7 Discipline Mistakes All Parents Make

When it comes to dealing with bad behavior, every parent screws up sometimes. Learn about seven common discipline mistakes and how to fix them.

An image of a mom and her upset daughter.
Photo: Getty Images.

Children behave in predictable patterns, says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. They usually act the same when they're tired, hungry, or getting fed up—and it's an adult's job to take note and adjust accordingly. Ignoring a kid's signs is one of many discipline mistakes moms and dads make all the time, but fixing them can make a huge difference in the parenting experience. We asked experts to reveal the most common disciple missteps with easy solutions to implement today.

Being Too Negative

"Don't hit your sister!" "Stop pulling the dog's tail!" The number of things you tell your toddler or preschooler not to do is endless.

The Solution: Ask for the behavior you want to see. Nobody wants to raise a child who doesn't understand limits, but "parents say 'no' so frequently that kids become deaf to it, and the word loses its power," Dr. Borba explains. Moreover, "we often tell kids not to do something without letting them know what they should be doing," notes Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Toddler Book.

Save the naysaying for truly dangerous situations (think: fork in the electrical socket or your child eating the spider plant), and focus on telling kids how you would like them to behave. For example, instead of, "No standing in the bathtub!" try, "We sit down in the bathtub because it's slippery." Later, when you notice your kid splashing away in a seated position, offer some praise ("I like how you're sitting!") to reinforce their good behavior.

Expecting Too Much From Kids

You're sitting in church when your toddler shouts. As soon as you shush them, they do it again. Mortifying! Why don't they listen?

The Solution: Play teacher. Very young children still haven't developed impulse control or learned the social graces required in public places like stores and restaurants. "Parents assume kids know more than they do," Dr. Sonna says.

When your child breaks a norm, remind yourself that they aren't trying to be a pain—they just don't know how to act in the situation, so snapping isn't effective (or fair). Focus on showing your child how you want them to behave, softly saying things like, "I'm being quiet because I'm in church, but if I need something from Dad I lean in close to whisper." Also point out what others are doing ("Look how Charlie is coloring while he waits for his meal to arrive"). Kids are born mimics, so modeling or drawing attention to something we want them to do goes a long way.

"It takes time and repetition for kids to learn to handle themselves," Dr. Sonna says, which means you should expect to give your kid a lot of reminders—and remove them when they don't get the message. Over time, they'll learn how to act.

Modeling Behavior You Don't Want to See

When you drop something, you yell. A man cuts you off and you call him a rude name. But then you get mad if your kid reacts the same way when things don't go their way.

The Solution: Apologize and take a do-over. There's a boomerang effect to behavior: If we yell, our kids probably will too, says Devra Renner, coauthor of Mommy Guilt. Yes, it's hard to be on perfect behavior around the clock, so apologize when you do slip up. "Emotions are powerful and difficult to control, even for grown-ups," Renner notes, but saying "sorry" demonstrates that we're accountable for our actions nonetheless. It also creates the chance to talk about why you reacted the way you did and offers appropriate ways to respond when you're feeling frustrated.

Intervening When Kids Simply Annoy You

You hear your children chasing each other around the house and immediately shout.

The Solution: Ignore selectively. Often, parents feel the need to step in every time kids do something, well, kid-like. But always being the bad guy is exhausting, Dr. Borba notes. Keep in mind that children sometimes do things that are irksome because they're exploring new skills. (So your toddler could be dumping juice into their cereal because they're learning about liquids.) Other times, they're seeking attention.

When it comes to reacting, Dr. Borba's rule of thumb is: When safety isn't an issue, try watchful waiting. If your 6-year-old is playing their recorder with their nose, try not to shout. See what happens if you just continue with what you're doing as if nothing is happening. Most likely, if you don't respond, they will eventually stop—and you'll feel calmer, having avoided a shouting match.

Being All Talk and No Action

"Turn off the TV... I'm serious this time... Really!" Your kids continue bad behavior when warnings are vague for the same reason you run yellow lights—there aren't consequences.

The Solution: Set limits and follow through. Nagging, second chances, and negotiation all convey that cooperation is optional, says Robert MacKenzie, Ph.D., author of Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child. To teach kids to follow rules, make expectations clear, then take action when they're broken. If you want your kid to, say, get off the couch and do homework, start with respectful directives ("Please turn off the TV now and do your work"). If they follow through, thank them. If not, give a consequence: "I'm turning off the TV now. Until your work is finished, your TV privileges are suspended."

Using Time-Out Ineffectively

When you send your 3-year-old to their room for hitting their brother, they start banging their head on the floor in rage.

The Solution: Consider a time-in. A time-out is meant to be a chance for a child to calm down, not a punishment. Some kids respond well to the suggestion that they go to a quiet room until they're chill. But others view it as a rejection, and it riles them up. Plus, it doesn't teach kids how you want them to behave. As an alternative, Dr. Sonna suggests taking a "time-in," where you sit quietly with your kid. If they're very upset, hold them until they settle down, Dr. Sonna adds. Once they're relaxed, calmly explain why the behavior wasn't okay. Too angry to comfort them? Put yourself in time-out; once you've relaxed, discuss what you would like your child to do differently. You might start by saying: "What can you do instead of hitting when Milo grabs your train?"

Assuming What Works for One Kid Will Work for the Other

The best way to deal with your son's whining is to get down at eye level and explain how their actions need to change. But your daughter is more aggressive and refuses to listen.

The Solution: Develop a diverse toolbox. It's easy to blame your kid when a discipline technique fails. But "you may have to go about getting the behavior you want in different ways with each kid," notes Avivia Pflock, coauthor of Mommy Guilt. While one child might respond to a verbal reminder about what is acceptable, the other might need a consequence when they act up, like having the Wii unplugged. Being firm with one child and touchy-feely with another isn't being inconsistent; it's tuning in to different needs and learning styles, Pflock assures. "The punishment should fit the crime—and the kid."

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