Talk to Your Child
If you simply put a child in time-out, you're controlling her rather than making her responsible for managing her own behavior. Instead, says Dr. Wolf, "tell her why you don't want her to do something and what the real consequences are--not her punishment, but that the marker doesn't come off the walls, for example. Two or three sentences will do just fine." The younger the child, the fewer the words. Get down to her level, and look her in the eye. She needs to hear what she's done wrong and what would have been correct: "We don't draw on the walls--we draw on a piece of paper" or "You can't have a cookie--it's too close to dinner. You may have a carrot instead." Then let the issue drop. "As soon as you let your child lure you into a discussion, you weaken the message," Dr. Wolf says. What if she has a valid objection? "Talk about it later," he suggests. "In the heat of the moment, she's likely just pleading her case, not starting a real conversation."
Figure Out Whether a Consequence Is Needed
Many parents think that punishment is the heart of discipline, but most experts disagree. "Consequences are necessary only when being consistent doesn't work. But it usually does," says Dr. Donovan. "Four or five instances of simply taking the cookie out of the child's hand and saying, 'No sweets before dinner' will likely take care of the cookie-snatching behavior." Dr. Wolf agrees that punishment is usually not the way to go. "If the kids are throwing the ball in the house, by all means take the ball away--but they don't need to be punished," he says. "If the issue is something you care deeply about, reinforce your message later at a neutral time."
Consider consequences only for a few, carefully chosen misbehaviors--and only when your child repeatedly ignores your clear instructions. What's most effective is to let him experience the results of his actions: If he hits other children, he won't be able to join them for playtime.
Enforce the Consequence
"If the motto of real estate is 'Location, location, location,' the motto of parenting is 'Consistency, consistency, consistency,' "Dr. Donovan says. "The child's mind is completely logical, and it tells her, 'If Mom and Dad don't follow through, they don't mean it.'" The idea is to have very few rules but to enforce them every single time. So don't make idle threats that you can't or won't carry out. You know what we mean: You're grounded for life; that's the last cookie you'll ever see; no playdates for a month. You'll not only upset your child but ultimately undermine your authority.
When all is said and done, the 60-Second Plan is very simple, but it does require a great deal of thought about your goals and an equal amount of self-control. Why is that important? Because good discipline is about much more than not throwing food on the floor and not writing on the furniture. You are conveying your values and showing you have the self-discipline that you're trying to teach your child.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the January 2003 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.