No More Discipline Traps

When it comes to discipline, most of us, despite our best intentions, get into ruts. When our kids misbehave, we tend to rely on the same one or two techniques, even if they’re not the most appropriate or effective methods. Which is why the process of teaching self-control to their children can often leave the parents feeling frustrated and the kids feeling misunderstood.

The first step: Recognize when you’ve fallen into one of these common traps. The next step: Break the pattern and come up with more creative and specific techniques. It may take patience and practice, but it’s worth it.

Trap Overdoing Punishments

I often hear parents complain about how impossible it seems to change certain behaviors in their kids. A parent might grouse about dawdling, for instance: “Max is never ready to leave the house in the morning. I’ve taken him to preschool in his pajamas and restricted the TV, but nothing works.”

If your child does the same thing over and over  — especially if he “knows better”  — your best bet is to figure out what’s motivating him. Most of the time, kids feel they have little control, so the sense of power they gain from misbehaving may both stem from, and fuel, their belief that negative attention is better than none. Of course, it backfires: Constant criticism and punishment often leaves a child feeling discouraged.


Try to give your child more of your focused, positive attention at unexpected times throughout the day. Mention all the things he does well, for instance: “What a colorful picture you made. You really know how to pick beautiful colors.” Whenever he contributes and cooperates throughout the day, let him know how much that means to you: “Thank you for helping me make the pancake batter. I really appreciate it!” And when he actually gets dressed in a reasonable amount of time, praise him for it.

This technique  — known as “catch ’em being good”  — is a much more effective way to gain your child’s trust than nagging or criticizing him. Praise even small steps toward success: “Thanks for putting your sweatpants and shirt on without any reminders from me.” You might link your compliment with a little reward: “Wow, you’re almost ready. As soon as your shoes and socks are on you can watch TV while I finish washing the dishes.”

For most kids, though, your undivided attention is the greatest reward of all. So, for instance, if your child tends to tease his sibling, the next time they interact peacefully you might say, “Thanks for playing so nicely with your sister. Now, while she’s napping, the two of us can read stories together.”

Trap Making Empty Threats

When you’re tired, it’s easy to lose your temper and bark, “Pick up your toys right now, or I’m throwing them all away!” But such an inflexible demand can provoke your child’s flat refusal  — the last thing you want. And when he doesn’t pick them up, you’re left with an untenable situation: You must either back down and lose credibility, or follow through and pay the consequences (like one mother I know who ended up giving away half of her daughter’s wardrobe).

A variation of this trap is to issue exaggerated, vague, or unenforceable threats, such as, “That’s it! We’re going home right now and I’m never taking you to the store again!” Children learn to tune out these empty, unrealistic warnings like so much background noise.


Try to use face-saving strategies that promote teamwork: “Let’s pick up the toys quickly, so we can go outside.” You can also challenge your preschooler to play “beat the clock”  — put the timer on, and race to see who can pick up the most toys before it goes off.

But do use well-timed, brief warnings. The most effective ones are specific: “I’m warning you; if you throw rocks again we’re leaving the playground.” You have to be prepared to follow through promptly, even if it’s inconvenient  — leaving the restaurant before you’ve finished eating, for example, or abandoning your grocery cart in the aisle. The sooner you carry out the warning, the more quickly you’ll convince your child that you mean what you say.

Trap Falling into Power Struggles

When your child constantly tests your limits, it can be so frustrating that you’ll feel like playing the heavy just to show who’s the boss. But cooperation has to be cultivated, not forced. Otherwise, the only lesson he’ll learn is that the two of you are adversaries rather than teammates.


Learn to disengage from conflicts before they escalate. Try to identify and acknowledge the feelings that your child is experiencing: “I know you don’t want to get ready for bed right now. You’re disappointed that you can’t keep playing.” It also helps to have set routines for your child’s mealtime, playtime, and bedtime; when he knows what to expect, it will help keep many fights from erupting.

Making simple decisions teaches your child that he has some say in your household, that he’s not always under your control. So whenever it’s practical, give limited choices. Even 2-year-olds can pick what they want to wear, eat, or do. For example, if your toddler is playing when it’s time to leave, you can tell him, “We have to go home now. You can walk to the car or I can carry you. You decide.”

Try to monitor your language, too. When you tell a child what you’ll do  — instead of what he must do  — it’ll go a long way toward keeping everyone’s temper in check. Announcing, “I will wash only the clothes that I find in the hamper,” is far less provocative than saying, “How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your clothes off the floor?”

Trap Overrelying on Time-outs

When a time-out no longer works, it’s usually because the technique has been used for too many problems, from the serious (hitting, biting) to the merely annoying (not picking up toys). Other mistakes include giving a delayed time-out or imposing an excessively long one. But time-outs can give both parties a chance to start over: Your child can think about her actions, while you can reflect on how to better handle her outbursts.


Because a time-out can enable a child to gain control over her impulses, it’s one of the best ways to reduce antisocial behavior. Even so, use this method sparingly: Pick two of your child’s most aggressive traits  — biting and pushing, for instance  — and save time-outs for those occasions.

It’s also most effective when you enforce it immediately. If, for example, you see your 3-year-old shoving another kid out of her way, don’t wait until you’ve left the playground to give her a time-out  — escort her to a bench or a quiet corner. If she gets up, you may have to calmly but firmly place your hands on her shoulders so she stays seated.

For how long? Try approximately one minute per year of age  — so three minutes for your 3-year-old is long enough. Remember, it isn’t a jail sentence. If your child announces that she’s calmed down, don’t keep her the whole time. Instead, congratulate her for regaining her composure so quickly.

Sometimes a time-out isn’t the most effective option. Preverbal toddlers  — in general, those under 2 1/2  — are just learning to handle frustration and don’t have the the ability to remember why they’re in time-out in the first place. You can help your toddler by holding her and giving her the words to express her anger. (By all means, though, make it clear that hitting isn’t acceptable.)

Being an effective disciplinarian involves not only knowing specific techniques, but also being able to adapt them to your child’s temperament and needs, and the particular situation. Changing the way you react is the first step in helping her develop self-control and responsibility, without having to undermine your precious relationship.