Lesson 6 of 7 - Learn how to parent effectively


Guidelines for Effective
Child Discipline

Six Long-term Goals

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/discipline.htm

Updated 04-02-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This brief YouTube video previews some of what you'll read in this article: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've simplified that to seven.

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 6 - learn what typical kids need as they grow, and how to fill their needs effectively over two decades without neglecting yourself. The range and scope of common social problems  suggests that parents are failing at this.

      This article describes a framework for effective child discipline in any type of family. The framework includes...

  • six long-tem goals of child discipline,

  • a definition of effective child discipline; and...

  • guidelines for effective discipline.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5,  and at least part of Lesson 6  

  • minor kids' normal developmental tasks,

  • why most parents are failing, and...

  • how to communicate effectively with kids and teens.

  • Optional - research on harmful parental spanking


   What is "Child Discipline"?

      The English word "discipline" comes from disciple, which meant learner to ancient Latin-speakers. In a family context, child discipline is a process which generally aims to (a) promote household and family order and harmony, and to (b) teach young people how to conduct themselves in society when they live on their own.

      The child-discipline process is composed of...

  • A set of (a) adult values and (b) related behavioral rules (shoulds, ought to's, have to's, and musts), and...

  • stated or implied consequences for minor children; 

  • which may be enforced or not;

  • respectfully or not; by one or more caregivers. 

       Each factor can promote family harmony or stress. To understand effective discipline, consider these... 

   Six Child-discipline Goals

       I've met many harried caregivers who couldn't clearly describe why they "did" child discipline. Answer this out loud: "Why do parents discipline their kids?" Then compare your answer to these goals...

to teach each minor child that their actions have consequences which they're responsible for and can control;

to help maintain order, harmony, and security in the home and family;

to enhance the self and mutual respect of children and parents;

to protect the inexperienced child, property, and other people from harm;

to model how parents lovingly guide, protect, and care for minor children, and... 

to show the child (vs. tell) that healthy people have limits to what they'll tolerate (boundaries) and what happens when these limits are exceeded (consequences).

       Would you change this list? Notice that these factors aim at long-term child development, not just on correcting a current attitude or behavioral problem. Did the adults who raised you have a steady long-term goals to guide their actions? 

      How would each caregiving adult in your family rank these six goals in importance? Would your child/ren be surprised at any of these ideas? Notice that the bold words above have a positive flavor, vs. possible child discipline goals like "... to punish my child..." or "...to make my child..."  

      Now let's use these goals to define...

   What Is Effective Child Discipline?

       Often, busy or distracted parents don't clarify their own values and goals for setting behavioral limits and consequences with their kids - specially if their own parents weren't clear on those. So many co-parents settle for just "Maintain order in our home."

      They may get this objective, but at the high cost of their kids' self-esteem, disrespect, and/or family conflict. The wry title of David Campbell's book paraphrases your child-discipline possibilities: "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else."

       How do you know if the child discipline in your family is "working well?" The answer varies by national, local, and family cultures, and adults' personalities. Your answer depends on your definition of the aims of discipline. If you accept the six goals above, then effective child discipline is "When we meet these goals enough of the time." Another definition: "When each affected family member consistently feels their main primary needs are filled well enough."

      Option: reflect, and say your definition of "effective child discipline" out loud now. Then keep it in mind as you read...

      Option: use the following checklist to note your family's child-discipline strengths and things to improve. See how the following compares with what your family adults believe...

 General Child-discipline Guidelines 

      I propose that the following points apply to any family with minor children.

      1)  Adults usually guided by their true Selves are most likely to provide consistently-effective child discipline. Co-parents unaware of inherited significant psychological wounds risk providing ineffective or harmful child guidance. See Lesson 1.

      2)  Caregivers who are clear and consistent on...

  • their commitment to their responsibilities as a parent,

  • what their specific long-range parenting goals are, and...

  • how they want to achieve these goals...

...are more likely to provide effective discipline for kids in their care. These three factors promote parenting by objective, rather than by goal-less daily "fire-fighting." 

      3)  Caregivers who view kids' "disobedience," "defiance," and "rebellion" as wrong and bad would do better to recognize that often, those attitudes are normal instinctive testing. Kids need to reassure themselves that they're not more powerful than their adults, that the adults are in reliably charge, and that they are safe. As kids become teens, they test to gain experience in and confidence at independent living, 

      More general child-discipline guidelines...

       4) Caregivers who use these seven communication skills to set limits and consequences with their kids are more likely to be effective, short and long term. One key is each adult consistently believing that each child is as worthy of respect and dignity as the adults are, regardless of age and gender differences. Have your family adults consistently had this mutual-respect attitude?

      5)  Adults who usually discipline to punish (i.e. to inflict pain and fear), risk seriously shaming their child (core belief: "I'm a bad person") and growing habitual guilt ("I always do bad things.") Also, punishment-based discipline usually increases a child's anxiety ("I'm not really safe here"). See this YouTube video on the negative effects of physical punishment when you're done here.

       Disciplining to teach, guide, and protect instills positive self-worth and security over time. The child perceives "You care enough to endure my protests respectfully, and you - who know more than I do - will guard me against my hurting myself. Someone wise and caring is in charge of my home, and I am safe."

      Guideline 6)  Avoid trying to be totally fair. It's inevitable that (a) you will favor one child a little or a lot, (b) you'll sometimes be inconsistent (even with your wonderchild), and that (c) your judgment will not always mimic Solomon's. It's also inevitable that your standards will vary from your spouse's and your parents. Shoot for...

  • keeping clear on your main priorities;

  • being as consistent as you can;

  • being flexible to adapt to new situations;

  • being a parent (loving teacher and guide), not a buddy;

  • seeing mistakes as chances to learn and improve; and...

  • using kids' complaints as chances to learn what they need, and to teach them how to assert and problem-solve effectively.

If you're unsure about the degree of favoritism or inconsistency you show in your discipline, ask for feedback from adults you trust to be honest and unbiased.

      7)  Work to distinguish between requests that you make of your children ("no," "maybe," or "later" are OK responses), and demands (they are not OK responses). You can reduce misunderstandings and squabbling if you firmly assert a limit like "This is not negotiable," when appropriate.

      More general guidelines for effective child discipline...

      8)  With "significant" rules and consequences, ask your child to demonstrate that they understand (a) specifically what you expect of them, and (b) the specific consequence you'll provide if they choose to do otherwise. 

      For example, specific feedback sounds like: "So I have to be home by 10:30, or I'll get grounded for next weekend - or I should call you if I'm going to be late because of an emergency." Non-specific feedback sounds like: "OK, OK, I gotta be home on time, or else..." It's hard on parents and kids if the rules or the consequences are fuzzy, ambivalent, or assumed.

      9)  Consequences defined in advance promote the least resentment, resistance, and defiance than those created on the spot. Do you agree? What did you experience as a child?

      10)  If you define a consequence to a child for breaking a household or family rule, make sure the consequence happens promptly if it's earned. Kids can get frightened of their own power, and lose respect for their caregivers, if they feel they can often con the adult into withholding a justified consequence. A useful  motto is "Say what you mean, and mean what you say." 

      11)  Discipline consequences can be natural ("When you leave your bike outside, I worry that it may get stolen."), and parental ("I sure hope that doesn't happen. If it does, don't expect me to buy you another one.") Which option do you feel is more effective, short and long-term? Do you know what's best for the child if  parents disagree on which type to use?

      12)  Fit the consequence to the situation. "You forgot to take out the trash again, and I had to do it, so you're grounded for the rest of the summer." may win the battle, but lose the war. Timid or overly-harsh consequences are probable signs of false-self control (psychological wounds) in the adults.

      13)  In defining limits and consequences, explain factually how your child's behavior affects you. For instance: "When you leave the back door unlocked or standing wide open, I get scared that someone may come into our house and take something" is more "hearable" than "I don't like it when you're a total jerk and leave the whole house wide open - so don't, you moron!" Build the habit of using clear, respectful ''I''-messages with all family members!

      More general guidelines for setting effective limits and consequences. Do you need a stretch break?

      14)  Be prepared for the child's "That's not fair!" test. If you get hooked into explaining why your limit or consequence is "fair," or "pulling rank" ("I don't need to be fair because I'm the adult here!"), you've lost. A better option is to (a) calmly reflect back what the child says without comment or explanation ("You feel I have to be fair."), and then (b) repeat the limit or consequence briefly. Do this as many times as you need, until you feel heard. Option: ask the child what they think would be "fair" in this situation, and listen.

      15)  Consider discussing rules and consequences literally on the child's (eye) level. A kid's ability to hear you may shrink if you tower over them, with an angry voice and face (remember?). With younger kids, squat, sit, or kneel to reduce the chance they'll feel intimidated.

      16)  If you're really frustrated, weary, and/or distracted, let intense emotions, abate before confronting a child ("We'll talk more about this after I take a walk.") Kids' (and adults') ears often stop working when the person is significantly scared, guilty, hurt, frustrated, distracted, and/or ashamed.

      Guideline 17)  Minimize the chance that a disobeying child feels shamed by a (parental, vs. natural) consequence by telling them "I love you, and (not "but"!) I really don't like what you did, just now. I'm feeling frustrated and angry!" In other words, teach kids to distinguish between their self-hood and their actions.

      18) When disciplining, avoid blaming words ("You're so thoughtless / wimpy / yellow / stupid / lazy / dumb / weird / inconsiderate..." etc.) and labels ("you're a nerd / bitch / whore / tramp / liar / sorry excuse / joke / mistake / creep / jackass / jerk / idiot /..."). Using such disrespectful words breeds anxiety, resentment, defiance, distrust, and life-crippling psychjological wounds. You can protect kids' self-image and still get your point across by (a) getting good eye contact, and (b) firmly saying some version of this... 

  • "When you (factually describe their specific behavior, like a news reporter)... 

  • "I feel... (describe your emotions without exaggerating and/or guilt-tripping),... 

  • "because... (factually describe the specific effect of the child's behavior on your life). An optional ending is...

  • "...and I need you to (take some specific action). If you choose not to, then (describe a specific consequence you intend to enforce.)"

Communication coaches call this kind of assertion an "I" message, because you focus on yourself, not the other person. (a) Expect resistance to your assertion ("You're so mean!  /  "You're never fair!"), (b) demonstrate that you hear the child by respectful empathic listening, and then (c) calmly re-assert.

      We're almost done with these general guidelines...

      19)  Confront behavioral disputes as soon as you can. Enforcing a consequence two weeks after an incident is far less effective than doing it right away. Among other things, it maximizes the chance that the circumstances blur, letting your child try the "You never said that!" defense. Difficulty doing this usually implies a false self controls the adult.

      20)  Expect kids who have broken a rule or agreement to be defensive!  When anyone feels criticized, embarrassed, or "wrong," a normal reaction is to explain, divert, rationalize, counterattack, whine pitifully, deny, and so on. Ridiculing or criticizing your child for attempting to protect themselves will promote their being sneaky, guilty, confused, withdrawn, rebellious (or depressed), and ashamed, over time. Respecting their feelings consistently and sticking firmly to the current consequence will help them...

  • feel safe and accepted,

  • be more open to learning the results of their actions, and...

  • wanting to change their behavior.

Do you agree?

      21)  If you feel a child should learn when and how to apologize, do so yourself. If you never take responsibility for your mistakes and say (and mean) "I'm sorry" - yet you insist that the child do this - you're sending a double message, You  may get what you want, along with confusion, sullenness, disrespect, and resistance. Did your parents apologize sincerely for their blunders and shortcomings? 

      22)  Practice preventive discipline by praising compliance and cooperation - if you genuinely feel like doing so. A false compliment is a double message and is worse than none. Over-praising will dull the effect also. Since most shame-based people are embarrassed by praise, it can help to be as specific as possible to reduce the chance they'll discount or minimize your appreciation. For example...

    "Jackie, when you cleaned up the kitchen tonight after your friends were over, it saved me from doing it. You were really thoughtful and considerate. Thanks a lot!" 

is much harder to shrug off than...

    "Well, your mess in the kitchen was smaller than usual, last night. Maybe there's hope for you after all." (an insulting or "negative" compliment). 


      23)  If your discipline works (you and your child each get your needs met well enough), affirm yourself! If it doesn't work (per your definition), review these guidelines alone or with a neutral partner and look for a way do better next time.

+ + +

      Notice how you feel after reviewing these general child-discipline guidelines. Have you ever seen a set of ideas like this? Did you realize how many factors affect the outcome of setting rules and consequences? If you had listed your own guidelines, would they look like these? How would your parents' and grandparents' lists have compared to this? Your present and/or former mate's lists? Would you agree that many of these suggestions apply to setting limits with adults too?


Do nothing with these guidelines, or...

Print and edit the guidelines to better fit who you are as a unique person; and/or...

Discuss your set of general discipline guidelines with your other co-parenting partner/s and possibly your kids. See where you all agree and where you don't. Consider coming up with a joint list that everyone accepts, and using it!

Compare these premises with how your parents or caregivers (including key teachers and coaches) disciplined you. Are your present standards about effective child discipline your own, or someone else's? And/or you may...

Use these to raise family awareness...

  • A Memo From Your Child, and...

  • A parent's or child's Bill Of Personal Rights,

  • These ageless resources, and...

  • these guidelines for communicating effectively with typical preteens and teens

Hilight guidelines above that you feel are specially important, and include them in your parental job descriptions; and/or...

If you've drafted a family mission statement, review it, and see if your child-discipline guidelines are consistent with it. If your family adults haven't drafted a mission statement yet, what's in the way of doing do?


      This article exists because of the millions of psychologically-wounded adults and kids in all cultures. Their wounds come mostly from inadequate parenting. The article proposes six typical long-term goals for normal child discipline, based on a definition of a high-nurturance family, and common child-development tasks. It uses these goals to define effective child discipline in typical families, and to provide 23 specific guidelines for effective child discipline..

      Note - Lesson 7 includes perspective and guidelines for effective child-discipline in typical multi-home stepfamilies. They build on these general guidelines.

Next - learn about your child-discipline values.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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