Crash Course: 8 Ways to Discipline Your Kids

5 minute read

Whether you’re a parent or babysitter sometimes you need a go-to trick or two—or three— when it comes to discipline. All families develops their own approach when it comes to doling out punishment for bad behavior, but in case you need a little inspiration, we’ve rounded up some expert opinions on the most effective strategies.

These are listed roughly in order of escalation. Remember, you’re playing the long game here. You need to immediately stop violent or dangerous behavior (experimenting with the stove or a sibling’s eyes), but for other infractions, bear in mind that you’re trying to create a new human with a sense of right and wrong, empathy and decency. So sometimes, it’s worth trying something a couple of times before moving on, especially since kids really respond to consistency.

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Each of these methods has its upside and downside and, for the most part, we are not debating the merits, so much as suggesting the approaches a parent might like to try. Discipline is never less work for parents than it is for kids, so choose your battles wisely.

Let natural consequences play out: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is a fan of teaching children through natural consequences. For instance, if a child is tossing her crackers on the floor, don’t pick them up. At a certain point she will learn that throwing her food on the floor means she no longer gets to eat it. Throwing toys against the wall could mean that they break, and a child can no longer use them.

Try some logical consequences: When natural consequences are not doing the trick, stepping in to create a consequence of your own can work well. For instance, removing the toy being chucked at the wall and locking it up for the rest of the day. Try to be as consistent as possible when you choose consequences or when reacting to behavior that needs to change.

Guide the child to better behavior: Dr. Ben Siegel, the immediate past chair of the AAP committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child & Family Health is an advocate for positive parenting, which includes guiding a child toward better behaviors. “Discipline means to teach,” he says. According to Siegel, kids do not cognitively understand or remember the rules of the house until age 2.5 or 3 and around that age, kids can be stubborn. Siegel recommends guiding children to appropriate behavior by giving them choices. For example, if a child doesn’t want to put in their jacket, a parent could say, ‘fine, but you have to carry it.’ Or insisting a child can have dessert only if they finish their dinner.

Other experts have created techniques around a similar idea, arguing that decisions should be made collaboratively with a child and that children should be empowered to suggest their own solutions to behavioral issues they are having. For instance, does the child have any ideas for what would make bath time less onerous?

Withhold a child’s privileges: You know the drill. When a child is acting up, they lose something they like. Experts recommend taking away privileges or cherished items immediately, and choosing something that’s not a necessity; depriving them of a meal would be a bad idea. Depending on the age of the child, canceling a playdate that wasn’t going to happen until the evening may allow too much time to pass for the message to stick.

Scold strategically: The AAP isn’t a big fan of yelling, but at a certain point, raising your voice may be necessary to get a child’s attention or to simply be heard over their own tantrums. Experts suggest avoiding screaming things that are humiliating or are physical threats because they don’t appear to be that effective. And because kids are great mimics. When parents totally lose their cool, which can certainly happen, recognizing and talking about any mistakes or regrets in that interaction can be a learning experience for both child and parent.

Use non-negotiable arguments: When the inevitable “It’s not fair” argument arises, some experts suggest using firm responses along the lines of “No it’s not,” or simply, “I know.” It’s an easy trick for stopping a fight in its tracks. Parents can offer some sympathy by acknowledging they understand the child is upset, but that their decision is still final.

Enforce an effective time out: To pull off a successful time out, experts suggest sending a child to a pre-designated corner or to a chair. Avoid sending a child to their room, where they are may be more distractions and toys. Some recommend assigning a minute for every year in the child’s age. What if they just refuse? You may need to sit with the child, or remain nearby to monitor them. Other experts even recommend having a “time-in” rather than a “time-out” which consists of sitting with the child to talk and reflect about their behavior.

What to do about spanking: The AAP says don’t do it, arguing it teaches aggression and is not very productive. Yet statistics suggest many parents do so anyway. A 2013 Harris poll for instance showed 8 in 10 people surveyed thought spanking was appropriate at least “sometimes” and 86% reported being spanked themselves when they were a child. For the low-down on spanking, read TIME’s recent feature on the behavior.

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