D ear Doctor K: I have two children in elementary school. When they were younger, I disciplined them with timeouts. How should discipline change as they get older?
Dear Reader: Discipline is important for children of all ages. But you’re right: The style of encouraging discipline changes somewhat as children get older. At whatever age, the goal is not to punish, but rather to teach self-control and the difference between acceptable (right) and unacceptable (wrong) behaviors.
In answering questions about kids, I rely a lot on the advice of pediatrician colleagues here at Harvard Medical School. They describe a variety of ways to discipline a school-aged child:
• Take advantage of natural consequences. Your child can learn by seeing the natural consequences of his actions. For example, if he breaks a toy in anger, point out that he will no longer be able to play with it.
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• Use logical consequences. Some behaviors have no immediate consequences. In these cases, determine consequences that are logically related to the misbehavior. For example, tell your child that if he does not pick up his toys before bed, then he will not be allowed to play with them for one whole day.
• Delay a privilege. If your child is refusing to complete a task, tell him that he cannot do something else he enjoys until after he finishes.
• Use “I” messages. Tell your child how you feel when he misbehaves. Start your sentences with “I.” For example, “I get upset when you throw the ball in the house.” Your child is more likely to get defensive with messages that start with “you,” such as, “You upset me when you throw the ball.”
• Discuss, don’t demand. As your children get older, give them a chance to help find solutions to problems. For example, “You are always tired in the morning, and late getting out of the house. What can we do to change this?”
• Express your disapproval. Look your child straight in the eyes and say, “No” or “Stop.” Tell him what he should not do and why he should not do it. In many cases, this is all that is necessary to stop an unacceptable behavior.
• Give timeouts. Even though we think of using them with toddlers, timeouts may be useful occasionally for older children. It can give them more focused time to think about their actions.
When setting limits, it’s important always to be consistent. Rules must stay the same from one day to the next.
Whenever you are disciplining your child, enforce the rules without expressing anger. When kids see that a parent is angry, they worry that the limitation imposed by discipline is just the first step. Specifically, they worry that their parents may hurt them.
Make sure that you regularly recognize wanted behaviors. When you see your child doing something that you like, give him a hug, a smile and some praise. If you accentuate the positive, you may not eliminate the negative – but you'll probably reduce it.
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