Discipline and Kids – the Theory

Sometimes you read something in the national news that strikes a nerve, and Madlyn Primoff did that with millions of parents since it goes to the heart of disciplining children.  What is discipline and its purpose?  How can you handle it effectively? 

Disciplining the kids is one of the most vexing issues a parent handles.  Always has been and always will be.  I started notes on this article even before the website came online and wrestled with it until a friend asked if I’d be writing about discipline as it should be or how it actually is.  And that’s a great starting point.

Discipline – In Theory

At it’s heart, the idea of discipline involves teaching and learning.  Discipline’s root word is the latin disciplina just as the latin word for pupil is discupulus.  Christ had his disciples, who referred to him as Rabbi (teacher) as they followed him about.  While the root pertains to learning however, it has become synonymous with punishment and that’s where problems arise.

Why does a child need discipline?

  • To help learn the difference between right and wrong.
  • To help learn the concept of recognizing good and bad behaviors.
  • To help learn that there are consequences to those bad behaviors.
  • To help learn – through lots of repetition – the concept of self-control.
  • To help learn that they live in a world with many others, so they have to harness the egocentrism.

In its most basic form, learning involves communication.  No communication and I guarantee there’ll be no learning.  So communication is key in effective discipline.

That’s lovely theory and there are times when it works.  But it assumes that the base nature of the typical kid allows that.  The unfortunate reality is that your typical child lives in a world of wild egocentrism and natural selfishness, and those attitudes and resulting behaviors don’t usually just yield to talk.

So how about the practical side of discipine?  The fictional Klingon aphorism is that revenge is a dish best served cold.  That’s probably a bad place to put that comment since revenge and discipline cannot be the same thing – ever.  But good discipline should be served with ICE.


Immediate.  Consistent.  Enforceable.

Discipline and Kids – In Practice

Discipline – In Practice

Discipline with ICE.  Immediate.  Consistent.  Enforceable.

There are different methods of disciplining kids, but any decent and effective discipline should have these three aspects.


When a small child does something that requires correction, that correction has to occur immediately or the kid will have difficulty processing why there he even needs the correction.  If you’re in a store and the child misbehaves by repeatedly grabbing something, you have to address it immediately in whatever way you choose.  To do nothing and then wait until after you’ve returned to the car creates a sense that you’re acting arbitrarily, even if you remind them why they’re being corrected.  A friend of mine refers to kids as early members of the Twelve Step Program;  you tell them something and they’ve forgotten what it was withing twelve steps of their original position.

As they age and the memory improves, the definition of immediate can lenghten so long as the misbehavior stops in the moment..  For example, if a child is injured and requires immediate attention, you can attend to the kid and then go back and deal with the behavior that caused the injury.  If there’s anything that kids remember, it’s blood.  But you still have to be reasonable and remember that their sense of time is poor at best.


Probably the toughest of all three is consistency since any number of factors – annoyance/anger levels, tiredness, desire to win, attention to other matters – can render you horribly inconsistent.

What do I mean by consistent?  Simply that the kid understands that the consequences for any misbehavior will be real and pertinent each time he misbehaves.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the consequences  are precisely alike; repeated behaviors demand that the consequences increase in severity until you have the kid’s attention.  Nor does it mean that there are identical consequences amongst different children since not all children are affected by the same consequence.  But there should be some proportionality about the various consequences.  Making one child sit on the steps for eight minutes isn’t proportional to making another kid scrub the kitchen floor for a similar offense.

Likewise, you have to assure that there are no mixed messages about kinds of behavior.  If something is unacceptable, then it’s unacceptable and not subject to whether you feel like dealing with the situation.


Giving a kid warnings about consequences is important if they’re going to learn self-control.  Hey, I’ve got to remember to not do that or the ‘rents will have the iPod.  But the warnings have to be about consequences that are both reasonable and pertinent to the child, and enforceable.  Because follow-through is one of the core tenets of parental discipline and if your noted consequence isn’t enforceable, then you’ll more likely to lose control of discipline.

Not all kids are alike – DUH – so no consequences will have the same effect.  Some kids are sensitive about privacy while a sibling happily uses the bathroom with the door open.  Others prize their electronics.  Others have favorite activities that they hate to miss.  So the first part is to know the child well enough to find that leverage.

The consequence also has to be reasonable and commensurate with the situation at hand.  Is it overkill to ground a child for a week for writing on the floor or walls?  Trust me, such behavior isn’t localized to toddlers.  Or does it make more sense to have the child help clean such writing?  Or even do it themselves if old enough?  There’s no perfect answer here, so you have to trust the common sense test.

Finally, the consequence has to be enforceable.  If your kid thinks that there’s no follow-through, then there’s nothing to make them even consider the idea of consequences.  I’m not known for my memory so I’ve occasionally made notes about what consequences were promised if certain situations arise again.  I’m serious enough about it that I even know where the notes are kept.  (Note to the kids:  If you’re reading this, don’t even ask where they are.)  It pays to take a few seconds or moments to run the proposed consequence past the common sense test, but not so long that you lose the immediacy of responding to the circumstances.

The Follow-up

There’s one other vital piece to good discipline and that’s the follow-up.  Some call it the talk and my father referred to it as the post-mortem.  This is especially important when the kids are younger as they might not grasp exactly what it was that earned them what they got.  I’ve been known to sit on the bed and point-blank ask them to tell me why they’re in th eroom and the ensuing conversation pointed out other issues that required attention.  Failing this follow-up can lead to a repeat with even greater issues.

Good discipline is kind of like a power turbine that’s installed early and then runs through the years.  And the talk and conversation is the oil and maintenance that keeps it running smoothly.


Raising Your Voice

Let me share a secret with you and it’s one that many who promote hands-on fathering don’t share.  Children are really hard work.  Frustrating, irritating work that only changes in the manner of challenge over the years.  And don’t be surprised if you find yourself responding in ways that might be condemned on Doctor Phil or Supernanny.

Why?  Because you’re dealing with growing, changing individuals who are lacking common sense, self-discipline and the understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around them.  Your world might, but the larger world largely doesn’t give a rat’s butt whether Junior gets to stay up for fifteen minutes past bedtime.  And it’s not really politically correct to show individuals reacting out of frustration when their buttons have been pushed multiple times.

This isn’t excusing bad parental behavior.  You can’t go smacking kids, calling them names or behaving like a bigger kid than they are.  But don’t spend your time measuring yourself against an idealized image of a father portrayed in the media either.  Because their secret is that there really is no ideal father out there.  We’re living on a cusp of a new social structure in which fathers are taking more and more of a hands-on role in the family and household, whether due to choice or economic reality, and the old models are no longer operative or relevant. 

If you want a better indication of what involved, time-intensive, hands-on parenting is like for the parent, think of Bill Cosby’s routine on giving the kids chocolate cake for breakfast.   The wife’s reaction to seeing the kids spend their breakfast noshing on dad-permitted chocolate cake is more typical for any parent responsible for the lion’s share of child-rearing.  Either mother or father.  So understand that we’re in the process of watching the father’s image move from that of Bill Cosby to that of his wife, who’s thoroughly out of patience with the nonsense that she’s witnessing on the part of the adult and the kids.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about after this morning’s foray into absurdity by two elementary school boys.  One won’t make a decision on what pants to wear yet refuses to don what I’ve pulled out.  The other first asks what the temperature is going to be and after being told a typical wet and chilly early Spring day, walks out of his room in sockless sneakers, Bermuda shorts and a cotton Polo shirt.  As I stand at the top of the steps counting the minutes to departure, bouncing back and forth between the duellling arguments, my voice rises and the one accuses me of taking my anger out on him because of the other.  My response is that I wouldn’t be yelling if he’d not argue with what is sheer common sense.

It’s taken years to accept that being a hands-on parent doesn’t entail saint-like patience and that a raised voice isn’t the mark of bad parenting.  It’s not how I choose or try to spend my time, but it doesn’t make me bad either.