Disciplining Your Child

What is discipline?

Discipline is about changing your child’s behaviour. Discipline is not about punishing children. It is not about forcing them to obey and follow directions. Discipline helps children learn to set limits. It helps them learn self-discipline. Fair and healthy discipline can help your child become an emotionally and socially mature adult.

Positive discipline is based on trust, love, support, and respect. It is appropriate to the child’s age and developmental stage.

The trouble with spanking

Discipline means to teach knowledge or skill. In our society, discipline is often linked with punishment. You may have been spanked as a child. Some cultures support spanking. Yet, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) strongly discourages spanking and other forms of physical punishment. The CPS believes that spanking  results in negative child outcomes. Spanking can lead to feelings of shame. It can cause loss of trust.  

See more on spanking with Dr. Pat: Here's why I don't encourage spanking.

When to use discipline

Raising a child is requires patience. Certain stages of development require a more focused discipline approach. Mealtimes, toilet training, and bedtime require creative methods of discipline.

Effective discipline means to teach your children with mutual respect. It should be done in a firm, fair, reasonable, and consistent manner. Raising children can be stressful. Parents might need to take their own “time-outs” so as to not lose their tempers.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a very effective type of discipline. It may be more effective than punishment. Positive reinforcement can be enjoyable for parent and child.

Positive reinforcement is used to encourage wanted behaviour. If you find your child acting appropriately, take notice. Praise him for it. The praise for good behaviour is positive reinforcement. It may encourage good behaviour in the future. On the other hand, punishment acknowledges negative behaviour.

Sometimes punishment is necessary. However, excessive punishment can make your child feel more anxious, helpless, or angry.

Tips on disciplining your child

Babies (birth to 12 months)

Babies respond well to schedules and routines.

In the later months, you can help your baby learn to tolerate frustration better by not picking her up right away when she cries.

In the later months, let your baby fall asleep by herself. This will encourage self-soothing.

Younger toddlers (1 to 2 years)

This is when your child will start to exercise her own will. Be patient . Discipline at this stage can help keep your child safe. It can also help to limit physical or verbal aggression.

Since your child is not mature enough to understand simple verbal directions, you need to use actions along with your words. For example, if your child is touching a fragile object on the shelf, say a firm “No." Then redirect your child to another room or another object. Stay with your child, so your child is not scared of being abandoned.

Older toddlers (2 to 3 years)

This stage is called “the terrible two’s” for a reason. Your child is struggling for independence. She gets frustrated when realizing her limits. This can lead to temper tantrums. Patience, again, is needed. Help your child by showing empathy to her efforts. Supervise and set limits.

Simple verbal directions are not enough. Follow every verbal instruction with a change of location or an example of what is acceptable.

Pre-schoolers and kindergarten-age children (3 to 5 years)

At this stage, your child responds well to consistency and role models. She can follow verbal rules more easily, but still needs supervision for safety. The child will model her own behaviour after parents and teachers. Use approval and praise to motivate your child and reinforce behaviour that you want. “Time-outs” can be used if your child loses control.


Attention, even if it involves punishment, may actually reward a child. It may reinforce inappropriate behaviour. Time-outs keep a child from getting this attention.

Time-outs need to be given consistently. They should be given without emotion. Pick the right place. It should not be near a TV, computer, or other forms of entertainment. Time-outs should last about 1 minute per year of the child’s age, to a maximum of 5 minutes. Have a clock nearby. Tell your child exactly how much time they have in the time-out area. Connect the inappropriate behaviour with the time-out. Say something like, “You are in time-out because you hit your sister.” Ignore your child while she is in time-out.

After the time-out is over, create a fresh start. Do not discuss the unwanted behaviour. Just move on. Time-out will not end the unwanted behaviour. However, it may make it happen less often.

School-age children (6 to 12 years)

At this stage, your child is embracing her independence. She is spending more time with friends or at school. Parents can supervise, be good role models, and apply consistent rules. Appropriate forms of discipline include removal or delay of privileges (such as no Internet or television use for a day), time-out, and consequences.

Where possible, consequences should be ‘logical’ or ‘natural’. An example of a logical consequence would be: “You are behaving as if you are tired so you will be going to bed ½ hour early tonight.”

An example of a natural consequence would be to let your child’s hands get a little cold if she refused to bring her mitts (but keep the mitts handy).

It is important that children understand the rules. If an unwanted behaviour is recurrent, tell your child what the logical consequence will be before it happens again.

It is also important that your child takes you seriously. Your child will not take you seriously if you give empty threats. For example, if you told your child that he is going to bed early, come bedtime if he doesn’t go to bed early, your direction will be less effective next time around.

Teenagers (13 to 18 years)

The teenage years can be challenging. The experience will depend on how parents respond to the child’s personal growth. Here are some tips:

  • Communicate with your teen.
  • Stay available and accessible.
  • Keep rules in a fair and consistent manner.
  • Do not belittle or over-criticize your teen.
  • Avoid lecturing or predicting disasters.

A helpful discipline technique is making verbal contracts with your teenager. Make sure that basic rules are followed. Set logical consequences. For example, if your teen damages the car, the consequence could be that the teenager has to pay for the repairs. This teaches responsibility and accountability.

Other tips on setting rules and applying consequences

  • Praise positive behaviour whenever you can.
  • Avoid making threats without consequences.
  • Be consistent when applying rules.
  • Pick your battles. Ignore unimportant behaviour.
  • Set reasonable limits.
  • Accept age-appropriate behaviour.
  • Apply consequences right away with younger children.
  • Be as unemotional as possible when setting consequences.
  • Do not shout or scream at your child.
  • Show your child love and trust after the consequences. This way, your child will know that the correction is aimed at the unwanted behaviour and not at him personally.

For more information

Mark Feldman, MD, FRCPC

Sheila Jacobson, MBBCh, FRCPC


Nieman, Peter and Sarah Shea. Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee, Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) Paediatr Child Health 2004; 9(1):37-41 Reference No. PP 2004-01.