6 discipline fallbacks… and how to fix them!

Hollering and other bad habits may seem to work—but here's what experts say about discipline that will hone your kids' behaviour over the long haul.

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Do you find yourself yelling, threatening your child with punishment and not following through, or giving her the silent treatment? For many of us, these are last-resort discipline measures we swore we’d never use. They’re tricks our parents (and their parents before) may have used to ensure we sat still in church or were “good” in front of company. The more modern approach is to help your child develop a moral compass and the emotional intelligence she needs to decide for herself what constitutes good behaviour in a variety of different situations, and without you hovering over her (or yelling reminders).

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If you don’t love your go-to discipline strategy and are looking to tweak it, help is at hand from three of Canada’s top parenting experts: Jennifer Kolari, author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kids; Kathy Lynn, a speaker and author who gives parenting workshops across the country; and Karyn Gordon, author of Dr. Karyn’s Guide to the Teen Years.

If you’re a…yeller
“Put those dishes away now!” Yelling may startle your kids into attention, but “it isn’t teaching anything we want to have taught,” Lynn notes. If kids perceive that you communicate primarily through yelling, they’re more likely to use yelling as their primary form of communication. Moreover, Kolari adds, “If you yell all the time, you’re either terrifying to your child or you’re hilarious. It starts to just not have any impact.”

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Tweak your technique: Instead of shouting to your kids from another room, Lynn suggests, “walk up to them, get their attention and speak to them face to face.” And head off high-volume conflicts by laying out your expectations during a calm, quiet time: “I expect you to play quietly inside. If you can’t, you’ll have to play outside.” And if kids break the rules? Stress that they’ve chosen the consequence you laid out, and be sure to follow through with it. (This spares you issuing 15 separate “Quiet down!” requests.)

If you’re a…empty-threat issuer
You’ve asked. Begged. You’ve sternly warned your child not to leap from couch to couch while watching Arthur. Next thing you know, you’re saying, “That’s it–no more TV for the rest of the month.” And you’re confident it’ll work, because your little monkey always uses his A+ behaviour in desperate hopes you won’t really take that TV away. Yet you already know you’ll give in long before the month is through. Over the long term, that’ll cause trouble, says Gordon. “If a parent doesn’t follow through, kids learn not to trust their parents. It’s a problem because trust is the foundation of all healthy relationships.”

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Tweak your technique: Instead of giving in to the empty-threat reflex, give yourself a time out. Point out that your child has broken house rules, but explain that you’re angry, so you are not going to discipline him right now. “Say, ‘I’m going to think about it, and why don’t you do that, too – then we’ll check back,’” Kolari suggests. “Then you’re more likely to deliver a more reasonable consequence that you can follow through with.”

If you’re a…naughty-mat addict
Whether it’s an actual mat, a chair or a corner somewhere in your house, using a “naughty spot” can have mixed results. Sometimes it works. Sometimes your child is just sitting and plotting how not to get caught next time. Or it may seem to work because your child has been shamed into good behaviour. For your child, “the naughty spot is like serving a sentence: You’ve been found guilty and you’re going to jail,” says Lynn. In addition, putting your child in a naughty spot can evolve into power struggles between the two of you, with you focusing more on making sure she’s staying put than the lesson you hope she’ll learn.

Tweak your technique: Rebrand it as the “thinking spot,” Kolari suggests. “You don’t have to give the ‘why did you do that’ speech. You just have to say, ‘every time you do that, you’re going to sit and think.’” That’ll pause your child’s unwanted behaviour and give her a chance to settle down. She doesn’t have to be banished to another room; if you prefer, the spot could be on your lap or next to you.

If you’re a…spanker
A swat on the bottom shows your child who’s boss: He’s scared straight thinking if he messes up, he’ll get hit again. That’s why spanking seems to work, but also why experts disapprove of the practice. Spanking sends a confusing message: “It’s not OK for you to hit your brother, so I’m going to hit you.” Gordon says, “A lot of parents do it because they don’t know what else to do.”

Tweak your technique: Instead of getting physical, focus on the basics. Issue expectations first: “Here’s what you’re to do.” Set logical consequences if the expectations aren’t met and explain them to your child: “If you don’t do it, you’re choosing to end the play date.” Taking a parenting course could help you review your discipline strategy; ask your child’s health-care provider for information about courses in your area, or do a Google search. Many provinces and municipalities offer parenting education resources, including the Manitoba Positive Parenting Program and Saskatchewan’s free Healthy Parenting Home Study Program.

If you…give the silent treatment
You’ve asked your kids several times to stop fighting in the back seat. You explode: “I can’t take it anymore!”– then go silent, not talking to your children at all. While the sudden stoppage of communication may cease the bickering, the silent treatment makes kids uncomfortable. They want you to talk to them again, so they whip their behaviour into shape, stat. This course of discipline seems to work, but you might not want to get into the habit. Lynn suggests asking yourself why you’re doing it. If you need to take a break and don’t want to yell, silence is OK. If you’re angry and are shutting out your child to “get back” at him, Lynn says you need to find a different approach.

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Tweak your technique: If you need to pause and regroup, be sure you explain this to your kid first: You’re not going to talk for a while because you need to calm down. If you tend to use silence to point out that your child isn’t following a necessary rule, such as putting on his seat belt, Lynn suggests the “book trick.” Stash a novel in your purse for those times you ask your child to buckle his seat belt, and he refuses. Instead of getting into a scene, pull out your book and read. “Now, you may not read a word because you’re so upset, but the message is, ‘I’ve got a book to read, so when you’re ready to put that seat belt on, we can go again,’” Lynn says.

If you’re a…discipline-avoider
Sometimes stepping back – for example, when your kids are fighting over a toy–is a good discipline move because it pushes children to solve the situation on their own. However, Kolari says, “Sometimes we get into parental numbness; we’ve yelled and it doesn’t work, and we’re sitting there ignoring the issue. It’s damaging because it shows your kids there’s no structure or anyone actually doing anything.” Not to mention, it doesn’t actually discourage unwanted behaviour, such as whining. (How many whiny adults do you know?)

Tweak your technique: During the day, use a one-to-10 scale to measure your patience level with your children (one being extremely patient, 10 meaning you’re about to lose it). Check it regularly, and when it starts climbing, take a mini break to get yourself back together.

Through it all, keep in mind that no one is the perfect parent, and no one chooses the best discipline technique every time. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” says Kolari. “A little adversity for your child is a good thing.”

A version of this article appeared in our April 2012 issue with the headline “Fix your discipline fallbacks,” p. 89.

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