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Exactly What is Discipline?

toddler pouting her lips as a sign of anger, and about to burst into tears.
Photo by Alexander Dummer from Pexels

You could probably think of some discipline techniques already. You probably know or have even used timeouts, raising your voice, the 3.2.1 method, and losing privileges.

What I am starting to notice, though, is that we are drifting away from the reasons we discipline and focusing more on how we discipline. I would like to use this post to bring things back into perspective.

We first need to understand what discipline is and why we do it. If we know the what and the why, then we are more likely to use the how more wisely.

What is discipline?

Some define discipline as stopping an undesired or unacceptable behavior. Like some sort of enforcing control or punishment. Even dictionaries would define discipline along these terms.

When it comes to parenting, this definition is incomplete.

Imagine a baby teething on your car keys. If you want your keys back, there are two ways to get them.

You could just take them, at which point you are almost guaranteed to get a crying baby as a result. Alternatively, you could attract the baby's attention towards a different object that you don't mind them teething on. Baby lets go of your keys to dedicate these little hands and attention to the new object. You get your keys, baby gets something to chew on. Everyone is happy. Yes?

The definitions above cover the taking your keys away scenario. But they don't discuss the replaced object one. The one that keeps everyone happy.

You see, children have needs and interests that are hardwired. They also have solutions that are hardwired. Nobody needs to teach a toddler to push, pull, bite, or hit to get what they want. They are pre-programmed to do that as part of a survival instinct set that they were born with.

Thousands of years ago, it was a necessary skill set if this child was to survive. Today, it is considered a part of uncivilized behavior that needs to be changed. This right here...that's the core of discipline!

Children have a problem, children find a solution, we consider the solution unacceptable, we work on changing the solution. That's it.

A Complete Definition of Discipline

When it comes to parenting, discipline is viewed as replacing a behavior or action that you believe is unacceptable with a different one that you find acceptable. Giving the toy to take away the keys.

How to discipline a child?


All other factors are moving targets like core values, environment, culture, community/social norms, child's age, personality...etc.

What discipline boils down to is:

1. What are we offering children as an acceptable alternative to behaviors or actions we don't like?

2. Is our solution convincing and applicable?

It was never about the car keys to begin with!

Just like with that baby, a child would be happy to take the other toy and let go of your car keys. Baby is teething and it really doesn't matter what they are chewing on.

It is the same with older children, and all the way to teens and even adults.

What about older children and teens?

With a baby, it is fairly easy to know what they need. Their needs are straightforward and well documented in many cases.

What about older children and teens?

The only way to answer this question is to know your children and have a trusting relationship with them from the beginning. It takes building a relationship with your child where you know and trust each other.

The more you know them, the easier their intentions and alternative solutions will be to figure out. The more they trust you, the more willing they will be to change their behavior.

Of all the parents I know, the ones who invest in a strong relationship with their children are the ones who end up with the least discipline problems. And it is really not about how much time parents spend with their children, but rather how they spend this time together. It's about the quality of time.

Walking the Walk

The best place to start is with our core values. The combination of practicing what we are asking our children to do, and continuing to ask them to do it will create a powerful map for their behavior.

What we do is what our children will learn.

Bottom Line

Discipline is one of the simplest and yet hardest parts of the parenting job. And yes, it is totally the parent/caregiver's responsibility to teach the child how to behave.

To find the best way to change a child's behavior, we must first understand why we are taking this action and what behavior or action we are aiming to change.

Your discipline strategy should always follow this framework:

The core of the problem is that my child wants to ____________________

My child is solving the problem by _________________________, which is not acceptable to me.

An acceptable alternative that solves the core of the problem is ____________________.

Try it and tell me how it works.

Need help? My contact information is at the top of every post.

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