you want an apple or a banana with lunch?” instead of “Do you want fruit with your lunch?”
  • Your child understands that you’ll choose for them, if they don’t choose for themselves.

Use time-out. Learning to do time-out well can help both you and your child. And it can prevent you from resorting to harsher forms of discipline!

Positivity works! Tell your children what you do want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do:

  • “Please hold my hand and walk,” instead of “Don’t run.”
  • “Use your inside voice,” instead of “Stop yelling.” Safety issues are an exception. Put a stop to unsafe behavior immediately: “Stop running!” or “We do not hit.”

Whenever possible, stick to positive feedback and positive attention. Doing so often decreases negative behavior! Here’s how:

  • Spend daily fun, relaxed time together one-on-one with each child.
  • Try to find 10 positive things to say for every negative thing you have to say to them throughout the day.
  • Let your child know you love them.
  • Hug, kiss, hold hands, snuggle – positive touch goes a long way.

Disclaimer: If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following: (1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder. This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.