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December 10, 2008 > The Do's and Don'ts of Discipline

The Do's and Don'ts of Discipline

Submitted By Sara Korolevich, First Five Alameda

Next to love, one of the best gifts parents and caregivers can give their children is a clear and consistent set of limits. Because discipline is often confused with punishment, many parents and caregivers may be reluctant to discipline their children, but doing so is very important. According to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, one of America's leading pediatricians, discipline teaches children acceptable boundaries meant to prevent them from making mistakes, whereas punishment simply addresses negative behavior and doesn't help children learn from the experience.

Proper discipline - not punishment - is critical to the growth of a healthy and happy child. The challenges of raising a child can sometimes leave parents wondering how to set appropriate limits. To help, the Bay Area First 5 county commissions provide the following tips for correcting negative behavior while still being a positive parent.

Do's of Discipline:

Set age-appropriate limits: Keep your child's age in mind when thinking about discipline. Children do not understand the concept of "yes" and "no" until they're approximately 12 months old. At this age, they'll begin to test limits. Children's ability to understand "right" from "wrong" develops as they get older.

Be consistent: It is important to stick with the rules and consequences you set. If you don't, your child isn't likely to stick to them either. Consistency helps your child learn that his or her behavior has a specific result. Inconsistency confuses children and encourages them to test limits.

Include your child in the solution: Help your child learn from mistakes by including him or her in the solution. For example, if your child purposely spills a cup of milk, give him or her a cloth to clean it up.

Teach acceptable behavior: Children learn by experiment. For example, a baby who keeps throwing a spoon off the high chair is not purposefully misbehaving, he or she just thinks it's a game when those nearby keep picking it up. Instead of simply saying "no," try redirecting your child's attention to a more acceptable behavior. In this situation, you could remove the spoon and help your child drink from his or her cup.

Be encouraging: Use praise and encouragement whenever possible to promote good behavior. Praise is especially effective when it's specific. Don't just say, "Good job." Instead say, "You did a good job putting your toy back where it goes." Remember that a little praise goes a long way.

Model appropriate behavior: Your child watches you closely for cues on how to behave. Children imitate their parents and caregivers and the old saying, "Do as I say, not as I do" doesn't work with kids. Be calm, but firm, when setting limits and model behaviors you're trying to emphasize, such as sharing and saying "please" and "thank you."

Don'ts of Discipline:

Never use physical punishment: Shaking or hitting your child is never appropriate. Physical punishment teaches your child that violence is a way to solve problems. Young children tend not to learn from physical punishment because they don't usually see the connection between their behavior and physical punishment.

Don't shame or belittle a child: When your child misbehaves, be sure to clearly tell him or her that it's his or her behavior that's unacceptable. Shaming or belittling your child damages his or her self-esteem. Use a respectful, encouraging tone of voice and avoid harsh words. This helps prevent hurting your child's self-image and promotes your child's willingness to cooperate.

Avoid gifts: Do not give items, particularly food, to reward good behavior. Instead, use smiles, nods or verbal praise to tell your child that you approve.

Don't communicate fear: Proper discipline helps children behave well because they want to, not because they are afraid of being punished. Once your child becomes a toddler, you can start reasoning with him or her and explain why certain behaviors are not allowed and have consequences. As children begin to understand the power of words, it is important to be as clear as possible.

Bay Area First 5 county commissions encourage all parents and caregivers to make the most of their child's first five years of life. For more information on this topic and for free parenting resources, contact your local First 5 county commission, including Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano and Sonoma counties, by visiting

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