Time-outs. Rewards. Logical consequences. Loss of privileges. If you’ve tried every classic strategy to get your kid to listen and she’s still hitting, talking back, or taunting her little brother, you might be sabotaging your discipline efforts by making one of these ten common missteps. Steer clear of them, and watch your kid start to behave better. Promise.
You should always address dangerous behavior—like running into the street or pushing another kid off the swings—right away. “But avoid disciplining your child in front of other people. When you do that, he may be more focused on who’s overhearing the conversation than on what you’re trying to teach him,” says Erica Reischer, Ph.D., author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. Look for a private place where you can talk about what just happened without being seen or heard. If you can’t find a space to talk in the moment, briefly point out your child’s misbehavior, and let him know you’ll discuss it later at home. And don’t forget to keep your promise.
You’ve told your kid a million times not to toss her jacket on the floor, so why does she keep doing it? Believe it or not, she might not truly grasp what you’re asking of her. After all, reminding your child to “behave,” for instance, means one thing on a playdate (take turns and share) and something entirely different at the movies (sit quietly). “Make your directions as specific as possible,” advises Larissa Niec, Ph.D., director of Central Michigan University’s Center for Children, Families, and Communities, in Mount Pleasant. Also, tell your child what she should do (“Please hang your jacket on the peg when you come inside”) instead of what not to do (“Don’t throw your stuff on the floor”). The same holds true for reprimands. When Tracy Cutchlow’s 2-year-old, Geneva, smacked her in frustration, the Seattle mom said sternly, “No hitting!” But Geneva kept swatting her, so Cutchlow decided on a new tack: “I said, ‘We don’t hit people. If you’re mad, you can hit a pillow.” Then she caressed Geneva’s arm and said, “Hands are for touching gently.” Geneva quickly got the message.
You may be tempted to short-circuit your kid’s meltdown in the produce aisle with the promise of candy at the checkout counter. This strategy might even work—but only for the moment. “Bribing is actually rewarding a child’s bad behavior,” says Jeffrey Gardere, Ph.D., coauthor of Practical Parenting, so don’t be surprised when your child throws a tantrum to get what he wants the next time. He needs to realize that proper behavior—whether it’s waiting patiently in line or being nice to a sibling—doesn’t come with a payoff; it’s simply expected.
You can’t expect your kid to be at her best when her tummy’s empty (no wonder she’s whiny!). Hunger makes it difficult to concentrate and can escalate misbehavior. Your child needs to chow down before she can listen up. Try what Dr. Reischer calls a “placeholder.” Acknowledge right away what she did wrong (“I saw you grab your brother’s toy out of his hands”) and promise to revisit it (“You’re hungry, aren’t you? Let’s talk about it after a snack”). This delayed discipline approach also works when she’s sleepy—or when you are. “If you’re tired or hungry, you’re more likely to be impatient too,” Dr. Reischer says.
Of course you need to let your child know that it was wrong to dump a glass of water on the dog. But his shenanigans don’t call for a lengthy lecture (and he’s probably not listening after the first two sentences anyway). Instead, simply explain briefly why drenching the dog wasn’t a good idea, make clear that he shouldn’t do it again, and then move on.
It’s hard to stay Zen when your child flushes your favorite earrings down the toilet. But shouting undermines your ability to get through to her. “Kids can’t absorb a lesson when they’re being screamed at. They either shut down or get mad in response,” says Dr. Niec. Yelling was Summer Blackhurst’s default M.O. when her son Benjamin, then 3, kicked or pushed other children. Eventually the Kaysville, Utah, mom realized that raising her voice wasn’t working. “If anything, Benjamin seemed to feed off my anger and return it,” she says. So she tried a new tactic: addressing his misbehavior in a calm tone and adding a consequence every time he shouted in response. That made all the difference. “While it didn’t solve the problem overnight, within a few months I had a much calmer kid,” she says.
Kids act out for lots of reasons: They lack self-control. They like to test boundaries. They need your attention. But we promise: They’re not doing it because they don’t like you. “A lot of ‘bad’ behavior is about a child exploring how to get what he wants, whether it’s affection, ice cream, or five more minutes of playtime,” says Dr. Reischer. Taking offense unnecessarily may make you less affectionate, which might weaken your bond. Keep the hugs and kisses coming, but also let your child know, “I’m not disrespectful to you, and I won’t allow you to be disrespectful to me.”
Whenever her daughters, Ameera, 8, and Zara, 5, were disobedient, Zaida Khaze, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, would compare one with the other (“Your sister is playing nicely. Why can’t you?”). But this approach made the girls resent each other and didn’t improve their behavior. “Discipline needs to focus on the way your child acts, not about how she stacks up against someone else,” says Dr. Reischer. Khaze’s breakthrough came when she stopped comparing her girls and began pointing out when they were behaving well. The payoff: “They’re throwing fewer tantrums now, and they get along better,” she says.
It’s easy to overreact (“No TV for a month!”) when you’re upset with your child. But for discipline to be effective, it must be proportional to the misbehavior, not to your level of frustration, says Dr. Reischer. Not only are over-the-top punishments unfair, but they also present a huge challenge to enforce. (Are you really going to throw away the lovey your kid needs to fall asleep?) To prevent yourself from imposing irrational penalties, set up house rules in which you spell out logical consequences ahead of time. For example, let your child know that if he chooses not to empty the dishwasher when you ask him to, he’ll have to do it before he can watch his favorite show later.
Enforcing the rules sporadically teaches your child that it’s no big deal to break them because there might not be any ramifications. “Inconsistency sends the signal that you’re not truly in charge,” says Dr. Gardere. It’s also confusing to a young kid. If you let her kick you for fun when you’re playing, she may assume it’s fine to do when she’s mad. Avoid falling into this trap by reconsidering your expectations regularly. And when your child doesn’t meet them, address it—whether by pointing it out or following through with an appropriate consequence.