Discipline and guiding behaviour: babies and children


About discipline

Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. It works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.

Discipline doesn’t mean punishment. In fact, discipline and discipline strategies are positive. They’re built on talking and listening, and they guide children towards:

  • knowing what behaviour is appropriate, whether it’s at home, a friend’s house, child care, preschool or school
  • managing their own behaviour and developing important skills like the ability to get along well with others
  • learning to understand, manage and express their feelings.

Choosing an approach to discipline

Choosing an approach to discipline is about finding the right balance.

Not enough discipline can leave children feeling insecure and parents feeling out of control. Too much negative discipline, and not enough praise and rewards, might get children behaving well, but out of fear. This can lead to problems with children’s self-esteem and anxiety later in life.

Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair. This means you set limits and consequences for your child’s behaviour, while also encouraging good behaviour with praise, rewards and other strategies.

Your approach to discipline will also depend on things like your parenting style, your child’s stage of development and your child’s temperament.

Discipline at different ages

The ways that you use discipline will change depending on what’s happening for your child at different stages of development.

Babies
Babies do things to test their developing skills. They also enjoy making things happen. For example, your baby probably likes getting a reaction when he pulls your hair.

But babies don’t understand consequences. They also don’t know the difference between right and wrong.

This means that negative consequences, or punishment, don’t work for babies.

Instead, babies need warm, loving care so they feel secure. So when your baby pulls your hair, you might say ‘no’ and show him how to touch your hair gently. You’ll probably need to do this over and over again because your baby might not remember from one time to the next.

Our Baby Cues video guide helps you to work out what your baby is trying to tell you through her behaviour and body language.

Toddlers
Toddlers often struggle with big feelings like frustration and anger. Their social and emotional skills are only just starting to develop, and they might be testing out their growing independence.

You can help your child behave well by tuning in to his feelings, changing the environment, distracting him and planning ahead for challenging situations. Our tips and tools for toddler behaviour management explain these and other discipline strategies.

Preschoolers
From the age of three years, most preschoolers start to understand what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. They’ll test out different behaviours, and they might behave in certain ways more than once as they learn about consequences. You can help your preschooler by setting boundaries and being clear about the behaviour you want to see.

Our tips and tools for preschooler behaviour management have information on tailoring discipline strategies to your child’s behaviour.

School-age children
School-age children might know how to behave in different places – for example, school, home or the library. But they still need you to remind them of the limits and reward them for good behaviour.

Our tips and tools for school-age behaviour management take you through ways to use discipline with your child.

Four steps towards discipline and better child behaviour

Clear expectations for your child’s behaviour are the foundation of discipline for your child. Here’s how to get started.

1. Decide on family rules
A good place to start is with 4-5 family rules. For example, your family rules might be things like:

  • We speak nicely to each other.
  • We look after other people.
  • Everyone helps out around the house.
  • We look after our own belongings.

Children as young as three can help you make the rules and talk about why your family needs them.

2. Be a role model for the behaviour you expect
Children learn by watching what you do. Showing your child the behaviour you like by doing it yourself will help your child learn. For example, if you want your child to sit down to eat, sitting down together to eat family meals can help children learn this behaviour.

3. Praise your child for good behaviour
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about her or her behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, she’s likely to want to keep behaving well.

Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. It’s best for encouraging good behaviour. For example, ‘Ali, I really like how you used please and thank you just then. Great manners!’

4. Set clear limits and consequences
Decide on a consequence for breaking a family rule. For example, if your eight-year-old hasn’t done his household chores, the consequence might be the loss of pocket money for the week.

When you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect.


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