There are no hard and fast rules. And whatever rules there may be, they constantly change and evolve.
Discipline is also a very, very personal — and dare I say, touchy — issue. What works for one family may not be applicable to another.
These are 10 things that have always worked for me. Again, I wish to make it clear that these may or may not be appropriate for your children. But I find these 10 general rules have worked quite well for me over the years with my 5 children.
1. Start early.
I know many people who say, “Oh, she’s still small. She doesn’t understand yet. I’ll deal with her when she’s bigger.” I disagree on both counts.
Point 1: Children are capable of understanding even from a very early age. Even babies learn very early on about cause and effect. Just observe your toddler the next time you are reading a book or watching TV. He’d do something naughty then wait for your reaction. For such a child, an angry outburst is better than being ignored. And he knows very well that if he pushes the right buttons, he can get the attention that he craves.
Point 2: A young branch is still pliable; once it gets too old, it gets harder and tends to break more easily if you try to straighten it.
2. Be firm.
Disciplining your child requires you to be ‘cruel’ to be kind. It’s natural for you, as a parent, to feel bad when your child is crying, especially when you are the reason for it. But you must be firm. The moment you get swayed by your little one’s tears, she’d use the same crying tactic each and every time to get what she wants.
You must be at your firmest when it comes to tantrums. If your child throws a tantrum, take him away from the cause of the tantrum. Or take the cause of the tantrum away from him. Distract him with something else. Hug him, talking calmly the whole time. (This works with some children but not for others.) Timeouts can work for some children. When all else fails, tell your child: “You can cry all you want but you still cannot ________.” Then steel yourself to not give in.
But there are times when it’s no longer possible to reason with a small child (only you, as the parent, will be able to tell exactly when this point is!) and/or you change your mind and just give in. For example, you might decide that she can have that extra ice cream cone after all. But before you give in, you must insist that she stop crying first, then she can have the ice cream cone. This is to break the association between her crying and your giving in.
3. Be consistent.
For instance, you want your children to wear seatbelts every time they get in the car. Even if it’s raining, even if you’re running late, you must make sure they’re buckled up each and every time they’re in the car.
And when you do make exceptions, make it clear: “Normally, I don’t allow it but today, you can ________ because you’ve been extra helpful with the household chores.”
Consistency also applies to both parents. If you say ‘No‘ but your spouse says ‘Yes‘, the children would know what to do the next time you forbid them to do something: they’d go ask your spouse. You and your spouse must agree on the basic guidelines on what’s allowed and what’s not.
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
This goes hand in hand with consistency. Never lie to your children because it will make you lose your credibility in time. When they ask you something and you’re not sure if you can do it or not, tell them “I’ll try” or “I’ll think about it” or “Let’s talk about this later” or “Let me discuss this with your father“.
Don’t make empty threats. At the same time, when you promise something, fulfill them. Because children never forget.
My children always take me seriously whenever I tell them of the consequences that they have to face when they refuse to do as I say. They know I always do as I say. At the same time, they always believe me whenever I try to assure them of something because the moment I ask them, “Have I ever lied to you?“, they know the answer very well.
4. Be specific with instructions.
When I go to the supermarket with my children, I give them a short briefing before we leave the house. I don’t just say “I want you to behave.” Rather, I give specific instructions like: “You should stay close to me at all times. You can pick out one item for yourself, as long as it’s not too expensive. You are not to run around and play hide-and-seek.”
5. Anticipation is key.
Small children tend to misbehave when they are tired or hungry. Sleepy children make cranky children. Well-fed children are happy children. So I always plan trips with the children — whenever possible — before they get too tired or hungry, i.e. while they’re still at their best behaviour.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that many a meltdown occurs when a child has had insufficient sleep the night before or when a toddler stays up way past his normal bedtime.
6. Reinforce the positive.
Catch your children doing something right, praise them for it, and you’ll find them doing again in the future the very same act that earned your praise in the first place. Children seem to have an innate need to earn their parents’ approval. I noticed how babies love it when, after they’ve done something right, you clap your hands and say “Very good!” Never underestimate the power of praise.
At the same time, you must keep a balance and avoid praising the smallest things all the time. You can simply say something along the lines of “I like it when you help your brother put his shoes on.” On the flip side, you can voice out your displeasure by saying something like “I don’t like it when you don’t share your toys.”
7. Pick your battles.
Give your children some leeway with the minor stuff and reserve your energy for the more important issues. Your child also needs some room to breathe and you’d run yourself down if you try to control every little aspect of his life.
8. “Because I said so” is not good enough.
When your children are big enough to ask why you’re forbidding them from or asking them to do something, explain to them the reason in terms that they can understand.
“I need you to stay close to me at the supermarket so that you don’t get lost. A bad man might take you away from you. And I’ll be very sad. You’ll be sad, too, right?”
“I have to limit that amount of time you play computer and watch TV because you need to sleep. I read an article that growth hormones only work while you are asleep. That means, if you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t grow as much as you’re supposed to. Would you like to remain short when all of your friends have grown taller?”
“You must not take things that don’t belong to you. Even if it’s a very small object, if it doesn’t belong to you and you take it, it’s still stealing. Remember what the Bible says? ‘Thou shall not steal.‘”
“How sad that your friend doesn’t like to go to school. Perhaps you should remind him that it’s his duty, as a Muslim, to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. The fact that the first verse of the Qur’an which was revealed was ‘Iqra!’ — ‘Read!’ — just shows how important it is to seek knowledge. That applies to you, too!”
Too complicated to explain? You can always fall back on “One day when you’re big enough to understand, I will explain to you.” But be prepared to do so when the time comes. And don’t overuse this line lest it loses its efficacy.
9. Isolate the action from the person.
Make it clear to your child that you love her and want only what’s best for her but it’s what she did that you don’t like. “I love you and I’ll always love you because you are my daughter but I am disappointed with what you did today.”
I guess this is why my children remain very close to me and are very affectionate with me, even if I tend to be quite strict with them. There are even times when they come up to me and say, “Mama, I know you’ll be disappointed with me because _______. I’m sorry.” At the same time, there are also times when they run to me and say, “Mama, I know you’re going to be so proud of me. Today, I _______.” For me, this shows that they already know what’s expected of them and for that, I am grateful.
10. Walk the walk and talk the talk.
Finally, it is very important for you to provide a good example to your children. There is nothing worse than telling your children to do something, then doing exactly the opposite of what you asked them to do. Children tend to pick up more on non-verbal cues. They learn from observation and imitation from infancy. As the old adage goes, children learn what they live.
Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte
If children live with criticism,
They learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility,
They learn to fight.
If children live with ridicule,
They learn to be shy.
If children live with shame,
They learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement,
They learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance,
They learn to be patient.
If children live with praise,
They learn to appreciate.
If children live with acceptance,
They learn to love.
If children live with approval,
They learn to like themselves.
If children live with honesty,
They learn truthfulness.
If children live with security,
They learn to have faith in themselves and others.
If children live with friendliness,
They learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
Copyright © 1972/1975 by Dorothy Law Nolte