The Two Biggest Mistakes Parents Make When Disciplining

The two biggest discipline mistakes parents and teachers of toddlers to tweens make—believe it or not—are 1) too much talking and 2) too much emotion. In discipline situations, adults too often use what we call the “default to reasoning” as their go to plan.

Imagine, for example, that your nine-year-old son is torturing his little sister for the fortieth time since they both got home from school. You ask him how he would feel if someone did that to him all the time. The boy, naturally, after receiving this wealth of compassionate wisdom, responds by saying, “Gee, I never looked at it like that before. You know, you’re right, I wouldn’t like it very much. How insensitive I’ve been,” and he stops the teasing—permanently.

When I describe this scenario to audiences of parents, they invariably laugh. Why? Because they understand that even though the reaction described would certainly be nice, kids don’t usually respond like that. Simple reasoning and explaining don’t often work that well.

But if this is true, why do we parents default so quickly to those tactics? Here’s why. Many parents have an erroneous idea or expectation in their heads about little kids. It is a false assumption that leads to discipline attempts that don’t work and to stormy scenes that make everyone feel bad.

The erroneous idea about children to which we are referring is known as the “Little Adult Assumption.” The Little Adult Assumption is the idea that kids are just smaller than we are, but they have hearts of gold and they are basically reasonable and unselfish. Their misbehavior is based on the fact that they just don’t understand the rules, so if we simply explain to them why they should behave, they will shape up.

But here’s what too often happens instead. Your child is doing something you don’t like. You try telling him why he shouldn’t do it. He doesn’t respond, so you start trying to persuade him to see things your way. When persuasion fails, you start arguing.

You are now talking too much and this is causing you (and your child) to get too emotional (angry, frustrated). No effective learning is occurring! Arguing may lead to a yelling match, and when yelling fails, some parents hit. Actually, 90% of spankings and the like are simply parental temper tantrums that are caused by the failure of reasoning.

What is the antidote to this disciplinary chaos? The antidote is a firm, reasonable-but-gentle program such as 1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting which allows parents to be firmly—but fairly—in control. In 1-2-3 Magicyou have three parenting jobs: controlling obnoxious behavior, encouraging positive behavior, and bonding with your children. Simple strategies are prescribed for each job. Rest assured, there is a time for talking and explaining. There are also times to keep quiet!

Kids are not little adults. The overall philosophy of 1-2-3 Magic is what you might call “dictatorship to democracy.” That means that when your kids are little, your house should be a dictatorship where you are the judge and jury. When the kids are in their mid to late teens, however, things should be more of a democracy, where the youngsters have more to say about the rules and policies that affect them. Parents need to understand how to transition from one stage to the other so they can avoid the excessive talking and excessive emotion that destroy discipline.

Dr. Thomas Phelan is the author of 1-2-3 Magic 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting (Sourcebooks 2016).


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