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Positive Discipline: Seven Steps to Teaching Your Child to Have Proper Behavior

Updated on May 22, 2011
Children need to be taught acceptable behavior.
Children need to be taught acceptable behavior. | Source

Though parents wish for and imagine perfect children (does anyone have a child kicking his sister in the head while yelling swear words as part of their parenthood fantasy?), the reality is children misbehave.  Sometimes it’s out of ignorance and sometimes it’s intentional.  As a parent, it’s your job to teach your child proper behavior, and the most effective way to do that is to be consistent in your discipline.

Teaching, Not Punishing

The word discipline originally meant to provide instruction to teach self-control, character, and necessary skills; someone who was well disciplined was well behaved. However, discipline now has a very negative connotation. It is associated with punishment, but that should not be the case.

We need to move from the punishment-focus of discipline to the teaching component of discipline.  Instead of seeing a misbehavior as an act that requires punishment, the focus needs to be shifted to seeing it as an opportunity to teach and reinforce positive behavior.

Positive Consequences

Consequences Don’t Have to Be Negative

Consequence, too, has received a bad rap.  However, consequence just means result, and consequences can be good or bad.  The good consequences need to be stressed more.  Bad behavior is easy to notice and needs to be dealt with, so it gets most of the attention.  Children will respond better, though, when they also receive positive consequences, so try to catch them doing something good and give them positive consequences for it.  The rewards can be as simple as praise (“You did a really good job washing the dishes tonight.”) to a thank you (“I really appreciate you helping your sister with her homework tonight.  Thank you.”) to a tangible reward, whether it’s a small treat, money, or a special experience.

Seven Steps to Teaching Your Child to Behave Correctly

Once you have decided to teach instead of punish your children (that doesn’t mean there aren’t negative consequences, just that punishment is not the focus), you can enact the five steps to teach children to behave correctly.  Next time your child misbehaves, try the following behaviors.

1. Make eye contact with your child.

If you have their eyes on yours, you have their ears, mind, and heart.  Without eye contact, it’s difficult to gauge whether of not your child is truly listening and understanding.  This is much easier to ascertain whether or not you have his/her attention.

Eye contact also shows respect, and it helps reinforce taking accountability for actions (and most kids find it much harder to lie while looking you directly in the eyes!).

Example:  “Give me your eyes,” or “Please look me in the eyes when we talk.”

2. Specifically name the behavior you would like your child to stop.

Specifically naming the behavior makes your expectations clear and provides children with a clear idea of what behavior is wrong (they’re pretty good at multi-tasking, so they might be doing multiple things at once—this way they know specifically what to stop). 

What to say:  “Stop poking your sister.”

3. Explain why your child needs to stop the behavior.

Some behaviors are conditional (farting contests are usually frowned upon in front of company, but do you really care if it’s done in their rooms?) and others are not acceptable at any time.  Often we just assume kids know something is wrong or that they know under what conditions it’s unacceptable.  This isn’t always the case, and this is your opportunity to teach your child appropriate behavior, and don’t just think because you’ve told your kids once, they know it.  We learn very few things the first time, and proper behavior, just like the 3 R’s (reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmatic), it needs to be taught and retaught and practiced.

What to say:  “You are intentionally annoying your sister, which is rude and makes family time unpleasant.  Additionally, she asked you to stop, and if someone asks you to stop doing something to them, you need to stop.”

4. Suggest an alternate activity.

Sometimes kids misbehave because they don’t know what is wrong, and other time kids are intentionally doing something wrong; sometimes to be a brat and other times just out of boredom.  Make it clear what they should be doing instead.  This provides them clear options for positive behavior, and more often than not, they’ll choose that over something with negative consequences.  Keep in mind your child’s needs and interests.  For example, if you’ve got a fidgety child, keep around things that don’t require much focus, but keep his/her hands busy, like a stress ball, play dough, etc.  Busy hands can’t do things like poking sisters.

What to say:  “Instead of poking your sister, why don’t you squeeze this stress ball.  It will allow you to touch something without disrupting anyone.”

Consequence Arsenal

Have a variety of consequences, both positive and negative, in your arsenal.  This provides variety so your child doesn’t become immune to certain rewards or punishments, and it also lets you increase the severity of consequences as necessary.  For example, the first time you hear your child swear, there shouldn’t be serious consequences.  Make sure s/he knows it’s not acceptable language and that there will be consequences in the future, but a verbal reprimand should be enough.  Don’t come out with guns blazing and ground him for two weeks.  Then what would you do next time it happens?  He’s choosing to swear again, even though he was warned against it, and so the consequence should be increased.  Do you really want to ground him for three weeks for it?  Start small and build up as the behavior continues and/or becomes more severe.

5. Provide consequences, both positive and negative.

Kids need opportunities to make choices.  It helps them to learn and take responsibility for their actions.  It also gives them a feeling of power because even though you are the one choosing the consequences, by choosing their actions, they are choosing which consequence. 

Just be prepared to follow through on the consequences.  If you say you are going to do something, whether it’s a positive or negative consequence, it needs to be something you are actually prepared to do.  If not, it teaches your kids that you don’t follow through on your promises and that there aren’t consequences for their actions.  This could have bad effects.  For example, we’ve all heard the parents in a restaurant threaten a misbehaving child in a restaurant that if he didn’t stop his misbehavior, they would leave right then and there.  I’ve witnessed this threat dozens of times, but only once have I seen a parent actually follow through with it.  All those other kids were taught (remember, this is teaching!) that 1) my parent(s) doesn’t follow through on consequences, and 2) I can continue this behavior; it gets me attention, I get to go out to eat, and nothing bad happens.  Similarly, though, children, especially those who aren’t yet teenagers, crave praise and try to accomplish things more to for acknowledgement than for personal achievement (that tends to come later as children mature more), so if you promise a child a positive recognition for something, like getting on the honor roll for the first time, but you follow through on that promise, you’ve taught your kid two things:  1)  my parents don’t follow through on promises, and 2) what I accomplish is not important; therefore it’s not important for me to accomplish anything.  The lesson:  all of your actions teach your children something; be conscious of teaching positive lessons and follow through on what you say.

What to say:  “If you stop poking your sister, we’d love to have you stay with us to watch this movie.  If you decide to continue, though, you’re going to be sent to your room because you are making family time unpleasant for the rest of us.”

Constructive Feedback

6. Reinforce and Reteach

This step isn’t possible for every behavior correction, but when it is, it’s a great chance to provide more feedback to your child and extend the learning experience (remember to reteach!).  So if you have a chance later, reflect on the consequences of the positive or negative behavior.  This works best when done within 24 hours.

For a positive behavior:

What to say:  “Thank you for stopping poking your sister.  I’m glad you made the choice to be nice and spend the evening with us.  We enjoyed watching the movie with you.”

This does several things.  It lets your kid know you noticed his behavior.  It also acknowledges his decision-making abilities and praises him for doing something good.  It gives you another chance to provide positive consequences for his behavior.

For negative behavior:

What to say:  “We really missed you last night during family time.  I hope next time you make the choice to be respectful and to spend time with us.  We really enjoy your company when you behave.”

This gives you a second chance at teaching proper behavior.  Your child chose not to behave, even after you corrected it the first time, and he chose his consequences by doing so.  This is a gentle reminder of what the proper behavior is as well as what he misses out on when he chooses to behave inappropriately.  It also reinforces that positive choices are his responsibility.

Optional Step 7. Ask “Why?”

This step isn’t always necessary, as not all behavior really requires a “why?”.  The poking of the sister example from above is a situation in which I would probably not ask why, as “I dunno” or “Because I felt like it” do not really justify the action, and there’s probably not some deep-seeded reason behind it.  Kids just like to annoy their siblings sometimes, and you know the reason behind it. 

However, some situations should have a “why?” attached, and this usually best fits after step two.  Before you explain why the behavior is inappropriate, it’s often best to understand why the behavior occurred in the first place.  This will often shape your explanation of why it is wrong.  For example, say your daughter wasn’t doing her homework.  You might want to approach her and say, “I’d like to talk to you.  Please give me your eyes.  You need to stop neglecting your homework.  You have an F right now.  Can you please help me understand why you’re not doing your homework?” 

Her reason for not doing homework can drastically change your response.  If it’s just because she doesn’t want to, then you need to explain to her the importance of education, the expectations of your household regarding education, and a choice of positive and negative consequences.  If she’s not doing homework because she doesn’t understand it, you have a different issue to deal with.  The explanation of why her behavior is wrong in this case shifts becomes about describing the importance of asking for help.  Depending on the grade level and your abilities, this might mean you need to give her more help with her homework or you might need to get a tutor or find some other way for your child to get extra help.  You can also try contacting the teacher for suggestions and feedback as to the nature of the problem.  It could be she’s too busy staring at a boy to pay attention to the lesson or it could be that she tries, but just doesn’t understand.  If this is the case, then it’s important to not provide negative consequences but to provide the resources your child needs to succeed, whether that’s extra help in school, positive consequences for smaller successes, or, if necessary, requesting testing for a learning disability if she doesn’t improve.

“Why?”, while not always necessary, can provide an enormous about of information about what our children are going through, helping you to provide the necessary support and learning opportunities for your child.  Additionally, it forces your child to take accountability for his/her actions in order to explain them. 


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Daddy and I: An Evening At the Lake demonstrates the imontrapce of spending quality time with your child. As a parent, I appreciate the use of familiar, recognizable locations for the setting. And, I love that my 7 year old daughter was able to read the text independently. As an early childhood educator, I would definitely recommend Daddy and I: An evening At the Lake to anyone who is interested in being a positive role model to a child.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      That's more than senilbse! That's a great post!

    • Attach profile image

      6 years ago

      I think you're first paragraph header says it the best - teaching NOT punishing. Great article.


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