What is in Your Discipline Toolbox?

By Jody McVittie, MD

childMost of us have days when discipline "works" - when we show up as the adult that we want to be while still setting appropriate limits.  There are other days though (when we are stressed), when we can hear our own parents' or teachers' voices (when they were stressed) coming out of our mouths. That is when we wonder, "What is it with this child?" or hear those internal voices criticizing our own ability to parent, teach or even be a reasonable human being.  Those are not the "grown-up moments" that we look forward to. And we all have them.

We also have a pretty good idea about what gets us in these situations.  It is that feeling of being "trapped" or having our "buttons" pushed; of not having any good options. It is as if, in the stress of the moment, we open our discipline "toolbox" and the only tools in there are the ones someone else used when they were desperate: the ones we never liked as kids and swore we would never use.

Before "re-stocking" the toolbox, it is helpful to think about what children need to thrive.  Children need a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (meaning) in their world.  They need an opportunity to explore, take risks and mess things up (freedom) as well as clear limits (order).

The good news is that there are lots of simple, respectful (to both the child and adult) tools that are effective in the long term.  By using kindness and firmness at the same time we can discipline (teach) young people the life skills they need without being either permissive or punitive. We build long term relationships. By filling the "toolbox" with more resources you will find that those "old" tools gradually rust at the bottom of the box.  Here are some tools that come from discipline principles that work:

Children need a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (meaning). Creating opportunities to connect and contribute will limit misbehavior.

  • Try to remember that problem you see ("attention getting" "rebellion" "disrespect")is the child's solution to another problem. The purpose of misbehavior is to connect or regain dignity (a sense of worth) not to bug you.
  • Support them in finding socially useful ways to get the belonging or significance they seek. ("Would you be willing to help me ____?" "I want to be able to listen to you, but I can't right now. I will come to you in 3 minutes. You can set the timer.")
  • Ask don't tell. Ask curiosity questions ("what" and "how" questions) to learn about how the child saw the situation.
  • Get to know the child. You can do this by spending "special time" with them.  When the child has a sense that you care about who she is, more than what she does her behavior will change.

Maintain dignity and respect for yourself and for the situation and child. 

  • Take your time. Unless safety is an immediate issue, there is no rush to solve problems. We all have more resources to learn from our mistakes when we are feeling a little better.
  • Stay calm! (If you aren't calm, get calm before you address the issue even if it means saying "I'm too upset to solve this right now. We all need to go cool off.")
  • Focus on what to do instead of what not to do. ("People are for hugging, not hitting." "You can have a cookie after dinner.")

Children learn by watching.

  • Model solutions. Use the "problems" as opportunities to teach (and model) problem solving. Aim toward solutions not "consequences." The difference is that a solution is always helpful.

Life has ups and downs. Children learn resilience by practicing.

  • Don't rescue children from feeling sad, angry, hurt (instead use empathy) but don't add those feelings from the outside by yelling, shaming, inviting the child to feel guilty, or punishing. Respectfully setting appropriate limits has bigger benefits than immediate happiness.

Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Yours and theirs.

  • Fix your mistakes. When you make mistakes, come back later and apologize (without excuses).
  • Connect before correct. When they make a mistake, connect first (listen, notice the child's feeling) then correct.

Enjoy the child!

  • Focus on strengths. Practice noticing who the child IS (strengths) instead of who she or he isn't.

A word of caution. Refill your toolbox slowly.  It might be that you choose to make a special effort to connect with or listen to this child today.  Or perhaps for one week you'll practice staying calm.  Gradually, with practice you won't be reaching for those "old" discipline tools nearly as often. You'll understand that it is possible to discipline (teach) our children with kindness and firmness without being either permissive or punitive: from the heart instead of the hip.

Photo credits:Morgan Childers; Natesh Ramasamy;

Posted on June 2, 2012 by Jody McVittie, MD

Jody McVittie has been working with families since she got frustrated with her own family at the ripe age of 3.  Needless to say her skills have improved a little since then.  She is now a much in demand speaker to help families and schools deal with the kind of know-it-all demanding 3 (and 13) year-olds she once was. She is the executive director of Sound Discipline, a 501 c 3 non-profit dedicated breaking the cycle of family violence by teaching people to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

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