Disciplining your children: Doing it the right way

By Smriti Daniel

Can discipline be something your child actually craves? In the fourth part of our series on parenting with parenting coach Dr. Maya Cockeram, she talks about the importance of setting boundaries. Consistent discipline can nurture your child, says Maya, and you can do it without resorting to spanking or losing your calm. If you want to know more, you can find Maya on Mums in Colombo (, where she'll be taking questions or you could also sign up with them for a full length course on parenting.

How important is it that children grow up respecting certain boundaries?

Children need boundaries. Actually, Children want boundaries. This may sound like a contradiction to what parents actually experience in parenting. The fact is our children are immature and inexperienced. As parents, it is our job to help them learn and grow, but within proper limits. It’s natural for them to test these limits. They are trying to learn what is real and what is not, what is fixed and what is flexible. There are times they need absolutes, "No, you cannot put your fingers into the plug socket" and times when they need flexibility, "Sure, you can have an extra half an hour to your bed time as it’s Saturday tomorrow."

We need to have relationships with our children in which we can talk openly together about the tough issues. Explain to them the reasons for your boundaries (rules) and let them talk with you (respectfully) about what they don't like.

As they grow, your boundaries in some areas may get more flexible as they show they are able to handle the added responsibility. If they lose your trust, the boundaries may need to be tightened until that trust can be earned again.

Can discipline be nurturing?

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject. But when it comes to parents raising their children it can be pretty simple. If it were a maths formula, it would look like this: Warmth + Authority = Effective Discipline. The research is really clear on this point. Children who achieve the best outcomes in life emotionally, educationally, and relationally have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced. Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin. This style of parenting is called authoritative or democratic parenting.

How crucial is consistency in administering discipline? Should parents take care to agree on their strategy?

The way children learn boundaries is through consistent disciplining. Consistency makes it possible for a child to predict the consequences of his or her behaviour. The ability to anticipate consequences and adjust behaviour accordingly is essential to the development of self discipline.

Without consistency, therefore discipline isn't discipline, it’s confusion. If consequences change from day to day, how can children learn the rules of the home, let alone the outside world? Discipline should be more than an occasional act, when parents feel stressed or angry.

If it is a two or more adult household, it's also imperative that all adults (meaning grandparents , aunts etc) agree on the boundaries, consequences and methods of discipline. If they don’t a child will then learn to manipulate the situation by playing the adults against each other.

What's your stance on corporal punishment?

My husband and I believe in positive parenting when it comes to raising our children. Positive parenting supports respect for children's rights and a non-violent environment, where parents do not use corporal or psychologically demeaning punishment to resolve conflict or teach discipline and respect.

When do you know you're a successful disciplinarian?

A successful disciplinarian would see their children learning how to function in a family and society that is full of boundaries, rules, and laws by which we all must abide. Successful disciplinarians state boundaries and commands clearly and concisely and deliver their instructions calmly. They must also give the child predictable consequences, such as, "If you behave in this way, this will happen." And then stick to their word. Most of all, a good disciplinarian leads by example.

Why does obedience seem to come more easily to some children than others? What can parents do to win obedience?

This is a question I get asked time and time again. The problem is that many parents do not actually expect their child to obey initially and this hesitancy is conveyed to the child. When giving instruction to parents I tell them they need to connect before they direct the child. That means going up to the child looking at them at eye level, gently holding them and making authoritative statements like, "Amila, I want you to..." Shouting from across a room or making vague statements are not going to get the response you seek. Take care to acknowledge your child's negative feelings but be clear about what they have to do. For example: "Achchie is waiting for us. You must get in your car seat. I know you are sad about having to leave your friends right now. You will be able to play again another day."

Many parents resort to yelling, threatening, begging or bribing, instead of communicating and delivering consequences in a matter-of-fact tone. Or they do not follow through on consequences they communicate because they threaten inappropriately in the heat of anger. Instead, accept complaints, but clarify what will happen if they do not listen. Be firm. For example: "If you do not get in your car seat by the count of three, I will put you in myself." Or, for an older child, "If you do not do your homework, you will not be able to watch your TV programme." Be sure you make appropriate consequences that you are willing to deliver. Then, follow through!

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