According to childcare experts, the most important thing parents can give their children is love. The second most important thing is discipline (Brazelton & Sparrow, 2003). What is discipline, and how can parents make the best decisions for their children?
First of all, it’s important to understand what discipline is not. Discipline is not punishment, and it is much more than rules and consequences. Above all, discipline is teaching (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998). Discipline means providing guidelines and support for young children while they are learning, mostly through trial and error, how to manage their emotions, deal with disappointment or frustration and form relationships with other people.
Supporting young children’s development means providing limits as well as opportunities. The way parents choose to set limits for their children has a significant impact on their development. Here are some guidelines to help parents make decisions about discipline based on developmental research. These three principles make up what researchers have called a “teaching” style of limit setting (Houck & Lecuyer, 1995).
1) Consider your children’s perspective.
Taking a moment to understand and reflect your children’s feelings can be a powerful way to support them when you set a limit, as well as to convey why the limit is important. Let them know you understand that it’s difficult to be little and not be able to do what you want. For example, rather than become annoyed with a two-year-old who gets upset while waiting for dinner, help the child by saying that you understand how difficult it is to have to wait for something. You can even offer to wait together to help to make the waiting easier. (“I know you would like another snack right now, but if you eat you won’t be hungry for the healthy food we’re having for dinner in five minutes. After we finish coloring one picture together, it will be time to eat.”)
2) Choose your battles, and then be firm.
No parent wants to say “no” all the time. Especially with toddlers, who are busily trying everything, it’s important to think about what is worth teaching right now and what can wait until the children are older. For example, putting breakables away or up high means toddlers can explore their newfound mobility more freely, without too many places being off limits. Then parents can save the firm “no” for really important lessons.
3) Help your children succeed in following a limit.
Young children need help. You are bigger, stronger, more experienced and skilled at everything. Children, on the other hand, are just beginning to develop the ability to manage emotions and behavior, so waiting for things and wanting things they can’t have is very, very difficult. Once the limit has been set, help them succeed. Offer an alternative, and stay as calm and supportive as you can.
In addition to being clear about what limit is being set and why, parents who set limits in this way are also sensitive to their children’s feelings and provide support in a way that is developmentally appropriate. Being “developmentally appropriate” means that parents respond in a way that considers the age of the children, what skills they have mastered and what skills they are still trying to develop.
These methods appear to have long-term benefits. In a 2006 study, researchers found that a “teaching” style of limit setting was associated with the following (LeCuyer & Houck):
1) Children whose parents used “supported distraction” to help them follow limits at 12 months of age were better able to wait for something that they wanted when they were five years old. Mothers were considered to be using this technique if they first stated the limit (for example, “we can’t open that snack yet”), then got down on the floor with their children and played games, sang songs or ran around the room together, as opposed to simply suggesting something else for the children to do or offering them a toy. By helping children cope when a limit is set, parents teach the skills children need to handle the emotions that come up when they have to wait (Kochanska, Coy, & Murray, 2001).
In contrast, the children of parents who set limits by issuing orders (e.g., “No more snacks!”) or tried distraction or reasoning but did not set a clear limit (e.g., “Why don’t you color a picture?”) were much less able to wait for something they wanted at age five.
2) Children whose parents used a “teaching” style of limit setting at 12 months (including using supportive distractions and paying attention to their children’s feelings) were better at getting along with peers when they were three years old.
3) Children whose parents used a “teaching” style of limit setting at 24 months (including talking to their children about the reason for a limit and helping them find alternatives) got along better with peers when they were three years old and were more confident in social situations.
Discipline is about teaching, not punishment. Harsh disciplinary tactics such as spanking are not recommended, since they do not support children’s developmental progress towards self-control; in fact, some studies suggest that spanking, especially with very young children, creates harmful outcomes. In a 2009 study, Lisa Berlin and her colleagues looked at 2,573 children and found that those who were spanked as one-year-olds were more aggressive than other children at age two and did not do as well in developmental testing at age three. Especially during the crucial early years, limit setting that is sensitive, firm and supportive does much more than simply change children’s behavior.
Limit setting can seem difficult and may require a lot of patience. It can help to remember that it is just another way that you are your children’s first and best teacher, providing tools that they will use for the rest of their lives.
American Academy of Pediatrics (1998). Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics, 101(4), 723–728.
Berlin, L. J., Ispa, J. M., Fine, M.A., Malone, P. S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Brady-Smith, C., . . . Bai, Y. Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income White, African American, and Mexican American toddlers. (2009). ChildDevelopment, 80(5), 1403–1420.
Brazelton, T., & Sparrow, J. (2003). Discipline: The Brazelton way. New York: Perseus Publishing.
Houck, G., & LeCuyer, E. (1995). Prohibition Coding Scheme. Unpublished coding form and manual. Portland: Oregon Health & Science University.
Kochanska, G., Coy, K., & Murray, K. (2001). The development of self-regulation in the first four years of life. Child Development, 72, 1091–1111.
LeCuyer, E., & Houck, G. (2006). Maternal limit setting in toddlerhood: Socialization strategies for the development of self-regulation. Infant Mental Health Journal, 27(4), 344–370.