Disciplining Children: How to Do It Right

Parenthood is almost universal, yet it is a popularly accepted truth that it is difficult. Human adults have vast potentials to single-handedly affect the world in profoundly positive or negative ways. Raising a child to go one way rather than the other, while preparing them for a happy and fulfilled life, is a heavy burden for most. That a balance has to be struck between sternness and leniency while disciplining one’s child, is obvious, but how to do it is much harder.

According to American Academy of Pediatrics, effective discipline (dependent upon age and development of the child), through active involvement of guardians and other adult authority figures, teaches a children what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Broadly, this skill set encompasses:

  • Social-emotional skills (appropriate expression, management of emotions and emotional reactions, establishing positive and rewarding relationships is both intra- and inter-personal)
  • Executive functioning skills (planning, following complex instructions despite interruptions, focus despite distractions, ignoring an instinctual response to reach a predetermined goal)
  • Motor skills (control of one’s movement)
  • Physiological development
  • Behavioural control
  • Motivational control

Studies have shown that “ … wide variation in … self-regulation skills … during early childhood … consistently predicts … outcomes such as school readiness, academic achievement throughout primary school, adult educational attainment, feelings of higher self-worth, a better ability to cope with stress, … less substance use and less law breaking, even among individuals at risk of maladjustment” (Source: NLM). 

Although the potential to develop these skills is innate, their development itself, is at least partly environmental. Early development (at least 12 months onwards) in these abilities may be easily disrupted by adverse experiences. For example, according to WHO, “corporal punishment is linked to physical and mental ill-health, impaired cognitive and socio-emotional development, poor educational outcomes, increased aggression and perpetration of violence”. This study indicates that verbal abuse may be an even greater predictor of delinquency.

Supporting development of self-regulation by modelling desirable social behaviour, creating and maintaining a safe and predictable environment and relationships, facilitating practice through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teaching them stress-coping techniques, providing vigorous exercise, and over time, opportunities for independent decision-making, is more helpful than punishment, particularly in stressful times (Source: Harvard).

Dr Claire McCarthy of Harvard Medical School, a paediatrician, has enumerated these techniques for better disciplining:

  • Have realistic expectations of child behaviour –Try to acquire information on the typical behaviours and their underlying reasons for your child’s current developmental stage. One shouldn’t ignore or condone undesirable behaviours.
  • Set clear limits – Establish house and family rules (communicated clearly and explicitly), instead of reacting to the child breaking a rule unknown to him/her. Consistency is especially important.
  • Have predictable and clear consequences for breaking rules – Give the child a clear warning of consequences for rule breaking. The consequence should be undesirable to them, e.g., a time-out (putting the child in a boring place for a minute for each year of their age and not interacting with them) or taking away their toys or privileges.
  • Reinforce good behaviour – Make good behaviour worth their while by giving them praise.
  • Be mindful of your own needs and reactions – If you find yourself getting really upset, make sure your child is somewhere safe and then take some time to calm down.
  • Ask for help – Your paediatrician can be a resource, as can family, friends, and behavioural health clinicians.

They say “it takes a village” but it might take more than that. It takes thought, self-control on the part of the parent, and compassion.

— Priyamwada Singh

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