Discipline – the dirty work of parenting: 5 Steps to effective discipline

Having a baby is hard work but it certainly has its benefits. For example, your cute little bundle stays put when you put them down, doesn’t answer back when you talk to them and would certainly never deliberately disobey you.

But then they learn to walk and to talk and to not do as you say and everything changes – forever.

Discipline and setting boundaries is the dirty work of being a parent. It is the decidedly unglamorous stuff in-between all of the happy snaps that you’ll look back on with fondness when your child is grown. It is what made you hesitant to have kids in the first place. It is what makes raising kids so unenjoyable at times. It is extremely hard work.

Unfortunately there is no one trick to disciplining your child. If there was, and I discovered it, I would have patented it, written a book on it and retired to the Bahamas by now! But while there is no magic trick with discipline, what psychology, behavioural science and generations of good parents have given us is a set of principles that work in disciplining children of all ages.

So for the benefit of having some idea of what to do in that moment when your little angel throws their dinner at you when you have just warned them not to, let’s have a look at some of the key principles of good discipline:

1) Children need to be disciplined

This is an important one to remember when your child is screaming and howling in their room because you have just sent them to time-out. All children need to know where the boundaries are in life. They need to learn good habits, one of which is that sometimes you have to do what you are told even when you don’t want to. Remember this principle if the thought ever crosses your mind that you are traumatising your child for grounding them for deliberately disobeying you.

2) Good discipline is consistent

In summer, QLD doesn’t observe daylight savings time. Between Tweed Heads and Coolangatta is an invisible, arbitrary line that says that on one side we will have daylight savings time (NSW) and on the other side we won’t (QLD). The only reason that this doesn’t dissolve the east coast of Australia into chaos is because the boundary line between these two states is unchanging and consistent. This is what good discipline is to children – it provides a stable guideline to them as to how they should live their lives. So make sure that both parents are on the same page with what behaviours you discipline and what consequences you will use. Prioritise key behaviours to discipline so that you don’t become inconsistent from trying to discipline too much at once. And avoid getting too emotional or talking too much when you discipline, both of these will veer you off track and make you inconsistent and ineffective with your parenting.

3) Get into your child’s shoes

Grounding a 3 year old for something they did yesterday isn’t going to work just like 5 minutes in the “naughty chair” for a 15 year old won’t work. You need to understand what an appropriate and suitable consequence is for your child, their age and their developmental abilities. Similarly, you need to know what is reasonable behaviour to expect from your child. Getting your 5 year old in trouble for not packing all of his books for school is not reasonable, nor is yelling at your teenage boy for not talking your ear off in the car. Some of your child’s behaviour is developmental, not defiant, and other behaviours can be the result of another underlying problem, like difficulty with their schoolwork, social problems, family issues or anxiety. Get to know your child really well at each stage of their development and you will give yourself the best chance of getting it right (most of the time.)

4) Don’t go it alone

Not all of us have supportive spouses or grandparents to help back us up when things get tough, but that doesn’t mean that you should parent alone. Be deliberate about connecting yourself and your child with other similar families and with other positive adults. Raising a child is the biggest job that you will ever have and you’re a sucker for punishment, and a prime candidate for burn out, if you do it all on your own.

5) Prioritise building your relationship with your child

This last one is especially true if your child is really pushing your buttons. The most effective discipline happens in good relationships. Take the time to spend some good quality one on one time with your child if they are mucking up a lot. Be careful, though, to not substitute this for good discipline or reward negative behaviour. Children should always be disciplined for defiant behaviour. Good quality time with your children should not be given in place of discipline, but despite it. After all, parenting is primarily about relationships.