Five Strategies That Help Kids Want to Behave

Laura Markham's picture

by Dr. Laura Markham

Discipline is one of the most googled words for parents. Most assume that discipline means some form of punishment.

But you may have heard that the word "discipline" has nothing to do with punishment. The root of "discipline" is "disciple," from the verb "to teach." The question, of course, is what kind of discipline is most conducive to learning?

Research shows that the most effective discipline strategy is to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Kids who are close to their parents cooperate more. Because they aren't on the defensive from being punished, they learn to see themselves as good people who can take responsibility for their own behavior. They want approval more than whatever's tempting them.

Kids who are punished, on the other hand, are less likely to take responsibility for their own behavior. They don't learn to impose loving limits on themselves, so they have a harder time developing self-discipline. They become more angry and rebellious.

Ultimately, love is the only leverage we have with our children. Even if they worked, fear and power (from spanking to timeouts) only last for as long as they can be physically enforced. Every parent knows how fast children grow; fear works for a very short time. Love, on the other hand, becomes a more effective motivator over time.

Here's how Positive Discipline through Connection works:

  1. Evaluate all discipline based on whether it strengthens or weakens your relationship with your child. Use Loving Guidance, not punishment, which is destructive to your relationship with your child and ultimately creates more misbehavior. Loving guidance is setting limits and reinforcing expectations, but in an empathic way that helps the child focus on improving her behavior rather than on being angry at you.

  2. Start all discipline by reaffirming the connection. Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye before you tell her she can't take another child's toy. Suggesting that she practice piano will work better if you can first tell her sincerely how much you loved the way she played the piece yesterday. Before you talk with him about that fender bender, be sure he knows you're relieved he wasn't hurt.

  3. Don't hesitate to set limits as necessary, but always with empathy, which will make them more effective. Limits are not punishment. In any situation posing physical danger, intervene immediately to set limits, but simultaneously connect by empathizing. "The rule is no hitting, even though she made you really mad by teasing like that. Let's sit down and talk about this."

  4. If your discipline doesn't work, it's a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction ("I don't care what you say, you can't make me!"), it's always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. Focus on how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child behave.

  5. Wean yourself off timeouts and consequences. Timeouts are just a mild form of punishment, involving banishment and humiliation. Consequences can work, but only natural ones. If parents engineer the consequences, any child will see them as punishment.

Over time, of course, kids reap the rewards of their behavior -- good grades, self-esteem, approval from others -- and it becomes part of their self image. But this positive way of being always starts with feeling good about themselves, and that begins with their reflection in our eyes.

As both a mom and a Clinical Psychologist with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Dr. Laura Markham offers a unique perspective on raising kids. Her relationship-based parenting model has helped thousands of families across the U.S. and Canada find compassionate, common-sense solutions to everything from separation anxiety and sleep problems to sass talk and cell phones. Dr. Markham is the founding editor of www.YourParentingSolutions.com and www.AhaParenting.com, where she regularly takes on a wide range of challenging questions from parents who struggle with “the toughest, most rewarding job on earth.”

On Pregnancy.org, Dr. Markham fields questions from our community members on her Expert Forum and hosts a regular Online Chat on Wednesdays. .

Dr. Markham is the author of the Q&A e-book series, Ask Dr. Markham, with editions for all ages from birth to teens, and of the soon-to-be-released, The Secret Life of Happy Moms, which lays out her relationship-based approach to raising kids who turn out great. Dr. Markham lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, daughter, and son.

Copyright © Laura Markham. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.