Discipline is Not a Four Letter Word

22 Oct Discipline is Not a Four Letter Word

Discipline; Keeping it Positive

Transcription of a workshop given by Buffy Smith, Ph.D. at Montclare Children’s School. In an address to our parents, Dr. Buffy Smith spoke on the subject of Discipline and Setting Limits.  


Tantrums, meltdowns, power-struggles… Feeling out of control… Setting limits is a vital and often profoundly challenging part of parenting. Getting through “the moment or crisis at hand” and coping is sometimes all a parent can manage when a child is misbehaving.  However, setting clear limits ultimately makes handling these challenging-parenting-moments easier. Teaching children how to behave appropriately involves modeling and teaching self-control, respect for boundaries, and respect for others. Easier said, than done, of course. However, over time, when clear limits are set and consistently reinforced, children are able to develop and summon the ability to self-limit whether or not a parent/adult is present.

Today’s parents are faced with a glut of parenting books, ample and conflicting information on the internet, and the outpouring of advice from well-meaning grandparents, friends, and relatives.  Many parents end up feeling confused when it comes to strategies and setting limits!

In addition, how we parent is often complicated by the feelings we have about how we, ourselves, were raised.  In some cases, parents want their children to experience the values and methods they grew up with, while others aspire to parent in a different way, and at times even “un-do” any poor parenting they endured. Do you want to follow exactly what your parents did? Do you want your children to experience the very opposite? Are you caught somewhere in the middle; appreciating some of your parents’ parenting style, while diverging in certain specific areas?  It is important to consider these issues carefully when determining the style that works best for you.

Whatever style you’ve opted for, when it comes to discipline, perhaps the most important thing to remember is consistency. In order for a child to experience the world as a safe place (a world that includes certain expectations, rules and routines), consistency is essential.

Dr. Smith addressed the issue of, “what happens if there are two parents in the same home with very different parenting styles?”  This actually may not be a bad thing! In fact, it may help create balance, as long as parents are able to negotiate, compromise and work together to create a consistent message for their child. In an effort to create consistency, it is always helpful for parents to communicate to nannies, grandparents, etc., their parenting philosophy, and hope that these other important adults will support and, and help to reinforce these efforts!

Developmental Variations

Young children are constantly active, testing, and experimenting while interacting with the world. This is a valuable time to learn about what behavior is acceptable or not. Your child, unfortunately, does not come programmed with an innate understanding of appropriate behavior and therefore must be taught (don’t throw sand, don’t hit your brother). A meltdown may become a teachable moment for both child and parent, depending on your child’s age.

If you notice a pattern in your child’s misbehavior, take a moment to think about what might be happening.  Does your child misbehave systematically before bed?  Is there something he is afraid of at bedtime that you could address?  Does your child act-out before dinner?  Is she hungry? Setting limits can begin in toddlerhood, however, try to have clear expectations and an understanding of your child’s development.

Children under 12 months: Children (babies!) this age, can’t yet be reasoned with. If a baby bites her mother, at this stage it is best to stop the behavior, stay as calm as possible, redirect and distract. Distraction is key at this age, and is, in fact, the only truly age-appropriate form of discipline. Children under 12 months are developmentally just beginning to explore the consequences of their actions.

Toddlers (2 to 3-year-olds): Children this age begin to distinguish right from wrong, and are able to understand that there are consequences to their actions. However, a 2-year-old’s impulses will still often trump all else! So, if a two-year-old is biting, while you can and should say, “Not OK! We’re going home,” that doesn’t mean it will not happen again. It is important to be consistent and the words “OK” and “Not OK” are useful parenting tools at this age.  Be firm, stay calm and most of all, be consistent.  Your child needs to know that such behaviors result in a consistent consequence.  Play-date over.

Toddlers may also begin to experience empathy and can learn that from their parents. Parents should take a deep breath, lovingly look their toddler in the eyes (no matter how embarrassed or annoyed you really feel) and try to explain that there are consequences to actions. “You bit your friend, so now he doesn’t want to play with you.  He feels afraid.” Remind toddlers to use their words; “You can’t bite your friend if you want the red truck back, BUT you can use your words and even stomp your foot!”

While it is important to begin teaching young children right from wrong, it is critical to their self-esteem that you do so without introducing shame. Set limits compassionately and with empathy, while teaching that feelings are separate from actions and that emotional impulses can be handled in a thoughtful manner.  In other words: “I know you are angry, but it’s not OK to hit, it is OK to talk about your feelings.” Another example: “I know how much you wanted that bucket, but you can’t hit your friend on the head.  It is OK to tell your friend that you want the bucket.” Point out the behavior that is not OK and demonstrated that you care.

Dr. Smith discussed different parenting styles:


Parents establish rules and compliance and obedience are expected.  There is no back and forth discussion. Children are punished for not following the rules. “My way or the high way.” Strict and often complicated… Many of these parents resort to using punishment on their children, in the same way their parents punished them.  Children are not allowed to make choices on their own.

Children of Authoritarian Parents: these tend to be rule followers, who have a hard time making decisions.


Parents establish rules. They consider rules to be important, but kids have rights, too. Compliance is expected, but parents engage in explanations. There is room for discussions, but ultimately rules need to be followed. Children are taught what it means to make choices and learn that there are consequences for not following the rules and observing limits.

Children of authoritative parents tend to have the best results as adults. They can take comfort from authority but are able to solve problems. They have more self-control and are more self-reliant. They are also flexible thinkers.


These parents are less actively involved in trying to modify their children’s behavior. Parents expect children learn from the environment, and do not feel the need to create many rules. These parents believe that raising children is a partnership between children and parents.

Children of permissive parents may have poor impulse control and may have trouble taking responsibility for their actions. Also, they may have trouble both following rules and with authority figures.

Discipline and Temperament

When thinking about discipline, variations in a child’s innate temperament must be taken into account!

Children are individuals and may need very different things from their parents and the world around them than their siblings or other children their same age.

We all have experienced that, within the same family, children may seem completely different from one another, and yet they have been exposed (presumably) to the gene-pool, home, parents, and parenting style. This difference we see in siblings (and even twins) is due to temperament.

Everyone is born with his or her own unique temperament. Temperament is not something caused by parents or environmental factors. Temperament is inborn. Some children are more high-strung, some more easy-going, and some fall somewhere in the middle.

It is important to think about who your child is when thinking about what form of discipline might work for your child. For example, an “easy-going” child, is more likely to be compliant, whereas a more high-strung child might be more resistant to rules, and as a result, need more clarity and rules that are more systematic and structured.

For parents interested in reading more about family, children, temperament, etc., check out the novel Some Luck by Jane Smiley 

Buffy’s Key Principles on Discipline

  1. Be Proactive

It is smart to be proactive and anticipate your child’s needs. Identify your child’s vulnerabilities and a make a plan. For example, if your child has a hard time with transitions, this is something to consider when making plans. For example, a very young child who only really has a hard time in restaurants may need a break from restaurants for a little while… A few months of perhaps playing restaurant at home, and then gently reintroducing the idea of going out to restaurants, may be helpful.

  1. Be Consistent and Clear

Kids can spot the chinks in your armor. There is no need to be excessively tough when it comes discipline because it will only make you have a harder time sticking to it! Avoid dramatic, unrealistic threats such as, “You are going to lose TV for the rest of your life!” Try to make what you say meaningful and rational and then stick to it. Too much wiggle room can be confusing and kids quickly take advantage of the ambiguity.  It’s ok to say, “I need to think about the consequences of what you have just done.  I am too angry right now.”  Come back to your child with a calm, clear head.

It is also important to consider any underlying causes of inappropriate behavior. Kids may misbehave when they are sick, tired or hungry. As a parent, if you have had a frantic, busy week with your child, it may be hard for him/her to control their impulses and behavior. Your child should not write on the walls because they miss you, but if they do, it is important to think about why they wrote on the walls, and not just mete out the consequences.  Work to find a solution together (again, depending on your child’s age).

  1. Positive Reinforcement

Children crave attention. If they can’t get it one way, they will get it another. Try to provide positive reinforcement in order to avoid having your child seek out attention for negative behavior.

  1. Empathy First

If a child says “I want another cookie,” , as silly as it seems, it is important to empathize first. Try, “I know you want another cookie, but it’s almost dinner time.” The same thing goes for “I want to watch more TV,” or “I don’t want to leave yet!”

While it is very important to show empathy, if the behavior is not acceptable, you need to be firm and consistent.

  1. Disciplining Repeatedly For Not Sharing

Certain situations may be hard for your child to hand if so, try to identify particularly hard moments. When possible, try to anticipate circumstances that elicit negative behaviors.  Be prepared and establish strategies ahead of time.  There is more than one way to solve a problem.

  1. Model Good Behavior Yourself

If you yourself are feeling very hurt or angry,  try to narrate your feelings to your child,  rather than hide what you are feeling. By responding well to difficult situations, and allowing your child access to your response, you are teaching your child how to handle difficult moments they will have moving forward in life. Children learn, to a great extent, how to cope from how they see their parents handling stress.  Ugh. I know!

  1. Forgive Yourself

Bad moments – moments when you are not at your best and do not respond to your child the way you wish you had – are OK! There isn’t a lot out there which isn’t reparable. If you lose your temper or show intense emotion of some form, forgive yourself. Chances are you will handle the next “bad moment” differently.  Talk to your child about it.  Demonstrate how we can talk about our feelings and learn from our mistakes.  Parenting isn’t easy.

Additional Resources:

All Joy and No Fun, by Jennifer Senior

Buffy says that this book offers a very valid point that the world is changing fast and that parents must be mindful of preparing their children for the future. According to Buffy, the book also emphasizes how a fast changing world makes parenting more difficult.

Positive Discipline, by Jane Nelsen

Keeping Your Child in Mind, by Claudia Gold

1-2-3 Magic, by Thomas Phelan

How Toddlers Thrive, by Tovah Klein

The Babble Out Blog