The term "discipline" comes from the Latin word "disciplinare," which means "to teach." Many people, however, associate the word with punishment, which falls short of the full meaning of the word. Discipline, properly practiced, uses a multifaceted approach, including models, rewards, and punishments that teach and reinforce desired behavior. Through discipline, children are able to learn self-control, self-direction, competence, and a sense of caring.


The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that an effective discipline system must contain three elements. If these three aspects are all present in a program of discipline, the result generally is improved child behavior. The elements are:

  • a learning environment characterized by positive, supportive parent-child relationships
  • a proactive strategy for systematic teaching and strengthening of desired behaviors
  • a reactive strategy for decreasing or eliminating undesired behaviors

There are several reasons why children may not behave properly, including a lack of effective disciplinary measures. Children also commonly misbehave when they are deprived of adult attention or when they are tired, bored, or hungry. Children from families affected by divorce and separation, poverty, substance abuse, and parental depression seem to be at greater risk for behavior problems. There may also be biologic factors such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain temperaments that predispose particular children towards misbehavior. There is also research suggesting that harsh disciplinary measures may actually increase poor behavior.

Ideally, discipline is based on appropriate expectations for each child, based on age and stage of development. It should be used to set reasonable limits in a consistent manner while still allowing some choice among acceptable alternatives. Discipline teaches both social and moral standards and should protect children from harm by teaching what is safe. It should also guide children to respect the rights and property of others.

Though there are a variety of ways in which children may be disciplined, there are some guidelines that all parents should follow:

  • Discipline must be age appropriate. While reasoning and verbal explanations may be appropriate for the older child, children younger than 18 months are typically unable to comprehend the reasons for punishment.
  • Parents should demonstrate a unified front when it comes to discipline. If parents exhibit opposing approaches, children learn to exploit these differences.
  • Rules should be few but simple. Punishment should be a logical or natural consequence of the misbehavior.
  • Though consistency is important, parents should remember that it is sometimes appropriate to be flexible and allow for some negotiation, especially with older children. Doing so can teach decision-making, enhance children's moral judgment, and reinforce independence.

Disciplinary techniques that are most effective take place in the context of a loving and secure relationship between parent and child. Parents' responses to a child's behavior, whether approving or disapproving, are likely to have a greater effect in a secure, loving environment, because children long for their parents' approval. As children respond to this positive relationship and consistent discipline, the need for negative interaction decreases.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement focuses on good behavior rather than on undesirable behavior. Parents should identify appropriate behaviors and give frequent feedback, rewarding good behavior quickly so that the child associates the "prize" with the wanted behavior. A reward can be a word of praise, a special activity, additional privileges, or material items. Many desirable behavioral patterns start to emerge as a part of the child's normal development. The role of parents is to notice these behaviors and provide positive attention to them. Some other desirable behaviors are not part of a child's normal development and need to be modeled and taught by their parents. These behaviors include sharing, good manners, effective study habits, among others. Parents need to identify those skills and behaviors they want their children to demonstrate and then make a concerted effort to teach and strengthen those behaviors. Children who learn through positive reinforcement tend to internalize the newly learned behaviors.


Extinction is a type of discipline that seeks to prevent inadvertent positive reinforcement for negative behavior. "Time-out" is one of the most common methods in this category. For younger children, time out usually involves removing parental attention and praise or placing the child a chair or some other place for a specified time with no parental interaction. The environment should be neutral, boring, and safe. Time-out works well for children from 18 months up to five or six years of age and is particularly useful for temper tantrums , yelling, whining, and fighting. The session should end only when the child has been calm and quiet for at least 15 seconds. Time out should last for a specified time, usually one minute per year of life (to a maximum of five minutes). Withholding privileges is another form of extinction that is more appropriate for older children and adolescents. This strategy requires the removal of a valued privilege and works best if it is used infrequently.

Verbal punishment

Parents may express disapproval of a behavior by scolding or yelling. This may be effective if used very sparingly. However, if used too often it can cause anxiety in the child and encourage the child to ignore the parent.

Corporal punishment

Corporal punishment involves the application of some sort of physical pain in response to a child's undesired behavior. This response can range from a light slapping of a hand to severe beatings that qualify as child abuse . Because of this range in form and severity, the use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary method is controversial. In spite of the significant concerns raised by child-care experts, one form of physical punishment—spanking—remains a widely used measure to reduce undesired behavior in children. Over 90 percent of all families report having used spanking at some time as a means of discipline. Despite its common acceptance, research shows that spanking is a less effective form of discipline than others, such as time-out or removal of privileges. Although it may immediately stop a behavior, the effectiveness of spanking tends to decrease with repeated use. The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to increase its intensity, which runs the risk of escalating to abuse. Spanking, at best, is only effective when used in selective, very infrequent situations.

Children who receive corporal punishment tend to grow into angry adults. The use of spanking in older children is associated with higher rates of substance abuse and crime and has been linked to poor self-esteem , depression, and poor educational performance.


Discipline strategies with infants should be passive. The main goal is for parents to generally structure daily routines but to also demonstrate flexibility in meeting infants' emerging needs. As infants become more mobile, parents need to impose some limitations and structure in order to create a safe environment in which the child can play and explore. Parents must protect infants from all potential hazards in the home by instituting childproofing practices. If a child does attempt to play with or approach something dangerous or unacceptable, a firm "No" should suffice, along with either removing the child from the area or by distracting the child with an alternative activity. Parents should not expect that reasoning or reprimands will control the behavior of an infant.


Toddlers, like infants, still benefit most from passive types of discipline and a toddler-safe environment. Again, saying "No", along with redirecting behavior, is usually effective if the toddler is doing something unacceptable. At this stage, however, children are starting to test the limits of their power over and over again. It is important for parents to consistently set limits and stick to them. Doing so reduces the child's confusion and his or her need to test. This is also the time when time-outs might be introduced, especially when redirecting the child's attention no longer seems to work.


Preschoolers are starting to understand the need for rules, and their behavior should be guided by these rules and the associated consequences. It is very important that children understand what is expected of them and why they are punished for a particular behavior. Preschoolers also learn from having their good behaviors rewarded.

School age

If rules for behavior have been consistently modeled and expected by the parents, children should exhibit an increased sense of responsibility and self-control when they become school age. Timeouts and consequences continue to be effective disciplinary measures in this age group. As children continue to mature and desire more responsibility and independence, teaching them to deal with the consequences of their behavior is an effective method of discipline. By the time they have become teenagers, children should know what is expected of them and what the potential consequences of misbehavior are. However, discipline remains just as important for teens as it does for younger children. Teens require boundaries. This structure continues to provide order and a sense of security for children until they reach adulthood. When teens do break rules, taking away some of their privileges seems to be the most effective type of disciplinary measure.

Common problems

One of the most common problems in child discipline is an inconsistent approach between two parents. It may prove helpful for parents to regularly communicate regarding their child's behavior and decide ahead of time what disciplinary methods are to be used.

Parental concerns

Parents may be worried that the disciplinary methods they have decided are appropriate for their child may not be respected or followed by teachers and other adult caregivers. If this is a concern, parents should outline exactly what consequences or punishments they feel are appropriate and communicate openly with the other adults who care for their child.


Punishment —The application of a negative stimulus to reduce or eliminate a behavior. The two types typically used with children are verbal reprimands and punishment involving physical pain, as in corporal punishment.

Time-out —A discipline strategy that entails briefly isolating a disruptive child in order to interrupt and avoid reinforcement of negative behavior.



MacKenzie, Robert J. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm and Respectful Boundaries. Prima Lifestyles, 2001.


Banks, J. Burton. "Childhood Discipline: Challenges for Clinicians and Parents." American Family Physician (October 15, 2002).

Regalado, Michael, et al. "Parents' Discipline of Young Children: Results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health." Pediatrics 113 (June 2004): 1952–1958.

Sears, William. "A Beginner's Guide to Discipline: Dr. William Sears Offers Six Strategies to Use Now to Help You Raise a Child Who's a Treat—Not a Terror." Baby Talk (September 1, 2003): 52.


Center for Effective Discipline. 155 West Main St., Suite 1603, Columbus, OH 43215. Web site: http://stophitting.com .

Positive Parenting. 402 West Ojai Avenue, 101–246, Ojai, CA 93023. Web site: http://www.positiveparenting.com.


"Disciplining Your Child." KidsHealth , June 2001. Available online at http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/discipline.html (accessed December 27, 2004).

Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN

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