10 Guidelines for Healthy Discipline

How to administer effective discipline without hurting your child.

While it may be the least enjoyable part of parenting and educating, discipline and consequences are fundamental. A child who is not disciplined and never admonished will not only be less motivated to strive for more, but may actually sink from the level that he has already achieved.

But the art of discipline is tricky. When done incorrectly it can leave lasting damaging effects. Criticizing a child the wrong way can hurt his self-esteem in the long run.

These 10 guidelines are designed to foster healthy discipline and consequences.

1. Remember: Nobody is perfect

When it comes to our own personal shortcomings we easily overlook or make excuses for our deficits, saying, “Nobody’s perfect!” Children are entitled to the same consideration. We need to temper our immediate reactions to their misbehavior with the knowledge that they’re not finished products. Keeping this in mind helps us be more forgiving and tailors our response to a more tempered and productive one.

2. Know when to overlook

We may be tempted to notice every wrongdoing of a child, perhaps to show them that we are on top of a situation. This can be a big mistake. Some behaviors can and should be overlooked. If a child did something that was totally circumstantial and you are not concerned it will be repeated, the best thing is usually to just keep quiet. You should work on noticing three times as much good in your child than bad. The more good you notice and comment on, the more the child will strive to earn that positive attention from you.

3. Give your child the benefit of the doubt

Children deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt just like adults. Before you scold a child, show him that you take him seriously and ask him what happened. Really listen to what he has to say. You may not want to accept every excuse or fabrication which he will offer, but it is invaluable to show a child that you are not judging him until you hear him out. You’d be surprised how many times you may actually be mistaken about his behavior, or at least about his intentions.

4. Let the child save face

Even when you feel sure that you must rebuke or even give a consequence, start your message with something positive. Tell your child that you understand that he probably didn’t really intend to do anything wrong, or that you understand that he may have been provoked into doing it. The fact that you demonstrate empathy and understanding preserves his dignity without justifying the behavior in any way. As much as your child may resent being scolded or punished, he will at least feel that you listened to him and don’t think any less of him.

5. Never get personal

No matter what the situation is, never tell your child that he is bad or that you are very upset with him. Talk about the behavior, talk about the situation, talk about what happened, but don’t make it personal. Let your child know unequivocally that you believe in him. Tell him that it is because he is so special and has so many fine qualities that such behavior was inappropriate. When you label a child, that label may stick in his heart forever. You may intend to motivate him to improve but you could be doing just the opposite, ultimately hurting his ego and self-esteem in the process.

6. Don’t make comparisons

Don’t compare your child to anyone else. Even without saying anything negative about your child, any comparison to a sibling or classmate can be hurtful. Each child is unique. Aside from feeling that he will never match up to the one he is being compared to, it is hurtful to know that his self-worth is being determined by somebody else’s measuring stick.

7. Your message should be about the future

When you harp on the past, making your message all about what happened, your child may see it as your way of getting back at him for an inappropriate action or behavior. To succeed in discipline, steer your message toward the future, so that it will come across as a message of love and concern. Be clear that you are looking ahead and are confident that your child will do better in the future. The more your mindset is future-focused, the more positive, hopeful, confident, and optimistic you will come across. Don’t imply that you feel the future will be more of the same, as you may be setting yourself and your child up for exactly that.

8. Be clear and make sure you’re understood

When reprimanding or implementing a consequence, make sure that the “what and why” is extremely clear to the child. Before taking this step, ask yourself if the scolding and the consequence are necessary and appropriate for this circumstance. Was the child warned? Was the child aware? Will the child understand it, or will he assume it to be cruel and unfair punishment? When you feel comfortable with what you are about to do, be clear about what made you unhappy, and what you expect changed in the future. Be specific and on both the nature of the wrongdoing as well as your expectations.

9. Cushion any discipline with love

Your general attitude toward your child or student should be a loving and caring one. When there is enough love in advance, the discipline and consequence will not arouse intense negative feelings. Right after a consequence or rebuke is given, try to lift the negative energy right away by moving straight back into positive, loving mode. Don’t be afraid that by doing this the child will think you’re just kidding. If you made yourself clear, your message was heard, but now your job is to make sure that there are no residual negative feelings that can erode the relationship and trust. Without retracting from the punishment or warning in any way, win back your child with loving words and behavior.

10. Err on the side of caution

If you are unsure about whether or not to discipline, err on the side of caution. When you are worked up and angry you may not be thinking clearly. Chances are that if you wait till you are less emotionally involved, you will make a better decision. Even if you forgo the opportunity to rebuke when you should have done so, you’ll be doing less damage than if you do rebuke when you should not have. When in doubt about if you should hug a child or rebuke him, an extra hug will probably be the smarter choice.

Discipline is essential for children to grow up as responsible and confident adults. Implementing these ideas will help you discipline at the right times and in the most healthy and effective way.

Abiut the Author:

Rabbi Shimon Gruen is the founder of Leha’ir, an organization that offers classes, workshops, teleconferences, and counseling geared to promote conflict resolution and relationship building, with a special emphasis on parents and educators. Rabbi Gruen specializes in practical tools for marriage communication, classroom management, effective teaching, and success in the workplace. His forthcoming book Never Get Into a Conflict Again, will be published in Fall 2017.