Discipline, children and parenting

Discipline…uh oh. Depending on our past family and school experience discipline may have many negative connotations for those of us who were at school 10, 15, 20 years + ago …..

This is a word that often confuses and invokes polarising opinions in adults, children, teachers and community members alike. For parents it can be a contentious area and often a battleground. The origins of the word discipline are from the Latin word disciplina meaning to teach and learn.  In this context discipline means teaching your child responsible behaviour and self-control and guiding them to follow rules. 

Discipline is not another word for punishment so let’s reframe this as follows; 

We all want our children to grow into wonderful, disciplined adults. With our help they will become responsible members of our families, communities and society but firstly this responsibility for discipline needs to come from us – the parents – not the teachers at school or sports coaches’. 

So let’s call it parenting … you may have read the April article on Positive Parenting. Consider this Part 2 and ask yourselves the following:  

  • When trying to manage your children are you both you and your partner saying and doing the same thing?
  • Do you and your partner agree on methods of parenting?
  • Do you have set limits in place for what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at home? 
  • Do you have family rules?  
  • Are you aware of your own triggers and reactions to your children’s behaviour?
  • Do you have age appropriate and realistic expectations of your child and their behaviour?
  • Is your physical environment helping or hindering your child?  

Where do you start?

When that bundle of joy arrived they were so dependent and new, totally needing your love and care. Then they started to cry, babble, talk, move, not sleep, eat solids, not eat, sit up, crawl, walk, say NO, have tantrums, separate from you, go to early learning centres, start school, change schools…

Throughout all of your child’s stages of growth and development you adapted and learned. Your child looked to you, trusted and relied on you for that consistent love, care and support. They observed you, they listened and copied. Here is where it is so important that parents agree and apply consistent discipline.   

How do you start?

To become happy, responsible and fully functioning members of our society children not only need to learn responsibility and self-control with your guidance and by your example but have many opportunities to practice it – again and again and again. Start with family rules and limits (see above). It is good practice to talk about and agree these (for children old enough) with children. Include examples of possible consequences for when behaviour is not within the rules and limits. It will not be easy. Children will not always remember or understand why their behaviour causes offense. There will be frustrations and tears and times when you wonder who this little or young person is! Especially when a conflict occurs in public. (Anyone experienced a supermarket toddler tantrum and the judgement of fellow shoppers?)   

When children have practiced all these positive (and negative) behaviours on you then they can be more confident to apply this learning to other adults and social situations. It will not always be perfect but will be a learning opportunity. To know what your child is capable of understanding is vital to this learning and your teaching – disciplinaAnd praise them, acknowledge their positive efforts!

When things go wrong as they invariable will and your child behaves or says something outside the “rules” it’s time to take a deep breath. Can you ignore it? Can you redirect it (give them an alternative)? If not then give your child your attention and listen (or observe). Your child’s behaviour and body language can often give clues to what is going on. For example is there a certain time of day or situations when their behaviour is negative? If the behaviour or language isn’t improving or you cannot ignore it then you may implement consequences. In a calm voice and manner explain the what and why of these consequences. Every family will have their own. The key is to be consistent and fair and as mentioned earlier it’s not easy.    

Think also about your child’s environment. The environment plays a big part in how we all grow, learn and behave responsibly. It is often referred to as the third teacher. This can be our homes, workplaces, our local area and community. It can be our own physical and emotional state and our relationships. For children it often affects them in ways they cannot understand. Is it helping or hindering them? Do they need access to more or less physical space? Is it supportive or frightening?   Would a change help them to manage their behaviour better? We need look no further than the prison system to understand the effects of a negative environment. 

Historically there are many examples of the relationship between discipline and power and the use and abuse of this.  The power between adults and children is weighted towards adults. As adults we have the power to make a difference to our children with positive guidance and teaching and bucket loads of patience.

I read in one of the references below a great tip for parents: try to give 6 positive comments for every negative one. That’s something that requires great discipline!



Mary Digges *

MDR Education

Early Childhood Consultant for Angsana Education.  

* Mary Digges is an early childhood teacher, lecturer, trainer, assessor and consultant in education and has long promoted bilingual and multilingual education. Mary has worked in Australia, Singapore and China. 




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American Academy of Paediatrics


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