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How we discipline children helps them grow for a lifetime

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Kristen Votava2 / 3
Sean Brotherson3 / 3

When it comes to discussing the role of discipline in raising children, Sean Brotherson would rather talk about guidance.  

“Discipline has been thought of as punishment — often harsh or severe punishment — and is translated into negative or punitive interaction with children,” said Brotherson, NDSU professor of human development.   

On the other hand, “ ‘guidance’ provides a different framework for correcting behavior.  It’s more about teaching — being loving and supportive of children rather than harming them in any way.”  

That’s not to say that Brotherson shuns the idea of boundaries.

“It is necessary to set limits about what is appropriate behavior and how we engage with others,” he said. “For example, parents need to teach a child that running out in the street in front of a car is not safe. You have to put a rein on that behavior.”   

Limits help a child to develop internal controls, he said. “The child learns how to manage his own behavior and make choices” about what he will do.

Growing up, “we learn to make choices and set limits on our behavior with the guidance of caring adults,” he said. “The challenge to adults is to be nurturing and supportive rather than harsh and punitive.”       

When a child hits his sister, for instance, the parent needs to teach “what it is that’s desired instead,” by providing an example of better behavior, he said.  

“It is typical to see more progress in behavior if we are reinforcing positive examples” rather than reacting negatively.

“As a parent, you’re always about correcting behavior,” he said. “The child needs clarity on behavior you want to set limits on. But instead of being the ‘behavior police,’ be focused and proactive in recognizing things the child is doing well.

“Be intentional about that rather than simply being annoyed (with poor behavior) and taking action to discourage it.”    

“There’s very definitely a place for saying ‘no,’ ” he said, “but we don’t want the child’s primary mindset to be negative.”

Kids want connection

Because children want a sense of connection with people, it’s important to develop the kind of parenting that fosters it, he said.

“In the absence of a positive, caring connection with the caregiver, the child may resort to behaviors that result in that connection,” he said, explaining misbehavior as a way to garner attention.   

But Brotherson encourages parents to think “beyond the behavior,” he said. “Why is the child doing what he’s doing? Think about how to respond to that, in addition to responding to the behavior.”

Kristen Votava, early children education graduate director at UND’s College of Education and Human Development, has a similar perspective.  

“The purpose of discipline is to set limits for the child and for the child to understand what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. It’s reinforcing what we expect of them.”

Parents need to think about their reaction to poor behavior and what they’re “modeling” to the child, Votava said. “If your first reaction is to scream or yell, the child will learn that that is how you respond” to a stressful situation.

“Harsh discipline could lead to more misbehavior and a power struggle. Gentle guidance, rather than punishment or a threat you can’t carry out, is more effective in the end.”        

“Some children can have very difficult temperaments,” she said. “They need a lot of activity, they can’t sit still, or you feel you can’t rationalize with them.

“But not sitting still, for children at a certain developmental stage, may be normal. We need to look at the child’s personality and our own personality and work from there.”    

‘Feeling’ words

Teaching children the words they need to label and describe their emotions is critical to healthy development, she said.

“It’s so important to help the child find ways to express their feelings in a positive way.”

Words give them a way to tell you, rather than show you — like an outburst, how they feel, she said.

If you’re trying to correct behavior, showing kids how to behave is better than always saying “no” or “don’t do that.”  

For example, take time to show your child how to softly pet an animal, not pull its tail.

“Seeing it acted out is so powerful,” Votava said. “You can hear words, but how you see it modeled, that’s how you (learn to) react.”

“Imitation is the primary method children use to learn and acquire a skill,” Brotherson said. Verbal instruction is the “least effective” means of teaching kids.

“If you use the approach of always saying ‘no,’ you limit your repertoire in teaching your child,” he said.

“Just like anyone who’s learning something, it takes time, patience and repetition to acquire a new skill. The same is true of children when we’re asking them to do or not do certain things.”


Votava acknowledges that when parents are trying to change behavior, “it can be very challenging,” she said. “Sometimes we can get stuck.”

Parents may repeatedly react the same way — even if it’s not effective — because they haven’t thought about a better strategy, she said.

“Think of a plan and work out what you’re going to do. It’s helpful to have a strategy, especially when things are getting difficult ... Without strategy and consistency, we can be really spinning our wheels.”  

For example, if a child balks at brushing her teeth before bedtime, the parent may allow the child to choose between putting on pajamas or brushing her teeth first.

“Kids are usually OK with one of them, knowing the other one will follow,” she said.

Decide on a strategy and stick with it for a couple of weeks, she said.

“Keep track of the progress; write down what you see. After three days, did it work? Maybe not. But after a week, now we’re seeing some results.”    

For a strategy to work “everyone must be on board — grandparents, caregivers, anyone else in the household,” she said.

By offering choices to children, “you’re helping them exercise some control over the process,” Brotherson said. “You’re empowering them to make choices because eventually you won’t be there to make the choice …

“Ultimately you’re trying to help the child to become a self-sufficient adult.”  

Another strategy, spanking, continues to stir discussion among Brotherson’s colleagues.

“Spanking is a power assertion, a control mechanism,” he said. “The emerging reality is that there are healthier, more effective ways of helping children learn.”   

Very young children don’t understand the difference between right and wrong, Votava said.

“Sometimes we think children are trying to manipulate us or they are being bad or stubborn,” she said. But the child does not necessarily think that way.  

“He thinks, ‘If I hit my sister she’ll stop bugging me,’ and it’s worked.”       

When considering what behavior does, or does not, require discipline, “parents should choose their battles,” she said, “but be firm about your limits.

“Hold your ground about the things that are important.”

The TLCs of Parenting

Teach: All children need guidance.

Listen: Encourage your child to express feelings.

Care: Your child needs your love and support.      


Questions to ask yourself

  •  Am I expecting too much for my child’s age?
  •  Do I always say ‘no’?
  •  Do I tend to scream?
  •  Am I too strict?
  •  Have there been major changes in our home or lives?
  •  Am I under a lot of stress?

If you’re afraid you might hurt your child, call the National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

How to encourage good behavior

  •  Praise behavior you want to encourage.
  •  Make sure your child understands your rules. Keep your rules simple and consistent. Don’t overwhelm a young child with too many rules.  
  •  Try not to yell or say ‘no’ all the time. Or the child won’t listen. Say ‘no’ when they could hurt themselves or someone else.  
  •  Make your home toddler-proof. A child learns from having the freedom to explore. Allow your child to learn in a safe and stimulating place.
  •  Look for the reason for the behavior.
  •  Listen to your child.  Make children feel important. They often misbehave to get attention.
  •  Try to understand your child’s feelings.
  •  Find out about stages children go through.  Join a parents’ group, read articles in parenting magazines or check out videos from your library on child development.
  •  Give your child individual attention and love every day.  Children often misbehave if they are feeling lonely or neglected.  
  •  Take care of your own needs, too.