Family Travel, Outdoor fun, Parenting, Stages

Guidance, Discipline and the Perils of Punishment 

Giving choices and being respectful will yield better results  

What do you think of when you hear the word “discipline?” Something helpful? Instructive? Punitive? Well, punishment doesn’t work.

It may establish rules and authority, but it doesn’t teach a better way to reach one’s goals. It is focused on short-term obedience rather than long-term self-control.  

Another problem with punishment is that it can interfere with the parent-child or teacher-child relationship. When children feel constantly judged or criticized, they distance themselves from the person who makes them feel that way.

For adults who want to influence a child, this is clearly ineffective.  

Finally, punishment is disrespectful. Maybe you’ve heard the argument against spanking – that it teaches people to hit. Or that a toddler says “no” because he’s heard it so often.

Children are not likely to learn respect – or consideration or empathy – in a disrespectful environment.  

So, what to do instead? 

Start with prevention. Modify your environment and your routine to meet your child’s needs.

Child-proofing keeps young children from touching things they shouldn’t – a much more effective technique than trying to teach an experimental baby or curious preschooler not to follow their natural interests.  

In addition to developmental needs, consider your child’s temperament. A more active child may not sit long enough for story time.

And beware of times when your child is hungry, tired or frustrated so you can avoid making matters worse by expecting him to wait, share or help. 

Prevention strategies, redirection and distraction work to change unwanted behavior by focusing on the behavior – or replacement behaviors – you want to see. 

*Tell your child what she can do, as well as what she can’t, and offer a distraction or substitution: “I can tell you want to play with the trains, but you can’t grab. Let’s go throw the balls while we wait for your turn.” 

*Give real choices so your child knows he has some power: “Time to brush teeth. Do you want to go to your bathroom or go get your toothbrush and brush in here with me?” 

*Use “When…Then” statements: Say, “When we get these things put away, then we can head to the park,” rather than “If you don’t…” The latter ends up with everyone punished and no one learning a solution. 

Anger doesn’t convey the message you want to send 

Two main ingredients of effective discipline are maintaining the dignity and respect of all parties, and establishing authority based on expertise or position, not power or fear. 

When consequences are necessary to reinforce a rule or value, they should be known to children in advance, delivered without anger and, ideally, with a chance to start over: “I have asked you not to throw the blocks. Come sit with me for a minute while you settle your hands.”

Second offense? “I can’t let you throw blocks because someone will get hurt. Let’s put the blocks away for today (or move you from that area/room).”  

Communication is key 

The key is to be consistent, reasonable (don’t escalate the consequence just because you’re frustrated) and respectful.

When simple rules and consequences are not working, or when children refuse to cooperate or continue to misbehave, there is a deeper problem that will not be solved with more rules and more consequences.

It will only be solved through connection and understanding.  

The most powerful tool you have is your relationship. If you want children to be responsive, play and work with them often, and take time to listen and observe when things are calm.

Even when there is conflict, moderate your temper, verbalize your feelings and model the communication you want them to learn. It doesn’t happen all at once, but you’ll be on the right track!  

Jenni Watts Evans is a parent educator and assistant director at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information, call 504.896.9591, visit or email

Newsletter Signup

Your Weekly guide to New Orleans family fun. NOLA Family has a newsletter for every parent. Sign Up