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Three takes on disciplining your child, from toddler to teen

BY Jenny Marder  May 9, 2014 at 5:01 PM EST

What should a parent do when a child misbehaves? Take away the toys or let the behavior’s natural consequences serve as punishment? Enforce a time out or encourage self calming? Positive reinforcement or bribery?

We’ve turned to three experts with different backgrounds and asked them how they’d deal with a variety of real-world scenarios.

Kathryn Kvols is founder of the International Network of Children and Families and has spent 30 years teaching classes on parenting and discipline.

Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie is a child psychiatrist, who is also board certified in pediatric neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Scott Brown is an expert in conflict management, a founding member of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, and an author of the book, “How to Negotiate with Kids … Even if You Think You Shouldn’t: 7 Essential Skills to End Conflict and Bring More Joy into Your Family.”

Photo by Jani Bryson/Getty Images

Photo by Jani Bryson/Getty Images

1Two-year-old Benji wants to stick his pacifier in the electric socket. Dad says no.

Kathryn Kvols: We recommend that he empathize with him by saying, “I know you are mad. You wanted to play with the socket. Sockets are not toys,” while comforting him. Redirect him to something equally fun.

If the child keeps going over to the plug, put something heavy in front of it or take him to another room or outside to play. We do not recommend repeatedly saying, “No” or giving lengthy explanations. Reasoning with a child at this age is fruitless. Threatening the child with a timeout is equally ineffective.

Elisabeth Guthrie: This could be dangerous. And Benji is a toddler. “Act don’t yak.” If Benji is actually trying to put his pacifier in an electric socket Dad needs to physically pick him up and move him away; if Benji persists then remove pacifier (leading, yes, to greater tantrum).

Dad should ignore Benji and the tantrum (as long as he knows Benji cannot get his pacifier in the socket). Once Benji stops crying Dad should direct his attention at him and say something along the lines of “I like the way you stopped crying.”

Once Benji is calmer Dad might want to revisit that only grownups touch sockets because they can hurt/are dangerous/cause a boo boo depending on language level. And make sure all those baby proof socket covers are firmly in place!

Scott Brown: When the safety of your child is involved, there is no negotiation. You need to safeguard your child effectively. On the other hand, most of us react to an unsafe situation in an emotional way that may trigger emotions in our child. When my four-year-old daughter jumped off the curb into the street to retrieve a toy, I reacted with such a shout that she broke into tears. I meant to safeguard her rather than scare her, but I did both. In that situation I sat down with her and explained why I had shouted. We both needed time to calm our emotions.

A young child’s brain has not yet developed the capacity to manage their emotions. We need to recognize these natural limitations, not blame them, and help our children develop methods for control through our example.

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

2Mom, dad and their 5-year-old daughter Mia are on a beach vacation. As they walk along the boardwalk on their way to breakfast, they pass an ice cream shop. Mia says she wants ice cream. Mom says “Not before breakfast.” Mia throws a tantrum.

Kvols: It may be helpful to check the reason why she is throwing a tantrum. Is she upset because she is not getting her way or is she hungry (often children at this age get upset when they are hungry)? If she is hungry, simply feed her as quickly as possible.

If she is not hungry, Mom could ask, “What do you think needs to happen before you can have ice cream?” Or she can give her daughter in fantasy what she doesn’t want to give her in reality. She could say, “You can’t have ice cream before breakfast but if you could have ice cream for breakfast, what kind would you get? Then indulge her in fantasy what you are unwilling to give her in reality and maybe even add your fantasy by saying, “I would have black cherry ice cream with chocolate on top!” Sometimes this makes the child feel like mom is on her side even if she is unwilling to give me what I want right now.

Guthrie: Keep walking. Ignore the tantrum. She’s probably hungry, which may be why she’s cranky, and will follow parents to breakfast. If not Mom could say “Who wants pancakes?” and see if that settles her down. If not then continue to ignore, keep an indirect eye on her and when she calms down, give her a tissue and take her to breakfast. Comment specifically on her compliance, with things like “I like the way you blew your nose” or “thanks for holding my hand” to reinforce her good behavior.

Brown: This is a good opportunity for rule-setting AND negotiation. Parents sometimes say to me, “Kids need rules. Parents shouldn’t negotiate over the rules.” Perhaps, but the way we establish rules will help children understand and respect them. It is also true that rules must change over time, and are often open to exceptions. We all know that bedtimes sometimes flex with our own schedules, that rules bend when friends or relatives visit, etc. We need to explain the purpose of a rule, and explain why we bend them. These kinds of discussions are opportunities to teach problem-solving skills. Don’t let them pass by just because it’s easier to set the rules and forget them.

The “no ice cream before breakfast rule” is not one that you should be willing to bend for a five year old, and certainly not in the face of a power tantrum. But this is a good opportunity — a vacation with no morning rush, an outdoor setting where you may not disturb others — to help Mia manage her emotions. A harsh “no” and a spank in response to the tantrum is not likely to calm the situation, or help Mia learn how to manage herself. Be firm but calm. Sit down and wait. Explain the rule again to reinforce it, and explain why it makes sense for her health. Use a quiet voice. Mia won’t agree, and she may not fully understand. That’s not the point. You are demonstrating how to manage emotions, how to reason with others, and that you can disagree without being disagreeable.

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

3Mom and dad get an email from son Peter’s 7th-grade science teacher, informing them that Peter has been scoring low on tests, doesn’t seem to be paying attention in class and has been turning in late or incomplete assignments. He seems to be doing well in his other classes.

Kvols: Ask him what grade he would like to be getting in that class instead of imposing your opinion on him. Discuss with Peter what is going on in that class. Perhaps he is struggling with the teacher, may he needs to be moved from the back of the room to the front of the room. Perhaps there is something distracting going on in the room. Once you know what his goal is, ask him how you can best support him. Hiring a college tutor can often inspire a teen. They like being with older kids. Pick one that you would like to have as a good role model.

Make sure the child has the skill you are requiring of him. One mom had a 13 year-old son who was getting a C in a subject. Mother thought he was just being lazy. However, she discovered that her son was really smart and had up until this time gotten good grades without studying. Mother, through non-judgmental query found out that he didn’t know how to study. So she taught him some study skills and her son is now getting an A in that subject.

Guthrie It would be important to have more information regarding Peter’s behavior in general and past academic performance, changes in 7th grade as well as specific information about Science class. If there are other issues regarding his behavior that are worrisome (skipping curfew, sullenness, hygiene, etc) this could be indicative or a larger problem then that is important but at first blush I would not be too worried. If Peter acts like he does not care, I would not accept that at face value. Most kids want to do well. If Peter is not doing well I doubt it is by choice. It is a mistake to “get moral about motivation” — we are motivated to do things that we are good at and less motivated to attempt more challenging tasks. So I would not think of discipline as my first step but approach this situation from a neutral point of view, like a detective, in hopes of learning more.

Having a conversation with Peter is probably a good place to start, asking him how he thinks school in general is going what he thinks make be making it difficult for him to do as well in Science as he is doing in other subjects. Parents and Peter need to figure out if it is this teacher, the time of day (right before or after lunch, or just before end of school are especially hard times to pay attention), structural or curricular changes, peers or something else that may be more challenging for Peter.

After talking to their son, parents may want to meet with Peter’s advisor and even the science teacher (with or without Peter, depending) to explore this issue further, and learn how they could help support Peter with this work.

Homework supports and structure (Peter may leave Science assignments, his least favorite subject, to do last, when he is tired and therefore never completes it. If he started his homework with science he might finish it more quickly) may be all that is needed. If Peter shows improvements he can be praised and rewarded with something reasonable. If he continues to struggle further investigation may be warranted.

Brown: Before you talk with Peter, think about your purpose. You want to support his education, not undermine it. Don’t turn this into a conflict between parent and child and think about how to raise the issue without triggering a defensive reaction. There may be many reasons for Peter’s lack of attention in class, and you are more likely to help him if you understand those reasons before jumping to solutions. Does he dislike the teacher? Does he not understand the material? Does he get distracted by friends in the classroom? Is the class before lunch when his blood sugar is low? Is it early in the morning when he is tired?

This is a good opportunity to demonstrate how to raise a sensitive and difficult topic. Ask questions. Listen actively. Don’t lecture. Once you understand what may be causing the issue, THEN you can enlist Peter’s help in finding a solution. Can he change the time of his class? Will a snack before class help? Will a tutor be more engaging? You are more likely to change Peter’s approach to the class if you work WITH him, not AGAINST him, and if he feels both your support and your interest in his success.

Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images

4Early in the morning, while the parents are still sleeping, 7-year-old Katie and her 5-year-old brother Jacob sneak into the kitchen and climb onto the counter, where they remove a box of cookies and a bag of Halloween candy from an “out-of-reach” shelf in the pantry. They proceed to consume two Milky Way bars, seven Twizzlers and the remainder of a family-size pack of Double Stuf Oreos. When Mom and Dad confront them, they lie.

Kvols: Five and 7 year olds still frequently lie. This is to be expected developmentally. Sometimes children lie because they are afraid that they will get into trouble or be punished. It is helpful to explain that they aren’t going to get in trouble if they tell the truth.

Don’t ask questions you know the answer to. This sets your child up to lie. Instead of asking, “Did you eat the candy?” you may want to say, “This is not OK that you guys ate this candy without asking.”Don’t ask a questions you know the answer to, this sets your child up to lie. Instead of asking, “Did you eat the candy?” you may want to say, “This is not OK that you guys ate this candy without asking.” Then go on to ask how their tummies feel and explain what eating that much candy does to their bodies. Allowing the children experience the natural consequence of having tummy aches can be more powerful than any discipline measure you could give them. What a great lesson for them to learn: if I eat junk food, my body feels jittery or my tummy aches.

Guthrie: Young children will often “lie” when they know they have done something wrong or are worried about getting into trouble. And most kids love sweets which are manufactured with the main intent of creating craving.

If parents KNOW their kids did something I would not even waste time getting them to admit it — that is more of a power play and invites a struggle.

In this case I would suggest saying “You ate all those treats before breakfast? That is not OK. Bet you have a stomach ache from all that junk. No more sweets today (or this week depending on parent).” If the kids feel really nauseous then that alone may serve to modify their behavior in the future. The punishment (no more sweets for a day or a week) is not immediate but may work. Alternatively the parent could throw all the junk into the garbage in front of the kids and not buy it for a while … or ever again! If parents want to eat it themselves later then they’ll need to find a better hiding place for their stash!

Brown: In our household, “Don’t lie” is an almost unbreakable rule. I say “almost” because all of us shade the truth for different reasons, often to avoid hurting another’s feelings. Children lie for different reasons, too, but usually to avoid disappointing or angering a parent. A lie is a signal that your child is afraid to tell the truth. Learn from that signal. The wrong kind of punishment can make lies more likely rather than less. Good discipline both educates and discourages bad behavior. I always tried to make it clear that I would be more angry about a lie than the truth, no matter what the truth might be.

Katie and Jacob are at good teachable ages and lies about eating are common (I hid peas in my cheeks until I could spit them in the toilet, claiming all the while that I had eaten them.) Remember that the purpose of discipline is teaching. If you know your child well, you will know how to teach them. The seriousness of your tone of voice may be more effective than sending them to their rooms where they may think about how to avoid getting caught the next time.

Photo illustration by Nicki Pardo/Getty Images

Photo illustration by Nicki Pardo/Getty Images

5Siblings Sonia, 11 and Jackson, 9, fight constantly on the car ride home from school.

Kvols: At a friendly time, tell your child that it is not safe for you to drive when there is commotions going on in the car. Ask them what they think mom should do when they fight? Help them to brain storm solutions. One Dad and kids decided to learn Portuguese on their way home. Another mom discovered that her children were hungry after school so they decided to keep healthy snacks in the car.

If all else fails, mother might tell her children that if they choose to fight, that she will pull over to the side of the road and wait until they stop. Mom should not threaten to do this. Her action will speak much louder than her words. Caution: Don’t do this on the way to work!

Guthrie: Almost all siblings fight in the car. I consider it a developmental rite of passage. Ignore. If it is so distracting as to be dangerous to the driver than pull over, turn around and say they have to stop because you cannot pay attention to driving. Say if they do not stop then they cannot watch TV/computer or whatever they like to do when you get home, and then resume driving. If they continue to fight, stop the car remind them there will be no TV/computer, etc., then resume. When you get home NO TV/COMPUTER, etc.

Brown: Despite the fact that your first reaction may be to drop the cone of silence, this is a good time to teach problem-solving by being a mediator. First calm them down so they can listen. Set a reasonable tone. Say something that will reduce their level of defensiveness so they can hear each other: “You don’t have anything scheduled today, so we’re going to sit here quietly and talk about this for a few minutes. I used to fight with my sister all the time, and I wish I hadn’t. Sometimes you two get along really well, but sometimes you don’t. I really want to understand what goes off track.”

Look for the underlying issues so they can address the problems rather than attack each other: “I want you to each think for a minute about what bugs you about each other. None of us is perfect. I bug your dad and he bugs me sometimes, but we deal with it. Sonia, what bothers you?” Ask them for ideas: “Jacob, what do you think you could do differently to avoid bugging Sonia?” Hear their ideas before suggesting your own.

Ask for a commitment at the end of the discussion: “Now you each know what bothers each other, and you each know a few things you can do differently to avoid problems. Can you agree to practice those ideas for the next week? I’m going to call you out if I see you slipping.”

A good mediation is like therapy. We learn about others and ourselves, and a third party can help raise and resolve issues in ways that we find hard to do on our own.

Photo illustration by Getty Images

Photo illustration by Getty Images


6Brandon, 15, has, in the past three months, broken an arm and lost a front tooth performing dangerous and unsupervised stunts on his skateboard.

Kvols: Research has found that the teen brain has a need for taking risks. Help Brandon find less dangerous forms of risk taking like high board diving or fencing.

Guthrie: This is dangerous. I care about Brandon’s arm and tooth but I care even more about his brain. I would want to know first if he is wearing a helmet — actually wearing it.

Risk taking behavior may be limited to one specific activity, in this case skate boarding, but is more commonly associated with multiple risks. I would want to be certain that Brandon is not taking other risks such as smoking, drinking, exposing himself to potentially dangerous social situations, ignoring his school work, etc. If risk taking is limited only to skate boarding I’d share my concerns with Brandon, discuss the “cost” to his health and your families functioning as well as finances and see if there was a solution that you all could arrive at (is there a skate park near by?). If that goes nowhere or if these are not isolated risks (as I suspect), I would share my concerns with Brandon, maybe meet with him and his pediatrician or adolescent medicine specialist and perhaps seek a consultation with a behavioral specialist. I would be inclined to confiscate Brandon’s skateboard until he was assessed, explaining that if you learn that he has been using other kids he will be grounded, and follow through.

Brown: Once your children reach their teenage years, you should be working with them more than you are directing them. This is a hard transition for parents to make. They are still your children and you think you know best. They are living in your house, so you think you have a right to direct them. But you are also hoping that they will learn what is best for themselves, and that they will learn to direct themselves. It’s time to let them make some mistakes and take some risks. It’s time to let them fail and learn to recover. Brandon is learning his limits. You want him to be safe, but you don’t want to drive him away. Negotiate some rules with him. You will let him keep the skateboard if he agrees to wear a helmet. Make sure he knows that his accidents have consequences for you as well — medical care is expensive, insurance deductibles are going up. Does he think he should share the cost? If not, why not? You want Brandon to begin thinking about the longer term consequences of his behavior. This is one more opportunity to help him do that.

Photo illustration by Getty Images

Photo illustration by Getty Images

7Monica, 16, says she’s spending the night at her friend Lisa’s house. Lisa says she’s spending the night at Monica’s. Monica and Lisa’s mothers accidentally run into each other in sporting goods section of Target the following morning and uncover the lie. After some digging, they learn that Monica and Lisa were at a party with no supervision and underage drinking.

Kvols: Building trust is a very important life skill that teens need to learn. Teens respond better to a short discussion about useful life skills than they are to being lectured to. Rather than punishing or taking away privileges (which only makes teens angry and revengeful), we recommend talking to her about the consequence of her sneaking out are that she has lost her parents trust and will need to re-earn their trust. Then create a list together with her on ways she can earn their trust back.

Going forward, let your teen know that you will check sporadically to make sure that they are where they said they will be. In this way, the teen never knows when her parents will check up on her so she can’t play any tricks on her parents.

Relationship is everything with teens. When parents take time to be with them, ask their opinion, listen to them, teens will be do less misbehavior because they love and respect their parents.

­Guthrie: This is dangerous and willfully misleading behavior that requires firm and prompt parental response. When parents are frightened they often get angry. It is usually best to wait until that anger diminishes before addressing this behavior directly with Monica.

Effective punishments for this age include taking away car keys, being grounded, additional chores.

Parents should sit with Monica and ask her what happened. Parents should listen then ask her if she thought it was “dangerous.” Adolescents are often very poor at assessing risk. Then I would ask her what made her lie about it. It might be helpful for parents tell Monica how upset and disappointed they are not only because she but herself in this situation, but also because she lied. Parents might also want to figure out who hosted the party and speak to the parent. I would ask Monica what she thinks would be appropriate punishment for this behavior that you, Monica and parents can discuss. But there has to be some consequence as this was dangerous and devious. Hopefully this conversation will be an opportunity to improve communication that may help diminish future risk taking.

Also, many parents have an amnesty policy — i.e. that their child can call them at any time if they are at a party and feel unsafe and there will be no disciplinary consequences. I think that this is generally a good thing and helps keep kids safe. Especially if it involves drinking and driving.

Brown: Breaking the law is another behavior that should not be open to negotiation, but it is one notch below their safety in my book. Monica and Lisa lied because they knew their mothers would disapprove, and they should disapprove. On the other hand, we want our children to tell us the truth. And we want them to be safe. Personally, I would rather have my children tell me they may be at a party with alcohol than have them lie and go anyway. I have always told my kids that I will pick them up anywhere, anytime, with no questions asked, but if they die while driving drunk I’ll kill them. I’m quite sure they have not told me the whole truth about the parties they have attended, but I also know they will call if they need a ride.

By the time your children are 16, you want to be able to work with them, but you can’t work with them if they won’t talk to you. If you have modeled and taught them the skills they need to manage their emotions, listen with empathy, talk in ways that others will hear, and work together with others to solve problems, then you have been a great parent!

How would you handle these situations? Tell us in the comments below.

Rebecca Jacobson contributed to this report.