George just couldn't. No matter how hard he tried, he could not sit still at the dinner table. The more he moved, the more his parents told him to sit still. The more they told him, the more he moved. Finally, they got so exasperated, they angrily told him to go to his room. He stayed there hours playing his video games.

Ellen believed in punishment. That is how she was raised, and she was determined to raise her children that way. She was surprised when they did not tow the line. She wondered if she should just hit the children hard like her father did to her.

Discipline is the hardest part of parenting. Even when parenting is undertaken correctly, children still find ways to give stress to parents. Children could be a great source of happiness, but also they are a great source of distress.

The science of developmental psychology investigates ways of parenting children. We are learning that it is inappropriate to consider at fault either the parents or the children when behavioral difficulties arise in families. Rather, parents and children form a system, and interventions should be aimed at improving the system as a whole.

Effective parenting has been described as a good balance of being warm with children and giving them appropriate limits. Being firm with children works best when the firm attitude comes from parents who have a warm relationship with their children.

Children are different at different ages, as their cognitive and social skills grow with age. If parents apply techniques and procedures that do not adjust to their child's developmental level, they will not function correctly. For example, it will not help to offer a child a detailed explanation of why she will be deprived of an outing if she is too young to understand. Also, giving too simplistic an explanation to teenagers or not giving any explanation at all could be frustrating for them.

Children accept discipline easier when they have developed in their first years a sense of security or trust in the world. When care giving is responsive, sensitive, and given at the right time, it improves their self esteem. As toddlers grow, their sense of initiative and independence needs careful guidance so that they have confidence in their self, their explorations, and their activities. This will help them accept moments when they have to control themselves, listen to the command not to do something or to continue with it, and so on.

Children need to learn the right time to start an activity and the right time to stop an activity. They need to learn to focus their attention, and to listen, read, watch, and so on. But also, they need to learn how to calm down, inhibit activity, and engage in quiet time or prepare for bed. Their schedules are not our schedules, and by managing their daily rhythms well, parents gain a measure of control.

Research has underscored the value of praise as a reinforcing device. It should come naturally to parents when children are behaving appropriately and should be used liberally to bring out in children both constructive activity and listening or having self-control. Metaphorically, it seems that praise reaches deep into the hearts and minds of children, engulfing them with joy and an élan to strive forth in the world with the same level of vigor in the praise given to them.

Learning. Rewards. Reinforcements. Punishments. Charts. Points. Time out. Learning theory has provided excellent discipline techniques that help shape the child to end points chosen by the parent. The secret is to know how to choose the rewards and reinforcements so that they are positive and have an effect, to avoid the use of punishment, especially corporal, and to have children understand the chart and points system. I like to use daily activities as rewards, rather than monetary ones. For example, children can get extra playtime when they listen, or lose some of that time when they do not listen. Try to avoid depriving children of a full activity, because that will lead to a sense of "who cares" and they will turn off to the plan developed with the parent.

Moreover, discipline and listening should not be just about rules that control bad habits in children. That is, children should be especially rewarded for developing good habits, such as cleaning their rooms, doing their homework, playing the piano, and physically exercising instead of playing videogames endlessly. It is easier to build good habits that leave less room for bad habits compared to trying to stop bad habits in a child where there are few good ones.

Part of what parents should be teaching children are social skills. Learning is not just about conditioning children toward goals chosen by parents. Children are active learners, and a lot of what they learn comes from watching the people and activities that are around them. When parents are on their best behavior, children watch, observe, imitate, and learn best.

Your children are part of the great story that you are living. Narrative therapy helps us understand that you can author better versions of your story, and how you discipline children is one aspect of it. You can learn to value the specialness of your children, find out what makes them tick, and give them the tools to tick better. Usually, we think that parents are supposed to bring out the best in their children. However, we are learning that children can help bring out the best in their parents, too.

Children are born with different potentials, genes, family environments, and cultures. However, in addition, all children are born with universal programs for growth, no matter what are their individual biologies and backgrounds. Discipline involves not only getting children on track in the right activities and habits. It also concerns keeping them on track for positive life goals and values. The home is the crucible where the guidance needed to create the best outcomes for your children begins. Bravely take the baton that life has given you, and lovingly pass it on to your children.

About the Author

Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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