8 Discipline Techniques That Make Things Worse (and What to Do Instead!)

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Here’s something that I think is really cool. It works as a good reframe when I’m helping parents with discipline issues: The word ‘discipline’ originates from the Latin to teach, or instruct. When the Middle English folk came along it morphed somewhat into the punishment flavour we are more familiar with today. I prefer the original meaning.

discipline techniques

What’s the Difference Between Punishment and Discipline?

Punishment is a penalty that happens after an undesired behavior that may or may not be related to that behavior:

So we yell at a child for spilling yogurt  (ya…it’s been a tough day…). What’s the problem? Is it having a yogurt? Spilling it? Spilling it onto a carpet? Onto that particular carpet?

The yell is all that’s heard, not the reason. So the child has learned nothing other than sometimes you yell, it’s somehow connected to them, and it’s really horrible and unpredictable.

We punish to make the child feel bad about what they’ve done hoping they will immediately decide not to do it again. Unfortunately, they’re not telepathic and they might even be too young for empathy. So now it’s obvious how your chances of success can be limited.

Punishment often results in damage to the relationship and little else

8 Most Common (and Ineffective) Punishment Strategies

  1. Shouting (WAAAAAAA BLA BLA LOUD NOISE – everyones’ ears hurting even yours)
  2. Lecturing (When I was your age _____)
  3. Labelling (You’re always the naughty one aren’t you?!!)
  4. Shaming (If that lady saw you doing that she’d be disgusted).
  5. Comparing/Criticising (Why can’t you do as well as your sister? Sometimes you’re so dumb!)
  6. Blaming (You’ve ruined my day and now I have a headache too)
  7. Hitting (Or dragging or pushing )
  8. Threatening (Wait ’til your father sees this! The men will come and take you away).

Before I continue, take a breather – especially if you’ve just realized these 8 points have been your “go-to” techniques… Please don’t use this as a stick to punish yourself with, but perhaps you learned these ways from your own parents. Maybe you can even remember how it felt?

#Shudder.

But, it’s OK!! You cannot be expected to change something unless you’re aware of it! These things are taught through generations. It’s only now that we are learning about the consequences of our behavior as adults. And we are still learning.

What Are the Alternatives?

True discipline at its best is about teaching your child about the consequences of their behavior, especially what’s consistent and makes sense within their control. Gradually, we succeed in teaching them responsibility, empathy, and safety. We teach them how to treat us and others.

There Are Two Types of Consequences: ‘Natural’ and ‘Logical’

Natural consequences are things that happen naturally as a result of a behavior (or inaction). For example, if someone refuses to wear an extra layer, then they get cold. This won’t kill them, it will be uncomfortable, and will likely be enough for them to learn that next time a sweater might be a good idea.

Your challenge: Not saying ‘I told you so!!’

A natural consequence can also be a good thing. Another example would be:

“When you clean the table you will get your iPad” (natural consequence).

The natural consequence will be the enjoyment of the iPad without the dread of cleaning the table hanging over them. You can then make them aware of how much they’re enjoying it as a result of cleaning the table.

Natural consequences are often things we cannot control or things we can choose to allow as long as our child’s welfare or safety isn’t at risk. Applying a natural consequence theory to seat belt use for example … See where I’m going?

Logical consequences are consequences that we create that make sense.

Using our previous example  – “If you don’t clean the table there’ll be no iPad” . This is a ‘punishment’ strategy and might not teach your young person to connect the two, to feel a connection between the behaviour and the outcome for them.

“Please clear the table of your sweet wrappers or you’ll get no more sweets for a day.” This statement makes more sense to younger kids. It’s a logical follow on, the connection is unambiguous and your intent is clear. The child is more likely to learn, to get a grip on what’s right and wrong, or what’s respectful, rather than simply be afraid of what might happen if they don’t comply.

How to Issue These Consequences and Make Them ‘Stick’

Use WARNING signs: Consequences work better when there is warning. “If you do that (maybe ‘again’) then this will happen.” Suddenly springing a consequence will have an un-grounding effect and there is little opportunity for learning or responsibility taking.

Explanation: We need to be clear about why a behavior is unacceptable. “Playing with fire is not OK because fire is very, very dangerous and we like to feel safe in this house.”

Immediacy: The younger we are the less we are aware or even able to imagine long-term consequences. The future is so far away it has no meaningful existence (this is also why pension funds are so low globally but I digress!). 

Withdrawing a kayaking trip next month as a consequence for damaging leisure equipment probably won’t work. However, issuing an immediate consequence today or tomorrow probably will.

Don’t go overboard: Grounding someone for a few months for faking a Facebook account will probably be regarded as dramatic. This can result in your child potentially thinking of you as dramatic and unreasonable. The resentment they will naturally feel might drive more troubling behaviors.

Consistency: Tyler Jacobson recently posted here on the importance of having ‘backbone’. Research and experience support what he says. Tempting as it is to give in if you see good behaviour or big beautiful tear brimmed eyes – give in at your peril!!

You can still reward or give positive feedback while sticking to agreed consequences. Giving in can teach your child not to take you seriously. They will learn responsibility for their own behavior and that you can be manipulated.

This will invite a world of pain for everyone’s future! Be steadfast – you can do it – and they will respect you all the more. Promise!! (Also goes for adults but that’s for another day!)

Positive detailed attention: When you catch them being good, name it. Not just “wow you’re being so good!” Which is lovely of course, but kids can see through general for-the-sake-of-it compliments very easily.

Take a moment to figure out what you like about what they’ve done – so “Oh I like that you offered your friend a loan of your skateboard. I’m guessing they appreciated that you noticed their’s was broken and did you see how happy they were when you offered? That was so observant and kind – nice work!”.

Choice: Remind them that there is always a choice. If they choose ‘well’ there will be a natural consequence that will feel nice, and if they choose ‘badly’ there will be a logical consequence that won’t feel nice. They have the power to choose once they have this clear knowledge laid out for them.

Now I know this won’t work all the time!! However, it will work more often than dishing out unexplained illogical harsh or inconsistent punishments. It’s never too late to start so don’t fret if your kids are already teens. Swopping ‘Punishment’ for ‘Choices and Consequences’ will feel better for all of you!

Feedback, ideas and stories welcome as always and good luck and see you in September when they’re all gone back to school!

(Lemme guess – you can’t wait?!!;)