Ten Worst Discipline Mistakes Parents Make… and Alternatives

by James Windell

Most good parents realize that there is always much more for them to learn about being good parents.

In a perfect world, parents would all have boundless energy, patience, tolerance, understanding and flexibility. But no one is perfect. So it also helps to have a wide variety of practical skills. Some alternatives to common mistakes parents make when disciplining their children:


Yelling may be an effective way to vent frustration, but most children of "frequent yellers" soon learn to tune it out.

Result: The behavior does not change and kids grow hostile.

Better: Stop. Ask yourself how you would like being yelled at.

You may have to delay action until your anger is under control. Most children respond better to a calm, reasonable request or command. Save yelling for emergency situations when you really need to get your child's attention: Look out for that car!

Demanding Immediate Compliance

People don't respond well to demands to, Do it now! because it shows disrespect. Commands to, Come here right now! or, Stop that this second! are often ignored and tuned out.

Better: Make a respectful or firm request… and praise and reward good behavior.

Example: When your child gets ready for bed without a fuss, tell him/her, You got into your pajamas so nicely, I'm going to read you an extra story tonight.


Nagging is often a problem for parents who try to be lenient or permissive. They don't want to get angry but are constantly asking, Did you clean your room yet? until they explode. Better: Get the child's full attention.

Example: Stand in front of the TV screen rather than calling from another room. Make firm, consistent requests with clear limit.

Helpful: Praise and reward a first-time response. If needed, give a warning… Lunch is in 20 minutes. Impose a negative consequence if the task is not completed. If the garbage is still here, there will be no TV before your homework.

Lecturing And Advice-Giving

Lecturing is fruitless. People have a limited attention span for monologues that involve no interaction. And lectures often do not address the problem.

Example: Lecturing a child whose homework is chronically late about the value of an education does not address the homework issue.

Better: Ask questions. What happens when you do your homework? What do you do first? Is there a part that you don't understand?

Advice is not fruitless, but it is often given when it is not wanted or at the wrong time.

Example: An anxious child who has brought home a poor report card will not be receptive to advice.

Strategy: Reduce the anxiety. I see you're upset by this. Let's both think of some ways to help your grades, and we'll talk about it after dinner.

Other alternatives: Role-playing. I'll be you, and you'll be your teacher. Teach a coping strategy. Would you like to know a good way to handle that? Learn to use informal opportunities to teach a lesson or make a point.

Taking Anger Out On Kids

Overreaction and inappropriate anger are extremely common in our high-stress society.

Tip-off: Similar incidents in the past did not previously provoke the same angry response.

Problem: You may say things that stick with your kids for a long time.

Effect: Kids are hurt, confused.

If you overreact: Offer your kids a heartfelt apology, along with an explanation.

Result: Kids learn to talk about feelings and understand human fallibility.

Recommended: If you blow up at your kids often, tend to your own needs. Go to the gym-or for a walk-before coming home. Take quiet time, find a support network.

Shaming And Belittling

Parents often don't realize they make remarks that cause their children to feel smaller, inadequate, less intelligent or more insecure.

Examples: Why are you acting like such a baby? That's the dumbest thing you ever said. If you can't behave, I'm leaving forever.

Better: Monitor your language and be aware how often you say positive, versus negative, things. Make sure you are dealing adequately with your own feelings so they don't spill over onto your kids.

Setting Traps

Parents who tend to be punitive and authoritarian often try to catch their children in a lie to prove a point.

Example: You find a note in your child's room that refers to a friend's smoking. A trap-setter says, Do you or your friends smoke? No? What about this note? As a result, you have a defensive child who learns to lie, conceal and mistrust parents.

Better: Straightforward, trusting inquiry. I found this note in your room that concerns me. Can we talk about it? Not everything children write is true.

Imposing Excessive Guilt

Parents who were raised in dysfunctional families often make the mistake of implying their children are responsible for the circumstances of the parents life.

Examples: Why do you always upset your father?… I devoted my life to you, and now…If you loved me, you'd do this. The child comes to feel responsible for the problems of the world.

Better: Examine your own codependent relationships with your parents, spouse and others, with a therapist, support group or counselor.

Physical Punishment

The purpose of discipline-from disciple, a student or follower-is to teach the child to have self-discipline. This is never accomplished by physical force.

Trap: Parents who hit or physically punish their children instill hostility and resentment rather than respect.

Outcome: Usually the behavior is not prevented from recurring, and great damage is done to the parent-child relationship.

Physical punishment tends to repeat in families. If you frequently lose control or routinely hit children as a method of discipline, examine your own childhood. Parents who regularly strike their children in frustration or anger usually lack alternative skills, and often have unrealistic expectations of their children at different ages.

Recommended: Get developmental information on normal child or teen behaviors, and improve parenting skills through many books, magazines, videotapes, support groups, workshops and other widely available resources.


This is the use of physical force to get the child to do what you want.

Example: Pushing or dragging a frightened child into the doctor's office. The parent is asserting a need for control rather than responding to the child's feelings.

Result: The child resists.

Better: Help the child express his feelings: Is there something scary in the doctor's office? Give the child a choice: Do you want me to hold your hand, or do you want to go in by yourself? This gives the child a sense of control over the situation, but leaves no question that the child is going into the office.

Reprinted in full from Bottom Line/Personal, Vol. 13, No. 22, Nov. 30, 1992, Pp 1-2. James Windell is a psychotherapist specializing in family problems, and a clinical psychologist for the Oakland County, Michigan, juvenile court's psychological clinic. He is the author of Discipline: A Sourcebook of 50 Failsafe Techniques for Parents, Collier Books, 866 Third Ave. New York 10022. $10.

© 1996 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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