What is Discipline?

Discipline comes from the word “disciple,” which means “to follow one who teaches.” So the focus is on children learning lessons, such as “I have a choice about my behavior,” “My behavior choices affect me and other, so I need to choose wisely,” and “I am responsible for my own behavior choices and the outcomes they cause.

Punishment usually teaches are unhealthy lessons, such as “I’m a bad person,” “I need to behave so I can avoid someone else doing something hurtful to me,” and “It’s okay to do something wrong if I can get away with it, because then there won’t be any consequences.”

Some of these lessons are not the intended lesson the parent means to send, but nevertheless is what children often think to themselves. This reminds you to ask yourself, “What will this discipline teach my child about controlling his or her own behavior?

What Message Does Effective Discipline Send?

Instead of making the child suffer, which is the goal in punishment, discipline focuses on fixing the mistake or learning how to prevent it in the future. This results in children learning self-discipline, not blind obedience.

Effective discipline has its own language and actions. Most parents and professionals have good intentions, but could make a few important changes in their words or actions. This will help them avoid the risks of punishment and reap all the benefits of discipline.

Before or after misbehavior, describe the behavior you wants to see and explain how negative behavior affects other people or things. “It’s important to (positive behavior and its benefit). If you were to (negative behavior) it could (its effect).” For example, “You can ride your bike on the sideways, to stay safe. If you rode your bike in the street you could get hit by a car.” This is the “why” of your rule, not a threat, which would be, “You either do what I want or else I’ll do this to you.” The reason will be a bottom-line issue you are responsibility for, as a parent, such as: safety, health, rights, rules, values, etc.

When children misbehave, the parent makes it clear that the discipline is a result of the child’s behavior choice, not the parent’s power. Punishment says, “If you do (negative behavior), I’m going to do (punishment) to you.” This is a power play, sets up the parent as “the bad guy” and children feel justified in blaming the parent for being punished. On the other hand, discipline says, “If you choose to (negative behavior), I’ll know you’ve decided to (experience the negative consequence).

Because the child has a choice and the parent follows through with respectful, reasonable words and actions, there really isn’t any justification for the child to be angry with the parent. (They can try, but you can honestly say, “You made this choice,” in a respectful, calm, matter-of-fact way. This language of choice empowers children, because they realize that they do have choice — about their behavior and the consequences it brings. So they usually focus more on what they’ve learned and will choose to do in the future, which is within their control, rather than blaming the parent for their feelings, which leaves them feeling like a disempowered victim.

Follow through. While discipline involves teaching, it is not “all talk.” When you take action, it needs to be logically related to the misbehavior, only last long enough to teach the lesson, and be presented respectfully.

The Top Four-Star Discipline Tools

Instead of repeating yourself or counting to three (which teaches children they don’t have to respond until you get to three) use these more-effective tools from, The Parent’s Toolshop: The Universal Blueprint® for Building a Healthy Family (© 2000.)

  • Show children how to make amends. For example, if they spill it, they clean it up. Make sure what they are doing directly relates to any harm or damage they incurred. Avoid demanding or forcing apologies. Ask, “How can you show you are sorry?” This opens up options like a letter, doing a favor, drawing a picture, etc.
  • Offer choices within limits. Alter the focus of the choices as issues shift. For example, when shopping you can use choices to prevent problem behavior, such as involving the children in the shopping or choices. If they start getting rambunctious, you can offer a choice of the kids settling down and continuing to shop with you or you may need to leave and skip any fun activities already planned for that outing. If they continue to fuss, tell them their behavior is telling you they have decided to leave. That choice has been made. New choice is when or how you leave. They can walk out or you may need to carry them (if they are small enough). If it should come to this, you need to follow through and not bring children back until they learn how to shop — which means you need to take the time to teach and practice at home.You might be thinking, “Then I’m being punished and inconvenienced by having to leave the store before I’m done shopping and the children are getting rewarded for bad behavior if they didn’t want to shop in the first place!” These are legitimate questions and concerns…and raise the question, “Why are the kids being taken shopping if they don’t want to go?” That’s a sure-fire motive for trying to sabotage shopping.

    There are several possible solutions: the first is to make shopping fun or a game; you can play/practice at home or actually get creative and make shopping fun! This does not include bribing children to be good. Another option is to leave them with a sitter, which they can save to pay for, since they are choosing not to go shopping. The first solution will be a win/win for everyone. The latter will most likely work the first time you present the option. Most children will say, “Okay, I’ll go,” to which you need to respond with a description of the behavior you expect to see if they come, worded in the positive. For example, “Stay near me,” instead of “Don’t run off.” (If you read the other articles linked in this example, you will see how much the prevention tools can prevent the need for discipline in the first place!)

  • Take action. Decide what you will do, not what you will make children do. Respectfully follow through, with or without words, with reasonable, related actions.
  • Allow natural consequences. They happen if parents do nothing to rescue. You can only use them if they are quick and safe. When they experience it, you are not allowed to say “I told you so!” Instead, ask, “What did you learn?” (Pause and listen) and “What might you do differently next time?” If you ask these with a sincere and respectful, matter-of-fact, and curious tone, not sarcasm or criticism, children will learn their lessons directly, which always sticks more, and not always have to learn them “the hard way.”
  • Use Problem Solving to prevent, reveal, or decide discipline. “I am concerned about (misbehavior). What can we do about that?” You can use the two-party, parent/child variation of the F-A-X Listening process to find a win/win solution to which you both agree.

You may have noticed that time-outs, logical consequences and restrictions aren’t in this list! That’s because time-outs actually aren’t effective when used for discipline and logical consequences and restrictions are very easy to misuse, unless you make sure they meet the 4 R’s above. These three tools are actually the ones more often misused and over-used, which renders them ineffective.

When you effectively use the four-star discipline tools, you’ll find you often only need to follow through once. Children learn the lesson better, because aren’t distracted by suffering, and don’t repeat the behavior for revenge for being hurt. And if you use prevention tools first, including teaching children proper behavior, you will find yourself rarely ever being in a situation that needs discipline!

“I don’t need to discipline as often as I thought I did. Before the class, I used discipline this much (holding his arms wide apart) and the rest of the skills only this much (holding his hands in front of his chest). Now, I only need to use discipline this much (his hands in front of his chest) and I use the rest of the tools this much (holding his arms wide apart).” —     Bryan Belden, Parents Toolshop® Graduate

This article is the last article in a three-part series:

The first article explains the difference between discipline, punishment and abuse.

The second article offers very clear guidelines for knowing when you are punishing or disciplining, “The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline.”

This final article offers the effective discipline strategies you can use. For more in-depth learning, get the Take the Bite Out of Discipline” workshop audio and resource package.


Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network , and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop .For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops  and interviews with the media worldwide,  including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series

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