How to Discipline a Child

I’ve tried many methods of disciplining children over the decades (yes, I’ve been a mom of three different 3-year-olds over a period that’s spanned 20 years). And I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. It’s not that complicated or hard; however, it takes patience, and confidence in the importance of being a consistent parent.

My third 3-year-old is almost four. Soon I won’t need to remember how to discipline a child. But for now, it’s still a fresh, often daily occurrence in my house. When you are a kid, there are all sorts of obstacles on the road to becoming a civilized person. These 5 tips work for handling all sorts of petty crimes:

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1. First, check to see if the child is tired or hungry. Most childhood misbehavior stems from these two primal needs—the need for food, and the need for sleep. Food is easy: Get some in them (healthy food, of course, like fruit, cheese, or crackers, or a cup of milk). I am often shocked that fighting and screaming children, after a snack, turn into singing and laughing children. If they are tired, give them a snack before you either make them take a nap or make them have “quiet time” on the bed or in a comfortable place (not just in front of the TV—although that does work, which is why kids today watch far too much TV).

2. Threaten to count to three. For some odd reason, this trick has been my most effective, powerful disciplining tool, and it still works on my 28-year-old. Let’s say someone is doing something you want her to stop (or, let’s say you want her to pick something up and she is resisting). Give the child a stern look, and in a fierce but quiet voice say “I’m counting to three. One…two…two and a half…two and three quarters….” Rarely, if ever, do I get to three. Ironically, it is my third child who has gotten to three more times than all the others combined. What happens when they get to three? See point 3.

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Next: 3 more ways to discipline a child

3. Put them on the naughty chair. The naughty chair can be anything from a stair step to a chair to a spot on the floor—it’s a state of mind, not an actual thing. But what it becomes is a place where they have to sit, isolated from others, until they repent their ways, stop crying, calm down, and just in general become human beings again instead of naughty little monkeys. I just put my 13-year-old on the naughty chair a week ago for slapping someone. It’s remarkable how effective it is.

4. Use THE VOICE. I am amazed at how many parents think shouting is an effective way of communicating with a child. Sure, it works sometimes—especially when you want the impact of sudden surprise, when you want someone to stop doing something immediately because her life might be in danger, or you need to call them down for the third time to set the table for dinner. But more often than not, the best voice is the quiet, stern, spare voice that doesn’t overexplain or defend, but just communicates in a nonnegotiable way that this current behavior is “unacceptable.” The voice is especially powerful when accompanied by…

5. The LOOK. You know the look. I’m sure you have experienced it once or twice in your life. It’s when parents put power into their eyes and communicate to the child that if you don’t stop doing what you are doing right now, not only am I going to count the three, put you on the naughty chair, and use the voice, but there might also be a spanking involved. No, I am not morally opposed to spanking (I am morally opposed to physical abuse of children of any kind—but a good spanking should be more of a strong physical message reserved for severe behavior, not a harsh attack).

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I am majorly opposed to verbal abuse, which I think can be more damaging than physical abuse. I will never call any child stupid or an idiot or any of the many other things that harm a child’s spirit. Because, after all, a child’s process of learning is to push boundaries, experiment, and get into and cause trouble. But it’s a parent’s job to guide, set boundaries, and control the experiments so that children can grow up into loved, loving, and respected grown-ups…who every once in a while STILL get tired and hungry and may need to sit on the naughty chair.

What techniques have worked in your disciplining efforts? What did your parents use to tame your bad behavior?

Related Links:
What to Do When Your Kid Acts Like a Monster
How Parenting Advice Just Makes You Feel Like a Loser
The Pitfalls of Parental Worry


Carmen C.
Carmen C6 years ago

I loved this article. I remember my father giving me 'the look' and that was all it took for me to stop misbehaving. Being a daddy's girl, I didn't want to disappoint him and his 'look of disapproval' was enough to help me to feel sorry for what I'd done wrong. I now use the 'look' on my nieces and use the 'count to 1-2-3' method and it sure does work. I haven't ever reached no. 3.

Susan M.
Susan Miller6 years ago

I was happy to read this at first .. until I read down to the "No, I am not morally opposed to spanking (I am morally opposed to physical abuse of children of any kind—but a good spanking should be more of a strong physical message reserved for severe behavior, not a harsh attack)."

Spanking a defenceless child is wrong. Plain and simple. The same way as hitting an adult, criminal or animal is wrong. It's a terrible way to show a child anything except fear, pain, anger, resentment, hate. The child loses it's trust, respect and love. I am a 56yr old grannie and I did - from the first smack my parents ever gave me. They lost it all, and I learned nothing but the anger etc. I knew even then that hitting anyone was WRONG. I don't trust or respect or love anyone who hits another. And you cannot hit with love. Try asking any abused woman or man. " I hit my wife, but I love her..." doesn't cut it. Neither does "I hit my child, but I love her" .. there is NO difference. Except that a child cannot protect itself, has to stay with the parent that is supposed to be protecting and teaching them how to become adults. No one wants to teach a child to hit when annoyed, or upset with something another has done so why would you hit a child? Discipline means to teach .. and it doesn't mean to do it by hitting! I never hit mine, and they are now great, gentle adults, my grandchildren aren't hit either and are growing up calm and fine ! No hitting ANYONE!

Elizabeth B.
Elizabeth B6 years ago

Thanks for the 1,2,3! I forgot about that one. The 'you'll be going to bed earlier if...' works well too.

Kirsten B.
Past Member 7 years ago

I decided for the latter. Her hair is a good 20 cm (8 inches) shorter, but looks fine. Natural consequences: she can't do a pony tail herself, we can't plait her hair any more, it's even more in her face and bugging her than before, and a lot of her favourite hair things are remaining unused for the next few months.
Logical consequences: she's not allowed to use scissors this week because she abused our trust. The kindergarten knows this, and knows why, and she's missing out on some activities.

Extra punishment on top might have got rid of some of my anger, but would not have achieved anything else. There is no preaching or blaming, just the statement of affairs. She's cool with it, is starting to regret it, and we're coming to terms with her short hair and happy that we could keep our cool.

It's hard work, especially at first, but it is better than any other discipline method either of us has come across to date. I think it will now be our life long method.

Kirsten B.
Past Member 7 years ago

Coming back to this topic, we've radically changed our attitudes lately. Since then, there have been no more count downs, no more punishments, barely a fight or struggle, and we are all much, much happier. Oh yes, and I've almost doubled the rules and expectations at the same time.

We've now gone to a 'limited choice' using a friendly voice at all times - for example: would you like peas or broccoli with your carrot at dinner (rather than 'what vegetable would you like'); shall we start with practicing reading notes or playing the piece straight off (rather than 'let's do some music homework'); is daddy going to do your teeth with you or mummy (instead of 'it's time to do your teeth'); are you wearing your white hat or your blue one (rather than 'it's cold, you need a hat'); and so on.

We're letting the natural or logical consequences of actions speak for themselves, wherever possible. If she doesn't eat her vegetables, she isn't allowed unhealthy food (candy, etc.) either. If she takes too long to get ready for bed, then there won't be enough time for a goodnight song, just a kiss; if she doesn't want to wear her gloves, then her hands will get cold and she'll have to put them in her pockets ....

It even worked, with a tremendous effort on my part, on Saturday when she decided to cut her hair. I had a choice of letting her stay like that (and feeling awful the whole time), or straightening it out and taking it calmly ...

Angie c.
Angie cr7 years ago

i've been a teacher for 16 years and i have found several parents that really leave all the educational job on teachers....they are the primal and essential educators, we need to work together all the time.

Darla G.
Darla G.7 years ago

great tips. I have always found each of my kids has been so different that different things worked better on each... and always the key was consistency and schedule. with that in place all is good. Also positive reinforcement... over negative responses.

Bon L.
Bon L7 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Eloise W.
Eloise Ware7 years ago

For older children:in school we have a "think time",which parents could adapt to home discipline. We send a child away from the scene (our anger)and have them check off some statements that apply to what transpired, then write what was done by the child, then write how they could change the behavior, then check if they can or can not do what would change the behavior. We show them a poster of a roller coaster and point out how they want the ride that gets them somewhere, not the ride that crashes and repeats the same circle and results in repeated problems.After 3 of these think times, the consequences are more severe, something akin to being grounded.This could even be adapted to a sheet that has pictures and less reading and writing. Accumulating these sheets helps an adult be able to track how things are going. Perhaps the child is actually not misbehaving as often as you think. Or, perhaps there is a lot of misbehavior. If so, look at the "antecedent" to the misbehavior. For example, did the child have an argument with a friend prior to the misbehavior, or did the child say he would miss an activity by being taken off to the mall with you and then he did speak disrespectfully later at the mall, etc. Parents and teachers can be backed into a corner with number calling and with contracts for behavior because sometimes children absolutely do not want to behave. Also, be careful not to take away all of the things you realize your child values or that will become a secret.

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

Discipline is an absolute necessity but should be done with love not anger.