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Guidelines for Correcting or Disciplining Children

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There are many occasions when children's behavior needs to be corrected. Though it is seldom pleasant to be corrected, there is nothing particularly damaging to self-esteem inherent in the process. In fact, parents' failure to correct their children when that needs to occur can, in some cases, end up causing more damage than any actual correction could. Children can become wounded by correction, but this will mostly occur when parents criticize children's being (their worthiness to exist) rather than their behavior.

It is important to distinguish between correction and criticism. As we are using these terms here, a correction is a behavioral correction. Parents who offer children a correction are not criticizing their children's worthiness, but instead, something that they are doing. When a correction is made, children can regain their parents' approval simply by altering their behavior in some simple way. In contrast, a criticism is an attack on a child's being; on their worthiness. As we are defining it here, criticism sends the message that children are unworthy. There is nothing children can do in the wake of criticism to fix their essential nature, and thus no way to easily get back into parents' good graces. Where correction helps teach children important life lessons and functions to build them up, criticism breaks them down and destroys their motivation by communicating to them that they are not good enough and never will be.

It can be difficult for parents (who may be upset or frustrated themselves!) to know how to offer correction rather than criticism. Below, we offer a few suggestions for how to accomplish this goal.

Correct Behavior Rather Than Being

Parents need to think carefully about the language choices they make when correcting children, as poorly chosen language may cause problems. The key thing to keep in mind is that correction should refer to things about children that they can change, and not to unalterable aspects of their being. It's useful for parents to point out that a particular action or a particular choice children have made is bad, dangerous or harmful. However, parents who inadvertently suggest to children that they are bad, dangerous or harmful may end up harming their children. Doing something bad represents a momentary decision that can be corrected; being bad reflects an unchanging nature. Many children will take the latter kind of critical labeling to heart, begin to believe that it must be true, and become discouraged from trying to improve themselves. If you think about it, why should they bother, logically? If someone is simply bad, there is no remedy for that.

Avoid Unfairly Manipulative Tactics

In correcting children's behavior, parents may be tempted to use a variety of manipulative tactics that forcefully compel children to submit and comply. For instance, parents may set up a dramatic situation where a child feels extremely guilty or ashamed if he does not comply. Parents may also threaten physical punishment if the child does not submit. These forceful methods can be effective and certainly have their deserved place in parents' disciplinary toolbox. However, they should be used thoughtfully and only when needed to preserve children's safety. When misused or used too frequently, forceful methods tend to hurt the quality of the parent-child relationship by changing its quality from one of love to one of fear.

Parents' frequent choice to compel children's compliance and submission through threat of force or unfair psychological manipulation ultimately results in children who are angry, upset and distrustful of their parents, and very possibly with themselves. Such children will do what parents want them to do, but only because they wish to avoid punishment; not because they believe it the right thing to do. To the extent such children are also denied the opportunity to make their own choices (within safety limits), they may also be harmed in that they reach adulthood without coming to understand themselves well, consequently make poor life choices and decisions that do not fit them, and end up feeling unfulfilled and unhappy.

Positive disciplinary methods, in which parents motivate and reward children towards better behavior rather than punish them for bad behavior, are usually effective in correcting children's behavior and are not associated with the harmful side effects associated with more forceful methods. For more information on positive discipline techniques, please refer to our Early Childhood Index Article on Discipline.

Avoid Comparing Children

Parents should also be careful to not compare children with other children. This is true regardless of who those other children may be, whether sibling, peer, or parents' own memories of themselves as children. Comparisons inevitably lead to judgments about how one child is stronger or weaker than another. Such judgments risk communicating to children that they are not as valuable as the other children they are compared to.

One exception to this general rule is that it is sometimes useful to compare children against younger versions of themselves so as to highlight their growth and increased maturity. Pointing out a child's progress compliments that child and lets her know that her growth and increased maturity have been noticed and are valued. This knowledge helps children believe that their efforts and struggles will pay off and that they are valued, loved, and appreciated; even though they are not perfect.