This is the fifth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.
By Joan Grusec, PhD (Professor Emerita of Psychology, University of Toronto)
Discipline has a significant role to play in what is arguably the world’s most important job—raising children to be moral and responsible members of society. And, not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of advice about how to do it. Type “disciplining children” into a search engine and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results. If you want a book about parenting and discipline there are thousands to choose from.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of contradictory advice to choose from—
be strict but not too strict,
comply with your child’s wishes but don’t give in to them too much.
Be a tiger mom, a dolphin mom, a jellyfish mom….
So, what does a substantial body of psychological research, spanning more than 70 years, tell us about the best way to teach moral values to children?
Children learn values, both good and bad, from observing other people including their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and television characters. They learn values, both good and bad, from talking about those values with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. When children fail to behave well, however, parents have to turn to discipline.
Check out the seven tips below:
For discipline to work, children have to be clear about what the rules for good behavior are and they have to be willing to go along with or accept those rules.
How should parents make rules clear?
Be consistent—it’s confusing when what was OK yesterday isn’t OK today.
Provide reasons for good behavior that make sense and that the child can understand. Most 4-year-olds won’t comprehend discussions of property rights but they do understand that it feels bad to have your possessions taken without your permission.
Have your child’s full attention. Too much anger and upset (on the part of both parent and child) is not conducive to calm discussion. Wait until tempers have cooled before talking about rules and the reasons for them.
Make sure you don’t end up implicitly condoning unacceptable behavior. For example, in addition to its direct effect on children’s learning of values, discipline provides a model of how to resolve conflict. When your discipline involves calm discussion, exchange of points of view, and explanation, as well as negotiation and compromise if appropriate, you provide a good model for conflict resolution. Discipline that involves yelling, hitting, insulting, or unreasonable requests sends the message that verbal and physical aggression, along with an unwillingness to take into account the other person’s perspective, are acceptable ways to behave.
How should you get your children to accept the rules?
Let them experience appropriate negative consequences but don’t threaten their feelings of autonomy — no one likes to be forced into behaving in a particular way. Autonomy is supported when you:
allow choice where reasonable (for example, “you have to eat vegetables but would you prefer spinach or green beans”),
provide good reasons for required behavior,
try to understand your child’s perspective, and
don’t apply more negative consequences than are necessary to promote good behavior.
Be accepting and caring so that your child wants to please you.
Encourage your child to feel empathy by talking about the effects of their actions on others.
Joan Grusec, PhD, is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. Her research interests throughout her career have focused on discipline and the development of children’s prosocial behavior. She is the author or editor of several books related to the socialization of children, as well as more than 100 book chapters and research publications.
Image source: Flickr user Bethany Petrik via Creative Commons