08/05/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

How Much Discipline Does a Young Child Need?


When I had been teaching for just a few years, a mother came into my classroom to tell me that her family experienced a funny remark from their 7-year-old son while at the dinner table. They were going around the table sharing their views of how the beginning of the new school year went. When they got to their son's turn everyone was anxious to hear because, in the past, he had managed to get a reputation for being the kid who acted out in class. He said, "I think it will be a good year because my teacher walks the straight and narrow." His comment was, of course, humorous coming from such a young child, but it caused me to think about teaching consequences to both my children as well as other people's children.

I have always been aware that children react the most positively when they know what is clearly expected of them, i.e. no grey areas. When young children are given too many choices they feel insecure. This does not mean that you cannot teach independence. That is another subject entirely. I am simply stating that the "punishment should fit the crime." In other words, the consequences for poor behavior should be natural ones that teach the child. An example of this would be a child who does not finish what is expected of him at dinner would not get dessert, or a child who does not complete his homework does not get TV time. In the classroom it takes a different form because as early as kindergarten the responsibility for completing the expectations of the teacher need to be very clear. In my classroom, if a child was playing during a working time, they knew I would keep them in to work on that assignment during a playing time such as recess. I was not angry or punitive. I simply told the child that I was sorry that he/she made that happen to him or herself. It was always a happy surprise to me that this type of interaction rarely happened more than once or twice throughout the year.

During a visit with one of my twin 9-year-old granddaughters last week, she told me that she hoped she would get a strict teacher this year in third grade. When I asked her what she meant by strict, she replied that she would like to have a teacher that "is fun but who sets down the law!" She then explained that she wanted to be sure that she would learn a lot, and she was sure that that kind of teacher would help her succeed. It appeared to me that she was asking for limits and clear expectations. I was very proud to see her be so expressive and introspective!

My 22-month-old granddaughter and I were playing with blocks last week. We had a wonderful time until she decided that it would be funny to take the tub that the blocks were in and hit me on top of my head with it. I took the tub away and walked away from the blocks and said "Tubs are for holding blocks. They are not for hitting." She cried for a few minutes, but she has not done that again since that time. She learned that the consequence for hitting was that grandma did not want to play anymore. It was perfectly normal behavior for her age, and new learning was able to happen.

By the time your child is in school, I know you have heard the word "consistency" used in some kind of parenting advice. If you are consistent, kind and firm but clear, your child will be able to internalize good behavior. Of course making poor choices is all part of growing and learning, but benefiting from these mistakes is what helps a child to develop. It is so confusing to a child who is allowed to make a mistake once with a natural consequence, but is allowed to do it again with no acknowledgement or action taken.

Parenting and teaching natural consequences can be one of the most frustrating yet beneficial tasks of the job. It is hard for me to think of anything more wonderful than watching a child grow and develop in a positive way!