We know discipline is essential part of parenting, but sometimes we find ourselves stumped when our kids act up. Our first reaction might be a swat on behind--but as a parent committed to peaceful solutions, I believe that kids need to learn to do what's right because it is right, not because they fear punishment. Certainly consequences are necessary, but good behavior motivated by fear is more about avoidance than the intrinsic desire to do the right thing. Harsh, punitive reactions can lead to aggressiveness or passivity in kids. In extreme cases, physical punishment can cross the line into abuse. We may get the short-term result we seek, but in the long term, children learn that might makes right, a scenario we're seeing acted out in schoolyards where bullying is at an all-time high.

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.

5. Give choices. This allows kids some control over their responsibilities and can increase cooperativeness. For instance, if your child's chore is to set the table and he refuses, give him a choice: "You can set the table now or in five minutes. Either way, the table has to be set." If he's stubborn about it, though, give a time-out.

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.”
7. Get to the bottom of “red flag” behavior. When your child does something that hurts himself, others, or property, or is a serious act of defiance, dig deeper.  For example, if your fifteen-year-old smacks his brother in a fit of rage, give a consequence like grounding him or depriving him of computer privileges for a week, but try also to understand what's at the bottom of the behavior. Once tempers have cooled, talk to him and try to find out what was behind his actions. Red flag behavior always has a cause.
8. Get help when needed. If you've tried everything and the extreme misbehavior continues, counseling could be the best solution.  We did it when my kids were misbehaving due to a difficult family situation.  I will always be grateful for the family therapist who helped us work through a tough time and get back on track.
9. Talk to your kids and be willing to hear them out.  Help them understand why you've set the limits you've set. Teens I talk to who have healthy, solid relationships with their parents inevitably refer to their parents' willingness to listen as one of the prime reasons they're close.  The lines of communication stay open, something so essential as our kids get older and are faced with tough choices.

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.

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