Think about what the ultimate goal of discipline is—to help kids develop a strong internal moral compass, a healthy psyche. What can we do to foster good behavior in positive ways, and how can we respond when our kids misbehave?
1. Model what you want to teach, like self-control, fairness, respect, and compassion. Children learn through imitation, so if we preach respect and kindness, we must live it—even when we're ready to blow. Reacting to our kids in hurtful ways will ultimately bring out similar behavior in them. Manage your anger so your kids can learn how to manage theirs.
2. Stop and breathe before you react. The few seconds it takes to do this will enable you to discern--and choose--what to do rather than react impulsively. If you are home, you might even give yourself a time-out. Go somewhere quiet for a few minutes to center yourself. Your child will see that time-out doesn't have to be a punishment, but a way to retrieve one's grounding.
3. Set expectations and consequences ahead of time. Let your kids know what you expect of them—as well as the consequences for misbehavior. You could say, "I'm OK with giving you one reminder after I've asked you to do something, but beyond that, there will be a loss of TV time equal to the time I had to wait. I'm telling you now so you know what to expect." This insures that you won't levy too harsh a punishment in a moment of anger. I can remember screaming, “No TV for a month!” when my kids were younger, then realizing I just punished myself.
4. Make sure consequences are age-appropriate. For a time-out, one minute per year is a good rule of thumb. A three-year-old who pulls his brother's hair gets three minutes of time-out, while an eight-year-old would get eight minutes. As kids get older, try using restitution—chores that equal the time lost through misbehavior or lack of cooperation. If you were 20 minutes late because your eight-year-old refused to get ready for school, she owes 20 minutes of chores at the end of the day. Taking away objects or privileges can be very effective too, but don't deprive them of something gut-wrenching, like their best friend's birthday party.
6. Allow kids to have feelings. If you've prevented your child from doing something she wants, and she reacts by crying or screaming, let her. Trying to force her to accept the disappointment as well as push down her feelings isn't healthy. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. While it's not OK to let a child get abusive or defiant because she's upset, there's no harm in letting a kid cry out her upset or say she's mad when that's how she feels. Instead of punishing her for her reaction, tell her, “I know you're disappointed. You're going to need to have your tantrum in your room. We can talk later when you're calm.”
10. Speak to your child's highest self.
Even when your child misbehaves, speak to the part of him that knows what's right. Children tend to live into our expectations. If we believe they are inherently good and decent, and if our words and actions reflect this, our children will rise to that positive expectation. Our highest power as parents is believing in our children, accepting that they will make mistakes and test limits, but remembering that they, like us, were made in God's image.
Trust that, and trust yourself to do what's right. Sometimes our heart is our wisest teacher.