The term "discipline" comes from the Latin word
"disciplinare," which means "to teach." Many
people, however, associate the word with punishment, which falls short of
the full meaning of the word. Discipline, properly practiced, uses a
multifaceted approach, including models, rewards, and punishments that
teach and reinforce desired behavior. Through discipline, children are
able to learn self-control, self-direction, competence, and a sense of
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that an effective discipline
system must contain three elements. If these three aspects are all present
in a program of discipline, the result generally is improved child
behavior. The elements are:
There are several reasons why children may not behave properly, including
a lack of effective disciplinary measures. Children also commonly
misbehave when they are deprived of adult attention or when they are
tired, bored, or hungry. Children from families affected by
and separation, poverty, substance abuse, and parental depression seem to
be at greater risk for behavior problems. There may also be biologic
factors such as
(ADHD) and certain temperaments that predispose particular children
towards misbehavior. There is also research suggesting that harsh
disciplinary measures may actually increase poor behavior.
Ideally, discipline is based on appropriate expectations for each child,
based on age and stage of development. It should be used to set reasonable
limits in a consistent manner while still allowing some choice among
acceptable alternatives. Discipline teaches both social and moral
standards and should protect children from harm by teaching what is safe.
It should also guide children to respect the rights and property of
Though there are a variety of ways in which children may be disciplined,
there are some guidelines that all parents should follow:
Disciplinary techniques that are most effective take place in the context
of a loving and secure relationship between parent and child.
Parents' responses to a child's behavior, whether approving
or disapproving, are likely to have a greater effect in a secure, loving
environment, because children long for their parents' approval. As
children respond to this positive relationship and consistent discipline,
the need for negative interaction decreases.
Positive reinforcement focuses on good behavior rather than on undesirable
behavior. Parents should identify appropriate behaviors and give frequent
feedback, rewarding good behavior quickly so that the child associates the
"prize" with the wanted behavior. A reward can be a word of
praise, a special activity, additional privileges, or material items. Many
desirable behavioral patterns start to emerge as a part of the
child's normal development. The role of parents is to notice these
behaviors and provide positive attention to them. Some other desirable
behaviors are not part of a child's normal development and need to
be modeled and taught by their parents. These behaviors include sharing,
good manners, effective study habits, among others. Parents need to
identify those skills and behaviors they want their children to
demonstrate and then make a concerted effort to teach and strengthen those
behaviors. Children who learn through positive reinforcement tend to
internalize the newly learned behaviors.
Extinction is a type of discipline that seeks to prevent inadvertent
positive reinforcement for negative behavior. "Time-out" is
one of the most common methods in this category. For younger children,
time out usually involves removing parental attention and praise or
placing the child a chair or some other place for a specified time with no
parental interaction. The environment should be neutral, boring, and safe.
Time-out works well for children from 18 months up to five or six years of
age and is particularly useful for temper
, yelling, whining, and fighting. The session should end only when the
child has been calm and quiet for at least 15 seconds. Time out should
last for a specified time, usually one minute per year of life (to a
maximum of five minutes). Withholding privileges is another form of
extinction that is more appropriate for older children and adolescents.
This strategy requires the removal of a valued privilege and works best if
it is used infrequently.
Parents may express disapproval of a behavior by scolding or yelling. This
may be effective if used very sparingly. However, if used too often it can
in the child and encourage the child to ignore the parent.
Corporal punishment involves the application of some sort of physical
in response to a child's undesired behavior. This response can
range from a light slapping of a hand to severe beatings that qualify as
. Because of this range in form and severity, the use of corporal
punishment as a disciplinary method is controversial. In spite of the
significant concerns raised by child-care experts, one form of physical
punishment—spanking—remains a widely used measure to reduce
undesired behavior in children. Over 90 percent of all families report
having used spanking at some time as a means of discipline. Despite its
common acceptance, research shows that spanking is a less effective form
of discipline than others, such as time-out or removal of privileges.
Although it may immediately stop a behavior, the effectiveness of spanking
tends to decrease with repeated use. The only way to maintain the initial
effect of spanking is to increase its intensity, which runs the risk of
escalating to abuse. Spanking, at best, is only effective when used in
selective, very infrequent situations.
Children who receive corporal punishment tend to grow into angry adults.
The use of spanking in older children is associated with higher rates of
substance abuse and crime and has been linked to poor
, depression, and poor educational performance.
Discipline strategies with infants should be passive. The main goal is for
parents to generally structure daily routines but to also demonstrate
flexibility in meeting infants' emerging needs. As infants become
more mobile, parents need to impose some limitations and structure in
order to create a safe environment in which the child can
and explore. Parents must protect infants from all potential hazards in
the home by instituting
practices. If a child does attempt to play with or approach something
dangerous or unacceptable, a firm "No" should suffice, along
with either removing the child from the area or by distracting the child
with an alternative activity. Parents should not
expect that reasoning or reprimands will control the behavior of an
Toddlers, like infants, still benefit most from passive types of
discipline and a toddler-safe environment. Again, saying
"No", along with redirecting behavior, is usually effective
if the toddler is doing something unacceptable. At this stage, however,
children are starting to test the limits of their power over and over
again. It is important for parents to consistently set limits and stick to
them. Doing so reduces the child's confusion and his or her need to
test. This is also the time when time-outs might be introduced, especially
when redirecting the child's attention no longer seems to work.
Preschoolers are starting to understand the need for rules, and their
behavior should be guided by these rules and the associated consequences.
It is very important that children understand what is expected of them and
why they are punished for a particular behavior. Preschoolers also learn
from having their good behaviors rewarded.
If rules for behavior have been consistently modeled and expected by the
parents, children should exhibit an increased sense of responsibility and
self-control when they become school age. Timeouts and consequences
continue to be effective disciplinary measures in this age group. As
children continue to mature and desire more responsibility and
independence, teaching them to deal with the consequences of their
behavior is an effective method of discipline. By the time they have
become teenagers, children should know what is expected of them and what
the potential consequences of misbehavior are. However, discipline remains
just as important for teens as it does for younger children. Teens require
boundaries. This structure continues to provide order and a sense of
security for children until they reach adulthood. When teens do break
rules, taking away some of their privileges seems to be the most effective
type of disciplinary measure.
One of the most common problems in child discipline is an inconsistent
approach between two parents. It may prove helpful for parents to
regularly communicate regarding their child's behavior and decide
ahead of time what disciplinary methods are to be used.
—The application of a negative stimulus to reduce or eliminate a
behavior. The two types typically used with children are verbal
reprimands and punishment involving physical pain, as in corporal
—A discipline strategy that entails briefly isolating a
disruptive child in order to interrupt and avoid reinforcement of
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Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by
Establishing Clear, Firm and Respectful Boundaries.
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Banks, J. Burton. "Childhood Discipline: Challenges for Clinicians
American Family Physician
(October 15, 2002).
Regalado, Michael, et al. "Parents' Discipline of Young
Children: Results from the National Survey of Early Childhood
113 (June 2004): 1952–1958.
Sears, William. "A Beginner's Guide to Discipline: Dr.
William Sears Offers Six Strategies to Use Now to Help You Raise a Child
Who's a Treat—Not a Terror."
(September 1, 2003): 52.
Center for Effective Discipline.
155 West Main St., Suite 1603, Columbus, OH 43215. Web site:
402 West Ojai Avenue, 101–246, Ojai, CA 93023. Web site:
"Disciplining Your Child."
, June 2001. Available online at
(accessed December 27, 2004).