Discipline is broader than punishment. It aims to teach children to behave well without external controls. Effective discipline is based on a mutually respectful relationship.

When working out how to respond to a child’s misbehaviour, consider first of all whether it is deliberate. Often misbehaviour isn’t deliberately naughty. Know your child’s developmental level and what you can reasonably expect. If they have misbehaved, talk about the situation, or match the consequence to the behaviour to teach the link between action and result.

Children need stimulation, so be aware that they in boring situations they are likely to misbehave. Having fun together reduces misbehaviour, so make opportunities to actively play together. Break up activities that children are likely to see as boring with physical activity and fun interactions.

One of the cardinal rules of discipline is not to tell a child not to do something unless you are prepared to act. If it’s not important enough to act on, save your breath.

Positive ways of influencing behaviour while maintaining a good child-parent relationship:

  • Praise: never under-estimate how important your approval is to your children. Compliment your children on effort and achievement. Praise for good efforts can have a big effect on extinguishing the bad behaviour that you didn’t comment on.

  • Ignoring: giving attention for good behaviour and ignoring poor behaviour often is more effective than we expect. Children thrive on attention, so if they don’t get it for one behaviour, they are more likely to attempt another. If poor behaviour isn’t causing a real problem, ignoring it, either casually or intentionally, can be effective in eliminating it. Of course you can’t afford to ignore behaviour that you have already warned about.

  • Compliment, not criticise. Unless we tell our children what we like about them, they won’t know. We are vocal about what we don’t like, but forget to mention what we do like. Constantly pointing out our children’s mistakes makes them either timid or rebellious. In contrast, compliments are likely to lead to more of the desired behaviour. Until desired behaviour has become a habit, it needs ongoing intermittent praise. If we don’t notice when our children makes an effort, he or she is likely to stop – after all, why bother to put in the effort if it doesn’t pay off?

  • Plan ahead. Have some toys put away for difficult days, pack books for when waiting somewhere, carry snacks with you when out, notice when children are getting tired.

  • Give attention to what you want more of. Before reacting to a behaviour you don’t like, notice whether your child is simultaneously doing something you like (eg shouting while otherwise playing well) – if so, comment positively on the desired behaviour (without mentioning the undesirable behaviour). Reward your child for responding to instructions with a smile or “Thank you.” Occasional extra treats or tangible rewards have a place too.

  • Develop simple statements to sum up rules. This allows children to prompt themselves eg “The couch is for sitting on,” “Cats like being touched gently.” Say what you want more of; don’t focus on what you don’t want. Describe or explain the correct behaviour calmly.

  • Be consistent. To be effective, any discipline strategy needs to be consistent. There is no point ignoring a behaviour one day, then yelling about it the next – it makes both strategies ineffective.

  • Keep your voice calm and quiet. Yelling is only helpful for releasing emotion. When yelling, the focus is on mood, not words. Yelling doesn’t get messages through as well as talking calmly. While some children become fearful, others become parent-deaf. Save yelling for emergencies.

  • Humour is an effective strategy for children of all ages. Don’t laugh at them, but make issues a game rather than a confrontation. Playful joking is often an appropriate way to get a message through.

  • Explain, but don’t debate. Too many words make children tune out, so keep messages short. Give reasons for doing things a certain way (eg ‘We have to be gentle with babies because they can’t look after themselves’), but when it comes to discipline, don’t give lengthy explanations or get caught in debating the issue.

  • Remind, then follow through. Use a system of one or two reminders, then the punishment, but be consistent. Your child will not learn to modify his or her behaviour if some days a threatened punishment is applied immediately, and other days three or four (or more) threats are made first. Children, like adults, will sometimes see how much they can get away with. Be consistent – either always give one warning then apply a consequence, or two reminders then the consequence. More than two reminders is likely to be counter-productive. If you have a child with poor memory or concentration, reinforce the verbal reminders with gestures (eg holding up either one or two fingers).

  • Keep punishments brief. Children do not have the same concept of time. Five minutes in his or her room may seem like a long time to a child; longer may seem like rejection for young children and might be counter-productive in improving behaviour. If removing toys as a punishment, keep it brief. This has the advantage of allowing the child to again try playing with the object appropriately while the reason for the punishment is still clear in their mind (it also allows you more scope for adding punishment if necessary).

There are numerous books about discipline. When something isn’t working, try something new.