Parents frequently ask Lucy Daniels Center clinicians and educators: When should I begin disciplining my child? And how do I introduce discipline? These are thoughtful questions that deserve discussion.
Parents punish - use consequences - when their child does not obey their limits. Sometimes a child does not comply with the parent’s statement of a limit, and sometimes the child crosses a previously established boundary. Children should not be given consequences for behaviors for which a limit has not been previously set or could not be understood.
Consequences for misbehavior can either involve withdrawing a privilege or inflicting emotional or physical discomfort (which we strongly recommend against) to enforce a limit, show disapproval of noncompliance, or demand a price for not obeying a limit. The task of administering consequences challenges parents to balance both firmness and compassion.
It is not wise to administer consequences to a child during the first year. An infant will just be learning that her or his actions affect things, and that she or he can reason things out and develop some control over actions. An infant can't misbehave because she or he doesn't yet understand the concept of behaving! On the other hand, limit-setting tactics including removal, diversion, and verbal disapproval for activities that could be quite harmful are very important once a child is around six months old. These approaches should continue to be the "front line" of the parental effort to help a child achieve good behavior through at least their third year. Here is an example of a common situation in infancy that was handled quite helpfully:
Garrett, age six months, bit his mother’s arm. His mother, surprised, looked straight at Garrett and said, very seriously, “No, No, No. We don’t ever bite. No, No, No.” Garrett looked very startled. He had received a firm but kind early lesson about biting and aggression.
Kind consequences are often appropriate for the one year-old child. One-year‑old children can begin to understand simple cause and effect.
Janine, age thirteen months, threw a cup. Janine’s mother asked her to not throw the cup again. Janine immediately threw the cup, and her mother put the cup away, saying, "Let’s do something else. You are having trouble not throwing the cup." Janine protested as she clasped her hands together, attempting, too late, to control the hand that had thrown the cup. She clearly understood what she was punished for, and was even able to work on mastering the part of her body over which she needed to gain better control.
Although some consequences will always be necessary, parents should also seek to help their child to avoid situations where consequences become necessary. Consequences cause emotional pain for children that in turn always generates hostility, and can interfere with positive and stable child‑parent relationships. Parents can avoid burdening their child and their relationship with unnecessary hostility by using the least severe consequences possible. Privilege withdrawal is the safest and most effective consequence. Privileges should be withdrawn at a reasonable, developmentally appropriate rate. Examples of excessive consequences would be taking TV away for two days from a three year‑old, or taking a prized toy away for a week from a five year‑old. Consequences such as deprivation of meals and time with friends are not advisable because meals and friends are good for the child’s well being. Children may experience consequences that affect their well being as violations of their parent’s basic responsibility to protect them and to help them grow up successfully.
Parents will increase the emotional honesty of the disciplinary interaction with their child if they show displeasure or anger respectfully and without being hostile. Parents are hostile when their disapproval is presented in a way that sounds and feels hurtful, as if their aim is to cause pain. When parents are able to combine their actions with respectfully conveyed anger, children are better able to make sense of their parents' words and actions and grow from their efforts at constructive discipline.
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