The Trick & Traps of Discipline

Many children who are strong willed, have leadership potential or are challenged academically donít respond well to many forms of discipline.

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

"Caitlyn. Itís time to go home."

"No Daddy. I want to stay and play."

"Caitlyn. It is time to go home. Dinner is ready."

"Please Daddy. I can eat here."

I understand Caitlyn. Is there anything else you want to say.

"No. I just want to stay and play a little while longer."

"Caitlyn. It is time to go home. I want you to come with me now."

"But DaddyÖ Itís not fair."

I looked at her until I counted to 15 and then I said "Is there anything else you want to say."

She paused and finally said, "Dalton, I have to go."

Caitlyn then asked me to carry her on my shoulders and I said, "I love to carry you on my shoulders. Iíll keep the grass from biting you." Caitlyn then said, "The grass doesnít bite you Daddy."

This was really hard to do but it works. I didnít argue. I didnít get upset. I listened. I remained firm. Why? Because I am teaching my daughter that I will listen and think about what she says. I didnít threaten her, didnít use coercion and there were no power struggles. I was fair, kind and firm. Our emotional bonds were never threatened and we actually had some fun as I went home jumping up and down saying, "Help. Help. The grass is eating my little piggies".

Raising and disciplining children is a challenge. No parenting subject is filled with more disagreement and inconsistency than the issue of discipline. Deciding on the best way to discipline children is confusing to many parents and even educators. For instance, many children who are strong willed, have leadership potential or are challenged academically donít respond well to many forms of discipline.

Essential Discipline.

There are some essential and down to earth principals that are necessary for all children. Regardless of the approach, children invariably need,

- Guidance is providing supervision, structure, routines and periodic monitoring of your childís behavior, performance and level of success. Children need parents who become more involved with their children when they begin to fail or make mistakes.

- Instruction is providing children with examples, information and explanations regarding expectations. Children need parents who provide information upon which children can solve problems and make choices.

- Training is providing children with activities that require practice and corrective action. Children need to practice what is expected in order to succeed. Routines are essential.

- Choices involve allowing children freedom and opportunities within limits to be curious, explore, make decisions and learn based on the outcome. Children need to explore the physical and social world within safe limits that insure opportunities for success and occasional failure that is not overwhelming.

- Consequences involve allowing children to discover the natural result of their actions. Some consequences must be imposed by parents or caregivers. Children need parents who monitor and create consequence that do not overwhelm their child with failure but rather inspire effort to succeed.

- Emotionally bonded relationships. Children and parents form emotional bonds when they are involved in activities together where children face challenges. These bonds result in caring and consideration for others as well as self-confidence. Children need parents who can maintain emotional bonds even when their child is punished. Discipline should never threaten the bond between a parent and a child.


Rewards are intended to encourage behavior. Giving your child something they want or will appreciate is one way to encourage any behavior. Small children will usually appreciate colorful stickers, treats, toys and compliments. Older kids prefer things like video games, going to movies or being placed in some special status within a class, group or family.

In most cases parents will reward a specific behavior with a specific gift. Specific and consistent rewards that follow a desired behavior is an effective way to start, but periodic and occasional rewards later on create a lasting impact. Children become persistent when they are rewarded periodically and not all the time. One great way to reward a child is to simply make a childís life more wonderful for a day or part of a day. Nearly all kids, especially young children, value time, adventures and activities with their parents. This might include playing games, building things, going for walks and reading to your child. Rewards are very effective when they are used as part of a celebration or acknowledgment of your childís behavior. One of the best ways to find out what is truly rewarding to your child is to first notice what your child enjoys doing most. After your child does well, plan to spend time with your child and become involved in the activities they enjoy.

Caution: The most powerful and lasting source of self-discipline comes from internal rewards and not external rewards. Giving a child an external reward (like a treat or a compliment) for responsible and appropriate behavior will get their attention, but too many external rewards can make children look outwardly for a reason to do anything. Self-discipline and responsibility comes when children also look inside for the reason they do anything. External rewards are important, but it is also important to ask your child how they felt when they acted responsibly or did what was expected. Be ready to reward your child for their behavior, but also the reason they did it.


A useful definition of punishment is anything unpleasant or painful that follows what your child did that makes them stop, escape or avoid what they did in the future. This would include a swat on the bottom, getting upset, making them do something over, taking away privileges or giving them chores. As you can imagine, punishment is a very controversial subject. Punishing a child doesnít mean you are necessarily inflicting physical pain. There are some useful tricks and ways to discipline children using punishment. Taking away a privilege is less effective than requiring them to practice more appropriate behavior or giving children extra chores. At the same time, taking away a privilege for a period of time while allowing your child to earn their privileges back sooner is often highly effective. Grounding children and time-outs are only effective if the child has the opportunity to correct or rectify the situation. Making a child think about what they did wrong is not nearly as important as practice doing it correctly and feeling good after the effort. Grounding children for weeks is only effective if you also need to remove them from a problem and the influence of other kids. It is better to remove privileges, let them earn them back through chores and making amends for their behavior. This might include written apologies, community service and extra work.

Many children feel guilty or bad when they are punished. Punishments should tell a child they made a mistake. Punishment should never communicate that a child "is a mistake." For this reason alone it is very important to acknowledge and reward children more than they are punished.

Caution: Criticism, sarcasm and humiliation are punishing behaviors, and they are the worst and least effective forms of discipline. Punishment is also not effective when it is excessive, coercive or the result of power struggles. These forms will usually produce immediate compliance, but they do not result in a lasting positive response. In fact abuse, coercion and power struggles can create oppositional, defiant, abusive and antisocial behavior in children. Physical punishment is not very effective if you end up doing it a lot, and it usually teaches children that violence is a solution and one way to get what you want. Using physical punishment on children who also happen to be physically abusive will usually result in children hurting each other when you are not around.

It is not wise to give children homework as a punishment. The consequence may turn out that your child will resent homework and studying. School and school work is hard enough and sometimes a childís failure in school is punishment enough. Giving homework to improve a childís grades is better than giving them homework for being rude.

Power struggles and coercion take place whenever you threaten a child or give that child a choice that will result in a punishment if the child does not comply. "If you donít do what I tell you, then you will spend the rest of the day in your room" is a typical example of a coercive power struggle. There is a winner and a loser during all power struggles. Arguments are the most common power struggles. While some power struggles are necessary to keep children safe from harm, power struggles over minor disagreements are questionable. You should stop your child from running into the street but you canít force a child to eat their corn. Children raised through repeated power struggles usually become stronger and just plain stubborn later in life.

The best way to avoid coercion and a power struggle is to set up rules, be clear about your expectations and then establish the consequences for breaking the rules ahead of time. Once a child knows the rules and what is expected, punishment is not coercive but rather a predictable and avoidable consequence. The greatest problem with punishment is the tendency for children to try to avoid or escape punishments. Deception, lying and denial are common ways that children try to avoid and escape punishment.

Finally, there is a risk if you punish you child too much and too often. Many children will begin to avoid, escape and disconnect from their parents and authority figures. Children will often retaliate when they feel mistreated, hurt or emotionally injured by punishment. They may take it out on their parents, other children and even animals .One way that children stop feeling punished is to get angry or stop caring about the people who punish them. Children like this will begin to think. "Bring it on. You canít hurt me."

A Word About Spanking, Slapping And Other Physical Punishment

Spanking and other forms of physical punishment are forms of discipline that tends to run in families. Some would argue that physical punishment is not discipline but more like abuse than anything else. It has been observed that parents who were spanked as children usually believe it was good for them and therefore good for their children as well. That is not a research based conclusion, but some parents insist that it is good for their children. Most parents these days donít consider it necessary to spank or slap a child for misbehavior. In truth, spanking is not necessary and is usually what happens when parents are frustrated, donít know what else to do and they donít have time to discover options.

The facts and research on physical punishment is rather confusing, but that is mostly because the research has been done poorly. What we know is that most of the children who are spanked and physically hurt will usually end up taking it out on other kids or animals. Many children who experience a great deal of physical punishment seem to learn that violence and abuse may be a solution when people donít do what they want. Slapping children and any physical contact that results in an injury is abuse and should be reported and may be against the law. This includes emotional trauma, bruises and red marks. (For more information on child abuse, reporting and the signs, please see www.CrisisCounseling.Com and click on "Abuse & Violence" and then click on "Child Abuse")

copyright 2003 to 2008, Michael G. Conner