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What Does it Mean to Discipline Children, and How do I do it! Part 1.

Parenting Journey

Written by Amy Brinn, LICSW
Clinical Director, Parenting Journey

Parents guide the problem solving process by providing children with clearly defined limits, acceptable choices within clearly defined boundaries and instructive consequences that hold them accountable for their actions”  

– Robert Mackenzie EDD

Parenting is a really tough job. For the most part no one prepares us for it or teaches us how to do it! One of the hard parts about teaching parenting concepts is that all families are different, and the approaches to handling parenting issues that come up are influenced by the temperament of the parent or caregiver; the child’s unique personality; the culture the family lives in today; the culture the parent or caregiver grew up in; and much more.

One thing that all parents and caregivers have in common is that they are responsible for teaching their children appropriate and safe behavior.

The word discipline comes from the Greek word for “to teach.” When we talk about discipline we are really talking about teaching, as opposed to punishment. Just as we aren’t born knowing how to be parents, children aren’t born knowing how to behave appropriately, we teach them. The way that we teach them is through a concept call limit setting.

In limit setting it is really important for actions to match words. If parents say “you can’t have ice cream this afternoon”, and afterward children plead and cajole, and we then say yes, the child will learn that no does not mean no. If you ask them to do a task, putting away toys, putting out the garbage and they say, “I will”, but never do it, and you lecture and nag and then do it yourself, they will learn that they don’t really have to do the task.

The idea with limit setting is to use firm limits, and have your actions match your words. Sometimes children will be very compliant. When you ask them to put away their toys, or put out the garbage they will do it, but once parents start with reminders and lectures a pattern develops where it ends up being the parents responsibility as opposed to the child’s responsibility to get things done.

If there is one word that is most important in limit setting it is consistency. It is important that limits are set consistently, consequences are meted out consistently, and that both parents or partners are consistent in the same way.

Children are going to test rules. That is their job. It is the way they discover the boundaries of acceptable behavior and whether there are limits in place to keep them safe. They start testing at the age of two and keep on going right through their teens.

We don’t need to punish children for testing, and we need to always treat them with respect, but we need to answer them with very clearly stated rules and consequences if they don’t follow the rules. The consequences are not the same as punishment; they are ways to teach children acceptable behavior. The idea is that all through life there are consequences for behavior and in our home children can learn that in a safe, respectful loving environment.

Parents can have a tendency to want to be their children’s friend and to want their children always to “like them”. Children don’t need their parents to be their friends. They need their parents to be their parents. Friendship will happen too, but only when there are really clear limits of behavior established. Parents need to be in control. Children will test about that control but ultimately they too want to know their parents are in control, and feel unsafe when that does not seem to be the case.

At the same time that children need firm limits, as they grow they also need to be given more control, freedom, and responsibility. In essence it is a balancing act. When they are two it is all about limit setting, as they get older it becomes about teaching them their own problem solving skills, and giving them a chance to take on responsibility and have accountability for their behavior.