If you find yourself using words like "don't...," "stop...," and "no"
to discipline your child, try using positive words instead. Children
need to be taught how to behave in socially and morally acceptable
ways. To discipline means to teach, especially in matters of conduct.
To teach effectively, we need to tell our children clearly what we
want them to do. The word "don't" seems to come easily to our lips, so
it takes practice to learn to rephrase our limits and rules. The
rewards of guiding children rather than commanding them won't
necessarily come right away. But in the long run, it helps children
learn to be morally well-developed, socially appropriate,
self-directed, and happy kids.
Positive Discipline or Child Guidance
Positive discipline is based on understanding child development--what
it is like to be in your child's shoes. Parents also must have a firm
idea of the kind of person they want their children to become and be
willing to follow a plan of action.
Telling children what we want over and over again supplies them with
the information they need to learn. Eventually, this knowledge will
become second nature to them. Recognizing that it is natural for
children to behave in socially inappropriate ways, the child guidance
approach helps children develop self-discipline. Guidance addresses
the child's behavior rather than judging the child. Listen to the
following example. Instead of chiding a child who isn't ready to leave
in the morning with, "You always make me late for work!" you might
say, "Taking time to decide what to wear makes us late everyday.
Tomorrow we can either get up earlier or put out clothes before we go
to bed. You decide."
Restating Limits and Rules Positively
Instead of constantly using "don't" commands (although sometimes they
are necessary), learn to rephrase in a positive way while clearly
stating the desired behavior. Instead of saying, "Don't run in the
house," for example, try saying, "Walk in the house." This states
clearly how you want your child to act. Sometimes you may want to give
reasons for the rule--especially when you state it for the first time.
Explaining a rule might sound like this: "Walk in the house. When you
run, you may break something or hurt yourself by running into
Negative versus Positive Guidance
Think about what you want your children to do instead what you don't
want them to do. In the following examples, the positive guidance
follows the "don't" command.
- "Don't go into the street," versus, "Play in the yard. You could
get hurt if you go into the street."
- "Don't stay out too late," versus, "You need to be home by 11:00
- "Don't throw the ball in the house," versus, "Roll the ball in
the house," or, "Balls are for outside play."
Limits are specific expectations parents set for their children. They
are guidelines or rules, such as staying in the backyard when playing
outside, staying out of a sister's bedroom, keeping car tools in the
garage, and asking permission before borrowing clothes. Setting limits
tells a child, "I care about you. I want you to be safe. I want you to
be considerate. By acting responsibly, you will learn to get along
Four Types of Limits
- Prevent physical harm, as in, "Be gentle with your baby sister."
- Protect property, as in, "Play with the ball outside, not in the
- Prevent psychological harm, as in, " When your sister makes a
mistake, give her some help. Laughing at her would make her very sad."
- Respect for others, as in, "Ask Jamie before you play with his
Keys to Effective Limits
- Keep your limits to important matters. Too many limits can be a
burden to children and parents. Limits should be based on your highest
- Set reasonable limits. Can the child do what is expected of him
or her? Consider his or her age and developmental stage.
- Teach self-discipline with clear, positive limits.
- Be consistent with limits you set. If limits are not consistently
enforced, the child will be confused.
- Change limits to adapt to changes in the child's age. A child's
ring of freedom should grow larger as he or she ages. However, limits
involving respect are reasonable for all ages.
- Involve children in setting some of their limits. Asking children
to give their opinions about limits boosts self-confidence and
- Help children understand the reasons for limits. Children are
more likely to cooperate with parents if they understand the reason
for the limits.
- Set enforceable limits. Parents must enforce limits their child
deliberately defies. Can a parent enforce a rule that their children
always wear a hat and coat when it is cold? Can you see them at school
or at a friend's house? When you aren't where you can watch your
child's actions, it is difficult to enforce a limit. Sometimes you can
set up a consequence if you find out they have broken a limit. When
setting limits, think about whether you can enforce them. For example,
can you enforce a rule that your child always eats their vegetables at
Parents should expect their children to occasionally try to test
their parents' commitment by breaking the rule. Children test parental
limits to assert their own independence and to see if their parents
are willing to stand behind what they say is important.
Too few or too many limits create fear, anxiety, or anger. Limits that
are clear, positive, and consistently enforced are an important step
toward responsive discipline. Limits are values translated into
guidelines for children's behavior. Children want to know what their
parents value. Children also want their parents to love them enough to
stand up for their deepest beliefs.
Responsive Discipline: Effective Tools for Parents. Cooperative
Extension Service, Kansas State University.
A Fresh Look at Disciplining Young Children. Extension News Service,
Cornell Cooperative Extension.
J. Eileene Welker
Family and Consumer Sciences
Campbell Hall 1787 Neil Avenue Columbus, Ohio 43210
Submitted by: J. Eileene Welker *
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