Discipline and children: birth to 12 years

Types of discipline

There are many ways to discipline your child. 

Some of them can help your child to learn and build on the strong connection with you.  

Other methods might get your child to obey - but they don’t always help them to learn what is expected. They might also teach your child things you don’t want.  

It’s best to use strategies that suit your child’s age, development and temperament.

The information below may help you to understand different types of discipline and how they might affect your child.

It is important to choose what is best for your child - and your relationship with them.

Using consequences

Consequences for unacceptable behaviour can help your child learn.

They need to suit your child’s level of understanding and be understood by everyone.

If you involve your child in making the rules and deciding on any consequences for breaking them, they are more likely to cooperate.

When you apply consequences, make sure they are consistent, and:

  • happen as soon as possible after the misbehaviour
  • are safe for your child
  • fit the behaviour
  • help your child know how to do things better.

There are ‘natural consequences’ and ‘related or logical consequences’ as follows.

Natural consequences

Natural consequences are what you can expect to happen as a result of something your child does.

For example, if your child does not put away their toys when you ask, and then they can’t find their favourite toy, it is a natural consequence. The natural outcome - not being able to find a toy - is the teacher. You have not needed to do any teaching.

This can help your child to learn to take responsibility for what they do.

Related or logical consequences

You can use a related consequence to logically follow something your child does.

For example, when your child is running around the yard, you might ask them to keep away from an area so they don’t damage the plants. If they keep running in that area and knock over a potted plant, you could get them to clean up the mess. 

You might also get them to help you repot the plant.

When a consequence is related to the behaviour in this way, it can help your child see the connection between their actions and how they can make up for mistakes.

‘Time in’

‘Time in’ means removing your child from a situation where they are not coping well - but staying with them. You might sit close to your child to help them settle, or hold them gently until they are calm again.

By staying with your child you are helping them learn to manage strong feelings and difficult situations. Once they are calm you can talk with them about what happened and what they could do next time.

‘Time in’ sends a message to your child that you will not let them do anything to harm themselves or others. It also lets them know you will not let their feelings drive you away. It strengthens the relationship with your child. Go to Time in: guiding your child's behaviour.

‘Time out’

Time out is when a child is told to go somewhere (like a chair or facing a wall) alone for a number of minutes, often to think about what they have done and what they could do differently.  Often parents ignore their child’s cries or requests and don’t give them any attention during this time.

‘Time out’ is not a helpful form of discipline because:

  • it leaves your child to work things out without the support of an adult
  • it doesn’t work for a child under three - they cannot solve problems or manage their emotions very well on their own
  • your child might see it as punishment
  • your child might feel you have left them on their own because you don’t love them, or they are bad
  • your child can become frightened and distressed - which doesn’t help them learn
  • your child might obey you so that they can get connected with you again - but it doesn’t mean they have learned the lesson.

Losing a privilege

Some parents try to teach their child a lesson by taking away something important to them, - eg: banning TV when they’re late home. Losing a privilege might not work as well as other forms of discipline for the following reasons:

  • it’s not related to the child’s behaviour
  • the child might obey you because they don’t want to lose a privilege - but it doesn’t help them learn what to do
  • they might argue if they feel the consequence isn’t fair
  • it can lead to the child being sneaky to avoid losing something they want.

Physical punishment

Some parents believe smacking does not harm a child because it happened to them and they turned out OK.

However, research tells a different story - which has led to over 30 countries banning smacking. These studies tell us that children who are hit can:

  • change the behaviour for the moment, but will probably repeat it - they have only learned what not to do, rather than what is expected
  • learn not to do the action in the adult’s presence
  • learn to tell lies, cheat or blame others to avoid being hit
  • have strong feelings of anger, injustice and hurt and forget the reasons for the punishment
  • become withdrawn, anxious or depressed
  • feel shamed and humiliated
  • lose respect and trust
  • not learn the behaviour you want
  • be more aggressive to other children, rebel as teenagers or use violence as an adult
  • be more likely to bully others - smacking teaches children it’s OK to hit others when you’re bigger and stronger, when you’re angry, or to get what you want.

Smacking can also lead to more or harsher smacking if a parent thinks the first smack didn’t work, or accidentally injure a child if a stressed parent loses control.

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Last updated: 11 March 2016

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