Discipline and Parenting: the Difficult Questions

By: Jennifer L. Galle MA, LCPC

If you are a parent reading this article, you probably do not need anyone to tell you that parenting is difficult.  From virtually the very moment that you learn you will be adding a child to your family, many parents feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and importance of the decisions presented to them.  Breastfeeding or bottle feeding?  Should you use cloth diapers or disposables?  And as time progresses, the decisions continue.  Is your child ready for preschool?  Should you keep them on a schedule, or just “let kids be kids?”  Let them have that can of soda pop at a friend’s birthday party, or gently direct them towards healthier options? 

Many parents find these decisions overwhelming and confusing, despite the sheer volume of information at our fingertips, both figuratively and literally, if you carry a smart phone.  In 2011, 3,520 parenting books were published or distributed in the U.S (Petersen 2012).  A Google search for “children and immunizations” currently yields about 6,430,000 results (in 0.27 seconds).  But in over a decade of counseling children and their families, I have found that the majority of parents can research, navigate, and compromise their way through these decisions.  The question that overwhelmingly brings them to my office door is “What about discipline?”

As I often remind parents, the word “discipline” means “to teach” (Merriam Webster 2014).  But how?  The day to day answer to that question can be complicated, but becomes surprisingly simpler if you follow the guidance of three basic principles: consistency, balance, and relationship.

Consistency first involves creating a clearly communicated and age appropriate idea of expectations for your child.  For those with partners in parenting, whether that be a spouse, grandparent, or friend, this means beginning with an “adults only” conversation surrounding rules, rewards, consequences, and expectations for your child.  There is no guidebook dictating  what time a child goes to bed, if homework should be done right  after school or following a snack break, or the ideal curfew for your seventeen going on eighteen year old.  Individually, the answers to these questions are not the most important aspect of discipline; the most importance aspect is compromising with your partner and creating a clear and consistent rules that both of you feel comfortable enforcing with your child.  The second aspect of consistency then comes as a result of the follow through in terms of discipline.  Quite simply, say what you mean and mean what you say.  The quickest way to sabotage the discipline in your household is through the use of idle threats or not responding consistently to a behavior, whether that is in terms of a promised “reward” or a “consequence for negative behavior.

Our next principle is the concept of balance.  For many of us, we respond more actively and immediately to negative behavior than we do positive.  If our children are playing nicely together building a Lego castle, we relish the quiet and take advantage of that time to tackle the pile of laundry threatening to take over the laundry room.  But when the screaming match ensues over the Xbox controller, we immediately respond and take action.  Balance involves making an active effort to respond to both positive and negative behaviors, and hopefully even out that playing field.  Notice and respond to the positive choices that your child makes on a daily basis.  Make it a point to tell them the little things about them that you admire and appreciate.  Your goal in discipline is not only to address the behaviors that you do not want to repeat, but also to encourage positive behaviors and choices through your words, actions, and responses.

Finally, we come to the principle of relationship.  Think back on your life to a person of authority that inspired you to work harder.  The boss that could ask you to stay late to finish up a project and when you clocked out of the office at midnight, you felt proud and part of a team rather than resentment.  The teacher who assigned an essay that had you proofreading and perfecting for several hours after completing it because you wanted it to be “just right” before turning it in.  Chances are, that inspiration to work harder stemmed from the quality of the relationship with that individual.  For children and teens, controlling their impulses and making positive choices can and should be acknowledged as hard work.  If you want your child to “work hard” in the world of discipline (and life), be the type of authority figure that inspires hard work.  Spend time with them, and both tell and show them how special they are.  Let them talk about their thoughts, ideas, and interests without judgment.  When they make a mistake, implement the necessary consequences calmly and consistently, but then move forward.  Create trust, and your child will follow you because they want to, not just because they have to.

Petersen, Andrea, Smarter Ways to Discipline Children,  Wall Street Journal (online), December 24, 2012.

 Merriam Webster, Definition of Discipline, online edition 2014.

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