How Do I Find Balance with Child Discipline?

Child Discipline
Child Discipline. Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

Question: How Do I Find Balance with Child Discipline?

A reader asks about child discipline:

"When I was a kid, my parents were so strict and I felt like I had no freedom. Now that I have a child, I don't want him to grow up feeling like that. It's hard for me to punish him when he does things that are wrong and when I try to he throws the biggest tantrums so I end up just letting him get out of time out or letting him have what he wants.

This feels wrong to me, but at the same time it feels wrong when I am punishing him, too. What can I do so that he doesn't freak out every time I get on to him?"


What Happens When Parents Are Too Strict with Child Discipline

When parents practice child discipline that is too harsh, children can get the message that they have no freedom. Some will feel like they have no control over their lives in a strict household (like you say you did) and certain behaviors (like lying and manipulation) and even physical and mental issues can manifest (like anorexia). Some children may question the arbitrary nature of their parents' rules and become distrustful of parents and other authority figures. Eventually, the child may not trust a mature adult enough to seek advice when they are grappling with important issues. In the toddler years this may not seem so important, but if years of heavy handed control prevent your teen from talking to you about sex, relationships or drugs, the consequences of his misguided actions at that point will be difficult to reverse.

Strict child discipline can also stunt a child's emotional development if he is not allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

Keeping such a tight reign on a child that he is never allowed to fail prevents him from experiencing life's natural consequences. Those consequences are responsible for so much growth and maturity over the years. It's far better to let him experience these consequences as a child than to deny him which could lead to excessive risk taking when he's older.

In addition, parents who are too strict offer children a poor adult role model. This is especially true if the strict discipline comes from an adult who makes snap judgments, doesn't take the time to look at the big picture, desires instant gratification, has an inability to cope with anxiety or cannot control her own emotional reactivity. Children need adult role models who offer a more balanced approach to problem solving and those adults should be able to do so in a calm and controlled (not controlling) manner.

What Happens When Parents Are Too Lax with Child Discipline

Unfortunately, the fix for a parent who is too strict is not to simply get rid of all the rules. The effects of inconsistent child discipline or a lack of any child discipline can create problems for your child that are just as bad as having too many rules. Children may feel insecure and develop anxiety and stress when there is a lack of consistent guidance. Children who do not learn appropriate boundaries when they are young experience difficulty with self-control later in life.
This can lead to social problems and relationship issues as these children appear to be self-centered and expect to get their way at all times, never compromising with others. What may seem to be working at home in your child's early years can turn into disappointment and disillusionment when he's older and starts to experience the laws and limits of the outside world.

Much like the poor role model that is an overly strict parent, a lax parent teaches children passive-aggressive behavior. Parents that are too permissive send a message that they don't care and this "I Don't Care" attitude often transfers to the child. Overindulgent parents can create overindulgent children who feel that they are above the law and who do not consider the needs of others.

Try to Strike a Balance

The best discipline will give your child a sense of what's right and what's not without damaging his self-esteem and without using heavy coercion. You're going to want your child to be able to make thoughtful decisions on his own one day and he won't always have you standing over him at the ready to dole out punitive punishments.

One way to guide your child into making wise decisions is to give him plenty of opportunity to make choices and then allow him to make them on his own (with your help only if he asks for it) and also to experience the consequences of those choices. This is just as true if his choices lead to positive, successful outcomes or to failure.

Start with small choices when your child is a toddler. Ask him if he wants juice or milk at breakfast. This may seem like a very small decision that won't amount to much, but to your toddler (who is strongly yearning the ability to control his environment and have a little bit of power in this world) this is an important event.

The discipline part comes when he decides he didn't want milk with his pancakes after all. This is an opportunity for you to turn his choice into a learning opportunity. Keep in mind the two extremes: A parent that is too strict would not have offered her toddler a choice at all and might take the milk away, spank the child if he fusses, or not let him get up until he's finished the milk. A parent that is too lax with discipline might have offered a choice but at the first sign of conflict or tears would likely give in to the child, dump the milk and give him juice instead.

A better way to handle the situation, where actual learning can take place on the part of your toddler, would be to emphasize that he decided on milk so he can't have any juice now. Another possible solution would be to offer him juice if he drinks all of his milk and eats his food. You can tell him that he will have another opportunity to choose juice at snack. You can empathize with him saying something like, "It sounds like you don't want milk right now. That's rough, guy. How about you choose juice at lunch?"

There are several different ways he may react to your methods. If making choices and accepting negative outcomes is new, he will likely cry or have a tantrum. That's a perfectly normal expression of emotion. Let it happen. Be sympathetic but do not let your toddler sway you into giving him the juice. One day, he will not have an outburst about something as small as this. In fact, he will have had so much practice with decision making, he will have developed the coping skills necessary to handle the consequences of even his poorest decisions. Better yet, that same practice in critical thinking will have equipped him to make more good decisions than poor ones. But you've got to start letting him make those decisions and mistakes today. That's why striking a balance with child discipline and starting early (in the toddler years) matters so much.

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