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Learn from My Parenting Mistakes

Eight everyday discipline strategies worth revisiting.

Source: VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

For 18 years (and sometimes longer), we are confronted with a never-ending array of decisions about our child’s choices, activities, and behavior. In the process, we develop a sense of right and wrong for our individual family. For some families, this might mean no sugar or screen time, while for others, it might be no hitting or cursing, or all the above.

Most of us parent somewhere in between Tiger Mom and “anything goes,” which creates a constant interplay between laying down the law and looking the other way. As parents, we strive to foster independence and resilience while expressing unconditional love—a delicate and challenging balance!

As a mom to five children ages 13-23, I’ve made countless mistakes and miscalculations when it comes to handling tantrums, misbehavior, and bad choices. Clearly, there’s no playbook to follow for each situation, but perhaps by sharing a few of the hard-won lessons I’ve learned, I can save you some misery. If you find yourself falling short, or regretting an action or inaction, remember, there’s always a next time!

  1. Understand what’s age-appropriate. Intellectually, we grasp that toddlers are not little grownups capable of processing constructive criticism. Yet, too often, in our desire to be fair and just, we communicate ineffectively. Give a toddler a valid reason not to do something and be done with it: “You can’t pull mommy’s hair because it hurts, and it’s not OK to hurt people.” Enough said. The next time, give the same message. They’ll get it. To increase your empathy for your kids when they act like little monsters, it’s enormously helpful to read about each developmental stage. For instance, obnoxious and annoying behavior by toddlers and teenagers alike are developmentally appropriate and necessary. Both toddler and teen defiance are to be endured and require Zen-like self-control. This doesn’t mean that you must refrain from correction; rather, say your peace, and understand that no amount of yelling or cajoling will transform a teen or toddler who is intent on rebelling.
  2. Do your best to avoid idle threats. We’ve all made idle threats, and we know they don’t work. That’s because they undermine our power. I’ve been known to threaten to throw out all my kids’ toys or smash their phones if they don’t clean their rooms. Obviously, I’m screaming with little impact, because I’ve never actually followed through. You are better off taking a favorite toy or phone with the calm statement, “You will get this back once your room is clean.” Their shock might yield a nice surprise for you.
  3. Be prepared to follow through. This can be easier said than done when we’re in a setting or situation in which following through on a punishment is challenging. For example, I’ve told one child, “If you don’t behave, I’m not taking you out for pizza!” –and then had to sheepishly double back because that was my dinner plan. Also be sure that your threat of discipline makes sense in that context or setting. For example, when you’re about to get on a plane, don’t take away your child’s favorite toy. Figure out another punishment that won’t come back to bite you. Nobody wants to be on a plane with a bored, angry kid. Save that consequence for home, when you can send them to their room!
  4. Avoid a long defense of each parenting decision. Although I rarely say, “Because I told you so,” I’m essentially trying to impart that idea with a short rationale. My teenagers, in particular, like to draw me into complex debates in which I have to defend why I’m not letting them do something, such as going to a sleepover. Instead of a drawn-out argument, I aim for a short explanation, repeat it a couple of times as necessary, and then move on. Your kid won’t like it, but you’ll save time and avoid an even bigger argument since most kids are extremely skilled in the art of persuasion. Give your decision a short rationale and then step away.
  5. Make sure that everyone in the house is on the same parenting page. I remarried when my kids were 5 and 7. In his attempt to be a wonderful stepfather, my spouse became the fun and lenient dad, while I was the cruel disciplinarian. Not only would my kids run to him for a favorable outcome, but they also played us off one another. I’d find them watching a movie late at night, and he would admit, “They told me you were OK with it.” As I started to feel like a big ogre in my own home, we had to come together to establish house rules. Ideally, the rules should also apply to babysitters and even grandparents—but good luck with that!
  6. Rights versus privileges. This lesson took me longer to learn, but it packs a wallop, and favorable results are guaranteed. I now realize that having a playdate, going to the playground, participating in sports, having sleepovers, owning a phone, and borrowing a car are privileges, not basic rights – even though kids will see them as such! As parents, we are required to sustain a basic level of wellbeing for our kids, but that doesn’t mean we must cater to their desires. Sure, it’s fun to have sleepovers or get a phone, but those are privileges that come with a certain set of behaviors. When kids behave badly or break house rules, those privileges will not be given. With my two teen daughters, my control over their phones works remarkably well. They lose their phones often and are rewarded with them when they are back on track. I can’t impress enough how this mindset has shifted our discussions and my parenting style.
  7. Give kids chores and activities to build confidence and self-esteem. Even though it can be annoying to watch a four-year-old load the dishwasher or a seven-year-old put too much laundry detergent in the washing machine, stick with it. It’s good for their sense of self and will build a foundation of accomplishment that will serve them well. I’ve run across too many university students who still run home to mom for laundry or have no clue how to cook. These are usually the same kids who crumble when they get a C. Build efficacy and resilience early so that your young adult can handle what the world has to offer. And you gain the added bonus of not having to do everything yourself!
  8. When the going gets tough, don’t let kids quit or give up randomly. This one sounds harsh, but abiding by it will be the best gift you can give a child. Does your eight-year-old want to quit soccer after a cold day on the field? Does your teen want to give up piano because it gets in the way of parties? It’s heartbreaking to watch a child struggle or be unhappy, but it’s even more heartbreaking to end up with a child who regrets immature decisions or has quit so many times that they fail to develop grit to persevere later in life. Our goal as parents is to grow a human who will be a happy and fulfilled adult. One of my family rules is that if you sign up for an activity, you must finish it. So even if your kid isn’t thrilled about art class, keep going until the end of the term, and then don’t sign up next time. I require my teens to fulfill their commitments to teams and coursework as well. If they want to drop honors next year or quit a travel team after the season, that’s fine. The act of following through even when it’s no longer rewarding is a great skill to bring to adulthood. And I can’t tell you the number of times my kids wanted to quit teams and classes and then changed their minds a week or two later!

    My 21-year-old son, who is 6’6”, is still mad at me for letting him drop basketball at age nine, and he never lets me forget it.

Parenting requires quick thinking and courage. Establishing a stable, consistent household with clear boundaries will go far in making your children feel safe, loved, and capable. It won’t be easy, but you can do it! I’d love to hear more of your tips for building strong, secure, and happy kids.