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How can I discipline my children effectively?

10 March 2024

This is a difficult topic to write, and one filled with differing views. The most commonly asked question is, is it ok to hit my child?

Every parent has a different situation, and for myself and my wife, we made the decision not to hit our children. The consequence is that we have never hit our kids, although sometimes they wind you up so much that you want to. We both grew up in supportive households where physical punishment was used. Do we regret it, no. Our parents did the best they could. Has it helped shape us adults? I believe it has, and possibly in a positive way. Both myself and my wife are very resilient.

Discipline is not a great word when used in the third party. Self-discipline is a much better phrase. Ideally, nobody should ever need to be disciplined, as they build the required self-discipline to prevent poor behaviour patterns. For this reason, I won’t refer to the word “discipline” again in this article.

Not hitting our kids has been hard. Sometimes you just want to teach them a quick lesson, so they learn not to do the same behaviour. Children will learn a response to pain, and their behaviour will certainly improve, as we know from our own experience as children. However, doing this also builds fear. Let’s look at some strategies that would support educating kids rather than using physical or harsh punishments:

1.     Set clear expectations and rules

Children do respond well to rules. Being very clear about what they can and cannot do before the behaviour occurs is very helpful. For example, in the morning if you want your children to get dressed for school, leave their school uniform out and give them clear instructions that when they get out of bed, to put their school clothes on. This is much more effective than shouting at them because they didn’t put their school uniform on. Being clear before the event is very good for both parents and children, and sets clear expectations.

2.     Stop feeding sugar

We noticed that the kids would often play up after parties or after being at a grandparent’s house. We realised our wonderful grandparents were giving them biscuits and chocolate, which is fine for a treat, then the kids would come home and all hell would break loose. We never gave them squash, and most of the time gave them water or coconut water. We avoided sweets unless in an exceptional circumstance, and still won’t buy them sweets (they’ve learned to save them from parties now, delaying gratification for a future date). We’ve definitely found reducing sugar improves behaviour.

3.     Time Outs

This has been the most effective way to change poor behaviour once the event has occurred. With two children, aged 6 and 8, they used to regularly be given time outs (once to twice per week). This is how it works. One or other child has behaved badly. Both children are given a time out together. We did this because most of the time bad behaviour resulted from both of them arguing or bickering, but we also wanted to build a strong bond between the kids. They had to sit down for five minutes, and were not allowed to speak for the five minutes. They had to sit next to each other during the full five minutes. If they spoke or got up from sitting, they’d be given another five minutes. After about 25 time outs, they actually figured out that arguing with each other was not the best way to resolve differences, and they have not had a time out for over six months now. They get on much better than they ever used to, and have learned to work it out between them. They also have a strong bond. Life in our household is so much better without the bickering.

4.     Model

Kids will follow you. If you hit one of them, there’s a risk they will become hitters too. If you shout at them, they’ll shout at other children. However you are, they’ll copy. I have to remind myself to “calm my chimp” (referring to a great book, The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters). I must calm down, try not to react, and to be rational. It is hard when they are winding you up something chronic. However, I tell myself, calm my chimp. This really helps. I’ve still sometimes shouted too loud when they were younger. I didn’t have the experience of using time outs or modelling that I developed later.

5.     Educate

We took the slow route of using education, talking, and trying to explain the difference between right and wrong. Asking them questions like “do you think it’s good table manners to repeatedly stab your mash potato with a fork?” and “are you going to get a cloth and clear up that mess you made on the floor?”. We talk to our children saying phrases like “How would you feel if that was done to you?”, and “do you feel you made a good decision when you pushed your sister off the sofa?”. Effective communication and education can be a strong preventative factor for future episodes. Taking your child out of the situation to another room can also help, so they know it’s more serious. I will take my kids upstairs and have a one-to-one discussion with them, even though they often protest.

Children will always push your buttons, test your patience, and play-up. This is completely normal. Focus on teaching your kids what is right and wrong. Don’t let them get away with bad behaviour that would cause them to become unsociable. Be firm when needed, but rational. And seek support if you are struggling, schools are the best places to start. Speak to a teacher and ask for support about what to do, teachers have significantly more experience and will most likely be supportive and helpful. 

Photo by Monstera Production

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