Parenting: Discipline and Praise

David Murphy with his then young children at Yellowstone National Park. Kids are generally happier and have a higher self-esteem when parents enforce ground rules.

August 6, 2010 8:11:09 AM PDT
Kids go through all sorts of ups and downs on the way to becoming adults, and there are plenty of pitfalls, from peer pressure to manipulation by people with questionable motivations.

But children who think well of themselves and are confident in their ability to make good decisions have a far better chance of ending up happy. In our house, the road to self-confidence and self-esteem is paved with a two-pronged approach: discipline and praise.

As parents, the discipline part is particularly difficult to get right. It's not fun to discipline. It's easy to feel sorry for your kids, and even guilty about staying firm. Sometimes, it's hard for two busy parents to always be on the same page. But discipline is not just about getting kids in line. It's about teaching children proper boundaries, so that they can operate and grow in the world with the confidence that comes from having a clear idea of what can and can't get you into trouble. Children who are taught at an early age to be accountable for their actions and to respect those in charge (like parents and teachers), wind-up feeling better about themselves than those who are given too much free reign. In short, kids need to know the rules and can't figure it out without repeated, consistent reminders from adults, especially their parents and/or guardians.

Compliments go a long way

The second part of the self-esteem story, praise, is easier to enact from an emotional stand-point, but a lot harder to put into practice, because it's more subtle and easier to forget. Parents often are so busy, small opportunities to compliment can slip by unnoticed and unused. But it's okay to make the gesture later on, after things have calmed down. It's not uncommon for me to remember something one of my kids did or said a week or more earlier, and then say something about it over dinner or while we're sitting around the family room. Compliments in front of siblings, relatives or friends may carry a little extra weight, too, as long as they don't embarrass the child. While it doesn't pay to be gratuitous with praise, there are plenty of opportunities to tell a kid when he's done well. School work is one, and it doesn't have to be an "A" on a major test. Any improvement is worth noting. Also, if a kid exhibits strength with a hobby or a sport, it's also worth pointing out. Even a clever statement or an original joke deserves a positive reaction. Most parents see plenty of good behavior from their children, even those who are going through more combative, trying periods. There are certainly opportunities to make good use of this. The words, "You're a good kid," are among the most powerful you'll ever use, because at heart, that's exactly what most kids want to be, and there's nothing better than hearing the people you trust the most validating it.

I've written other blogs on the types of discipline we've found to be most effective, so I won't belabor that point, except to repeat that non-corporal punishment delivered in a calm voice has always been preferred. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to keep the type of discipline you choose age appropriate to the child. They also say that discipline works best when the general atmosphere promoted by the parents is positive and supportive, and the teaching of right and wrong is systematic and consistent. For us, the naughty chair (or time-out chair) was effective for all three of our kids when they very young, and in fact, wasn't needed for very long or very often with most of the kids as long as we kept it consistent. Denial of treats or rights worked well when the kids got older. Heart to heart talks about why the discipline was necessary afterwards were also helpful, especially when the kids were pushing toward and through the teen years. The conversations were peppered with the truth that in the end, it's all about making them happy and successful in life, because after all, that's what parents who love their kids always want.

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