To err is human, and to make discipline mistakes is sometimes a part of being a parent. The next time your child misbehaves and you find yourself losing your cool or wondering if you are handling your child’s bad behavior the right way, think about these solutions to fixing common discipline mistakes that parents often make.
And remember to give yourself a break: These mistakes are common because we have all made one or more of these at one time or another. In other words, we have all been there and you are not the only one. Remind yourself of the advice you might give your child: Mistakes are what we learn from so that we can grow.
Common Discipline Mistakes (and What to Do to Fix Them)
- Not being respectful
You read that right. We parents ask our children to respect us, but we sometimes forget that respect should be a two-way street. One of the most common mistakes parents make when disciplining children is yelling, speaking in a harsh and angry tone, or even insulting their children. Giving and asking for respect in return is one of the cardinal tips to remember about disciplining children.
Think about how you would like to be spoken to if you were working out a conflict with, say, a family member or a friend or co-worker. Get down to your child’s eye level, and discuss the problem at hand in a gentle (but still firm) and respectful manner. And no matter how angry you are, try to remain calm; do not yell, and never belittle your child.
- Disciplining while angry
There are some things that just should not go together, like drinking and driving or writing a heated email to someone who’s made you angry before you’ve had a chance to cool down. Disciplining a child while angry is definitely in that category of don’ts. When you reprimand your child while you mad about something they did, you are more likely to shout or say something you don’t mean. And you’re also less likely to take out whatever other frustrations you may be having on a bad day (and, hey, we all have those) and focus your anger at something unrelated to your child on his behavior.
Take a few minutes (or more if you need it) to calm down and collect your thoughts before talking to your child about his bad behavior. Remove yourself or your child from the immediate situation by, say, taking a walk. In fact, giving you and yourself some time to reflect on the conflict may help you both deal with the situation in a calmer manner.
- Being inconsistent
If you reprimand your child for not cleaning his room one day and then not bother to talk to him about it when his room is messy for days on end, only to scold him again for not keeping his room clean, your child is getting a very inconsistent message. One of the best ways to help children correct their behavior is by giving them clear instructions about what is expected of them.
Give your child clear and simple directions, and a realistic list of expectations. For instance, if you want him to clean his room every week, mark it on a calendar and make that “room clean-up day.” Set him up for good behavior, and if he does not follow through, give him a consistent set of consequences (by, say, taking away privileges or a favorite toy for a set amount of time). Don’t give different degrees of punishments for the same misbehavior and be constant and consistent in enforcing the rules.
- Talking/explaining too much
While it’s a good idea to talk to your child about why something she did was not appropriate so that she can have a clear sense of what she did wrong and how she can behave differently the next time, going into lengthy and detailed explanations about her behavior is not a good idea. Children, even grade-schoolers who are getting better at paying attention, can easily lose track of discussions that go too much into detail.
Be as direct as possible and break it down into basics for your child. With older children, talk about what went wrong and discuss possible scenarios that could have been better choices. With younger children, simply state what the behavior was and why it was wrong (“You went into your brother’s room and played with his toy without his permission, and that made him feel like you didn’t care about his feelings”).
- Going negative
Hearing a string of “don’ts” and “no’s” isn’t any fun for anyone, especially a child. Focusing on what a child did wrong or what he should not do instead of emphasizing what a child should do can put a negative spin on things and set the tone for your interaction.
Approach things from a more positive perspective by talking about what can be done better. If your child is whining or talking back to you, show her some examples of how to speak in a nice and more friendly manner. After tempers have cooled on both sides, try a lighthearted game of speaking nicely to each other to express yourselves better. If your child is fighting with a sibling, suggest some ways they can build a good sibling relationship, such as by having them work together on a project.
- Thinking disciplining means punishing
Often, parents forget that the point of disciplining children is to give them firm guidelines and limits so that they do not need to be punished. Disciplining means setting up boundaries and expectations so that kids know what is expected of them. The primary goal is to have kids learn to eventually regulate themselves so that they do not need to be punished.
Re-think the way you view discipline. When you discipline a child, you are showing her how to make good choices and choose behaviors that are positive and ultimately good for her. And by showing her how you handle her misbehavior -- in a loving and constructive manner that emphasizes learning rather than punishment -- you are teaching her how to one day interact with her own children when they demonstrate bad behavior.
- Not practicing what you preach
You tell your child not to tell lies but routinely fib to get out of things you don’t want to do like join that school volunteer committee or attend an unimportant meeting at work. Or you yell at your children and angrily tell them to speak nicely to each other. The problem is that we often do not see our own behavior, and forget that our children are watching our every move and learning how to behave by using our example.
As much as possible, try to live up to the example that you are setting up for your child. And if you do occasionally break one of your own rules, explain to your child the particular circumstances and why you behaved the way you did. Admit to how you could have handled it better, and talk about how you may do things differently the next time.
- Not fitting the discipline technique to your child
When it comes to child discipline, one size does not fit all. What worked on a child’s sibling or the kids of friends may be the wrong approach for that particular child. Instead of repeatedly trying to fit a certain approach to correct or guide a child’s behavior, try different techniques to see what might work best on an individual child.
Remember that children, like adults, have their own personalities, temperaments, and quirks. One kid may be more stubborn than others or be more likely to have a meltdown when things don’t go his way. Try different approaches to tailor discipline techniques to each individual child. For instance, while one child may be able to focus and stop dawdling after a few general reminders, another child may need charts and schedules and closer supervision to keep him on track.
Another example: While one child may stop misbehaving after a warning that he will lose privileges (a toy or an activity), another child may actually need to have those things taken away and experience the consequences of bad behavior before he learns to follow the rules.
- Not disciplining children at all
Among the many important reasons why we need to discipline children is the fact that children who are raised with clear limits and guidance are more likely to be happy, pleasant people who have good self-control. When children are not disciplined, the effects are clear, and in most cases, quite catastrophic. Children who are not given any limits or consequences and are spoiled are often selfish, unable to self-regulate, and unpleasant to be around.
Give your child rules and limits -- and clear and consistent consequences when they don’t do what they are supposed to do. If you are worried that disciplining your child may make them angry with you, keep the bigger picture in mind: Not disciplining a child is not good for him. As long as you handle his misbehavior with love and firm guidance, your child will learn and grow from his mistakes.