Private Lives: Discipline and knowing where to draw the line

Parenting manuals can make it sound easy, but in their new book Jan Parker and Jan Stimpson have tackled one of the toughest areas: discipline
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The Independent Culture
NO MATTER what you do, how hard you try, there may be times when your child behaves appallingly.

Managing these times so that your child's behaviour improves can be difficult and stressful, but leaving the behaviour unchallenged is worse. Only when you show where you draw the line can a child know which side of it she should be on.

To do this constructively, in ways that bring the results you both need without terrifying or crushing your child in the process, you will sometimes need to be gentle, sometimes tough, often both, and always strong enough to stand your ground.

Thinking ahead and considering your options will make it easier to deal calmly with your child's worst moments. Choosing which discipline strategies, if any, best suit your circumstances is also easier if you

know the difference between discipline and punishment.

Discipline is an investment. It teaches children what they have done wrong, the consequences of their behaviour and how they could modify it. It encourages self-discipline and motivates them to do better. It is not a soft option, but can be astonishingly effective.

Punishment involves making children suffer for misbehaviour in an attempt to control it. It aims to shame, frighten or otherwise force children into compliance without them necessarily understanding why. It therefore risks teaching children to modify their behaviour for the wrong reasons, such as the risk of being caught.

The distinction between the two is not always clear-cut and some strategies may involve an element of both, but your ability to recognise the type and likely outcome of each approach will help you decide how best to proceed.

Effective discipline


As ever, only consider those approaches that feel right for you and are appropriate to your child's age, understanding and temperament. If any strategy does not work as you hoped, or loses its effectiveness, change it.

Learning to challenge

Challenging is a key skill for turning around a child's behaviour. It takes practice. To those who have never tried it, it may sound too "reasonable" to work in the heat of the moment, but both parents and professionals vouch for its ability to stop children in their tracks and praise its effectiveness.

It works on the principle that most children will stop behaving unacceptably if they are told in no uncertain terms how it is affecting others and are given the opportunity to change course without loss of face.

Saying no and meaning it

If you mean it, really mean it, your child is much more likely to get the message. If you don't really mean it your child will pick this up in your expression and body language and either ignore you or provoke you until you do.

If you do mean "No", say it in a way that increases its effectiveness. Sometimes you may need to be sharp and stern.

To help your child know you mean business, try getting down to her level so you at least have a chance of eye contact.

Try to stay relaxed and say, calmly but firmly: "No. You are to stop that now - no more." This stops you getting drawn into negotiations and keeps you on very certain ground. Children often echo their parents' emotions; staying in control in an otherwise fiery situation may help them follow suit.

Removing the victim, not the culprit

This is especially useful in educating very young children not to hurt others. It denies the aggressor the attention that may fuel her behaviour and also makes the victim feel safer with you than being left alone.

If your child is hurting another, always explain why you do not like that behaviour and how you would like her to behave instead.


Helping children understand the natural consequences of their actions is crucial to their improving their behaviour and learning self-control. This approach can also be used when your child is displaying behaviour you need to stop. For example: Parent (firmly and calmly): "Joe, if you throw your toys someone will get hurt, and you don't want that to happen. Play without throwing, or put it down."

This is often all that is needed to help a child think through the consequences of an action - and stop. But what happens when you have told your child the natural consequences of an action and she carries on doing it? Or when you have reminded her of a family rule and she still breaks it? To make it very clear where you draw the line, you may have to impose an (artificial) consequence for crossing it. Eg:

The weapons rule

You may have a family rule that no toys are to be used as weapons to hurt or frighten other children. Whenever necessary, you remind her of it and tell her the natural consequence of breaking it (ie "You will hurt"). You may even challenge her behaviour. But two minutes later she hits her brother on the head with a drumstick. What next?

Three strikes and it's out

1. Any toy used as a weapon (ie to hurt or frighten others) is immediately removed (for an hour, for the afternoon, for the rest of the day - the older the child the longer the time can be).

2. If it happens again, it is removed again, for longer.

3. If it happens a third time, it is put in the bin.

Standing back

If you react to every misdemeanour you could spend most of your time reining in your child's behaviour, which, by the law of diminishing returns, means she will take less notice and you will become increasingly frustrated and angry.

Liberate yourself by choosing times not to react immediately. At the very least, this will allow you time to assess what you want your child to do and how important it is that they do it, or whether you can let it go. If it is behaviour that you feel you must challenge, a considered response is generally much more effective than a knee-jerk one.

`Raising Happy Children' by Jan Parker and Jan Stimpson (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 9.99)