Discipline Strategies That Actually Work

Father talking to his young soon

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All kids do wrong, break the rules, and test limits sometimes. It's the parents' role to set boundaries and offer effective discipline to discourage undesirable behavior and reinforce the good. Parents know this, but the job is often much easier said than done. In fact, just about every parent will admit that figuring out the best way to react can be really challenging, especially in the heat of the moment.

When adults respond in a calm, helpful, consistent manner kids learn to make better choices in the future. However, not all adult interventions are created equal, and some may do more harm than good.

Namely, there's a big difference between giving kids consequences and punishments. The latter typically fuels more negative behavior—and may harm a child's self-esteem and the parent-child relationship, as well. Instead, parenting experts recommend the discipline tactic of implementing consequences as an effective way to curb future transgressions.

Consequence vs. Punishment Differences

While both consequences and punishments aim to shape and manage kids' behavior, there are big differences in how they impact kids. Punishments are about making kids suffer or feel shame for their mistakes. They can be intended to make kids feel bad. While consequences may involve some discomfort, the goal is for the child to link their behavior with the results of their actions and gain the needed understanding and motivation to make a different choice next time.

Examples of Punishments

Punishments aren't not necessarily linked to the behavior of the child and may include yelling, criticizing, embarrassing, threatening, taking away privileges, and physical harm (also called corporal punishment). For instance, if a 5-year-old doesn't pick up their toys when asked, their parent might spank them. The physical pain is intended to become a reminder to the child never to do the behavior again. However, research shows that instead, the child may simply be feeling fear, anger, or resentment for being hit.

Other examples include washing out a child's mouth with soap for talking back, and responding to a child's misbehavior at school by giving them an embarrassing haircut to "teach them a lesson." Another punishment might be to shame a tween who isn't keeping their room picked up by taking pictures and posting them on social media. Or if a 14-year-old leaves their baseball glove in the driveway, purposely driving over it with the car. 

  • A 16-year-old is caught lying about their age to talk to adults online. Their parent forces them to create a video announcing what they've done and posts the video online.

Punishments are often unrelated to the behavior problem and they may be severe in nature. Sometimes, they're meant to shame or humiliate children.

Punishments often cause children to feel bad about who they are—as opposed to what they did. Children who experience self-worth issues become more likely to misbehave in the future.

Punishments can also be counterproductive because they cause kids to focus on their anger toward their parents, rather than think about what they can do better next time. For example, a child may think, "My mom is mean," instead of, "I made a mistake." 

What Makes a Consequence Effective?

Consequences focus on teaching children how to do better in the future. They are created by adults and are directly related to the misbehavior. For example:

  • A 5-year-old doesn't pick up his toys when he's told. His parents take his toys away from him for the rest of the day. 
  • A 7-year-old talks back to his mother. She assigns an extra chore for him to complete.
  • A 9-year-old misbehaves at school. His parents take away his electronics for the evening.
  • A 12-year-old doesn't clean her bedroom. She isn't allowed to use her electronics until her room is clean.
  • A 14-year-old leave his baseball glove in the driveway. His parents take his glove away for 24 hours.
  • A 16-year-old is caught lying about her age to talk to adult men online. Her mother takes away her electronics for the week and institutes new policies that involve ongoing monitoring of her social media accounts.

Healthy consequences help children continue to feel good about themselves while also giving them confidence that they can do better next time.

Discipline Strategies to Try

Natural consequences are a direct result of a child’s behaviors. Adults may allow kids to face the natural consequences of their choices when it's safe to do so and when a child is likely to learn an important life lesson.

Here are some examples of natural consequences:

  • A 9-year-old refuses to stop playing so he can eat lunch. The natural consequence is that he'll be hungry if he doesn't eat. 
  • A 12-year-old doesn't want to wear a jacket. His mother lets him play outside without a coat because the natural consequence is that he'll be cold.
  • A 15-year-old leaves his baseball mitt in the driveway, and it's raining outside. The natural consequence is that his mitt will get wet and if it gets ruined, he'll have to buy another one.

How to Know If Your Discipline Strategy Is Working

A Word From Verywell

Punishments may work in the short term. Children may comply when they fear you or when they want you to stop inflicting pain or humiliation. But in the long term, punishments backfire. They lose effectiveness because kids aren't learning the skills that they need to make better choices. 

Consequences help children see that they made a bad choice, but they are capable of doing better in the future. And ultimately, consequences are more effective in improving behavior problems in children.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sege RD, Siegel BS. Effective discipline to raise healthy children [policy statement]. Pediatrics. 2018;142(6):e20183112.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Where we stand: spanking.

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