How to Discipline Children and Help Them Develop Self-Control

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Dec 8, 2010


All children misbehave at some time; it's part of finding out what appropriate behavior is and where the limits are. Children may throw tantrums, test the rules, start fights, refuse to cooperate with family routines, use bad language—the list goes on. As parents teach children appropriate behavior, what the expected rules and boundaries are all about, it's important to remember the goals of discipline. Discipline means helping a child develop self control and a sense of limits, experience the consequences of his/her behavior, and learn from his/her mistakes. Discipline does not mean punishment or conflict between parent and child. All children need the security of knowing the rules and boundaries of behavior; without them they feel at a loss.

Real Life Stories

Alex, aged 2 ½, throws himself on the floor and screams when he wants cookies before eating his dinner. Should his mother let him have the cookies, ignore him, or distract him?

Eloise, aged 6, has learned some curse words and uses them in a loud voice to her father, when he won't buy the cereal she has seen advertised. Should he take her out of the store, wash her mouth with soap, or smile and pretend she didn't do anything wrong?

Naomi, aged 12, refuses to make her bed, stating that her room is her territory and it's her right to keep it the way she pleases. Should her parents agree with her, set up some rules, or take away her allowance?

Rafey, 17, wants to attend an all-night party after the high school prom. Should his parents permit him to go, refuse to let him go, discuss their concerns with him, make some arrangements for supervision?

Discipline: a developmental look

Flexibility is the key to discipline as children grow. Parents must be prepared to modify their discipline approach over time, using different strategies as their child develops greater independence and capacity for self regulation and responsibility.

The foundations for discipline are laid down in the early years. During the first year of life, as parents establish a trusting relationship with their baby, they set the climate for parent/child interactions through the years. Sometime between the ages of 1 and 2, the individual previously thought of as a baby suddenly bursts onto the scene as a full-fledged person with very specific wants and needs. As toddlers begin to move around they test their independence, and they need to be helped to understand what is safe, what they can and cannot do. Focused with their own needs, toddlers are not concerned with the interests of others. Since they do not yet understand the idea of consequences, a gentle but firm "no" is in order. With the explosion of new skills—talking, walking—toddlers may appear to understand the rules and can be reasoned with at times, but they are not yet really ready to control their actions. Preschoolers understand rules, and their behavior is guided by these rules and their increasing awareness of consequences of their behavior. As children reach school age, they understand the reasons for rules; the rules become internalized and are accompanied by an increasing sense of responsibility and self control. Most school age children are sensitive to the notion of fairness and justice and are able to weigh the needs of others as they make decisions. During adolescence, the individuals become responsible for their own behavior. Establishing self control is a process which develops slowly, and the ultimate goal of discipline is to help children build their own self-control, not to have them merely obey adult commands.

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