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Mother & Baby, September 2004


The idea of 'disciplining your children' evokes in many people an image of being hard on your child, but the true meaning of discipline is quite the reverse, says Cian Molloy, it's about teaching your child the skills necessary to survive and thrive in adulthood.

For many Irish people, the word 'discipline' often wrongly conjures up images of punishments, threats of punishments and physical beatings, perhaps as a result of the fact that 'spare the rod, and spoil the child' was a common maxim in Ireland a generation or two ago.

But discipline need not have anything to do with physical punishment, indeed organisations like the Irish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) have long argued that there is no need for slapping in disciplining children and that the use of pain is probably counterproductive to correcting behaviour problems. In fact, the word until very recently the word discipline, coming from the Latin disciplina meaning teaching, was totally synonymous with education, ie the disciplines of science, the arts, etc.

The modern correct definition of discipline is 'training for the improvement of physical powers, self-control, etc' and disciplining children is a key part of parenting says Tess Noonan, south and south-west regional director of the ISPCC.

"Good parenting is about helping your children to learn the life skills that will allow them to be grow up to be happy, well-adjusted, independent adults later in life," she says. "The way they learn mostly is by modelling their behaviour on ours. Apart from everything else, if you slap your child and then tell him not to slap other children in the playgroup, your instruction won't work. 'Do as I say, not as I do' isn't an option.

"It's the same with swearing and cursing in front of your child and then telling them not to use four-letter words. It's not a good idea to swear in front of children, even if its OK for you in your work place and your daily life, because it can create problems for your children at school and when mixing with children from other families.

"Similarly, if you want your children to say 'please' and 'thank you', ask yourself how often you use those words when you're in the shop or out with the children. Part of discipline and parenting is helping children to adopt the customs of their society and in our society is the custom to say 'please' and 'thank you'. It's a custom that has to be learned."

Early beginnings

According to the founder of modern studies into cognitive development, the psychologist Jean Piaget, children learn the moral differences between right and wrong at about the age of seven. A view long held by the Catholic Church, who for centuries set the minimum age for First Confession at seven-years-of-age!

But children learn other 'rights and wrongs' that have more to do with survival than learning a moral code. Usually, for toddlers this learning process is very physical: Every time I go near the oven door mum picks me up, tells me the oven is dangerous and puts me down somewhere else. Often parents will have to physically remove their toddlers from dangerous situations repeatedly before the message finally gets through, but children quickly learn the meanings of the words 'dangerous' and 'no'.

Indeed, it maybe because the word 'no' has so much to do with basic survival and avoiding danger or unapproved behaviour, children seem to learn how to say 'no' several weeks or months before they say yes. Indeed, many children seem to go through a period where they say little but 'no' to any parental request or instruction.

One way of moving toddlers on through this phase is for parents to examine how often they use the word 'no' when dealing with their children and to perhaps refocus on being as positive as possible.

Positive reinforcement

"At around two-and-a-half years to three years children get a sense of what their parents do and do not want them to do," says Noonan. "If you want your children to behave in a particular way it must be reinforced with ongoing, consistent praise."

For young children learning takes time and involves much repetition of basic rules about how to behave. Gráinne Burke, east coast regional manager with Barnardos, says: "When children do something well, acknowledge that. Tell them they did a good job and be really specific - for example, saying you were very good when you came in from the garden when I asked you." Noonan agrees: "Instead of telling your son he is a 'grand boy', go further and tell him it was great that he laid the table for you."

Similarly, both advice that when criticising bad behaviour, it's important to separate the child from the deed, eg don't say 'You're a bad boy', rather say 'What you did was bad'.

These rules apply as much to teenagers as they do to pre-schoolers. Indeed, both the ISPCC and Barnardos say that when they are asked to help families with behavioural difficulties, often the parent-child relationship has descended into a cycle of negativity.

Burke says: " Try to avoid a situation with teenagers where almost all your communication is negative. It's important to keep the lines of communication open. That way you can talk, negotiate, look at the choices available and reach compromises."

Time out

One of the most common methods of dealing with bad behaviour in creche's or nurseries is to have a 'time out' corner, where children are placed briefly to chill out, perhaps because of frustration with their peers or because of over excitement.

Time out makes it clear to the child that you will not give attention to tantrums and bad behaviour and it also gives you a chance to calm down, say the ISPCC, who caution against using the practice with children under the age of four.

"Many people don't understand how to use time out properly," she says. "Time out should be cooling off period. It's a way of teaching that self-restraint we adults have when we count to ten instead of throwing a tantrum!

"It's important that the time out area isn't a scary place nor should it be somewhere like the bedroom, which you don't want associated with punishment."

At Barnardos, the time out approach isn't used when the organisation is hosting children's events and trouble breaks out between children. "We wouldn't put a child outside a room," says Burke. "It could lead to the child feeling quite isolated. Instead, we would take him aside and try to understand why the child has hit someone or whatever.

"Children use behaviour to communicate the way they are feeling and often it's because they feel bad that they may hurt someone or break something.

"One of the important ways of preventing bad behaviour is to look if there is any pattern to it. Often it might be something obvious like the child is tired or hungry, which will make them more fractious and likely to misbehave."

However, it's important when providing snacks to avoid crankiness caused by low-blood sugar produced by hunger that you provide snacks that are nutritious. High-salt, high-carbohydrate 'junk food' can cause hyperactivity and, generally, children who have a good balanced diet, with plenty of protein and fresh fruit and vegetables will have less difficulty behaving well. Additionally, it has been found that children diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or dyslexia are often deficient in fatty oils necessary for effective brain function, but that this deficiency can be countered by increasing the intake of omega fatty acids either in the form of supplements or by increasing the amount of fish in the child's diet.

Another situation where children misbehave is when visiting a stranger's house, where unfamiliarity makes them feel uncomfortable. To reduce their discomfort (and yours!), Burke recommends that you talk about the visit before hand and who you are likely to meet and what you are likely to do when you get there. "If it is totally strange to the child, it might be a good idea to take one or two of the child's favourite toys with you, so that there is something familiar there for him or her," she recommends.

Choice and consequence

From about the age of three children start understanding that actions have consequences and that there are choices we have to make in life. So, for example, if your child is misbehaving during a visit to friends or family, take the child aside and point out that if the bad behaviour continues you will have to leave, but if the behaviour is good you may stay.

Noonan says: "When explaining the consequences of a particular action, keep it simple. Sometimes parents are too elaborate."

The 'keep it simple' rule also applies when asking young children to do something. "Instead of saying 'Put the bricks away'," says Burke. "Be more specific and say 'Put the bricks in the box'.

"Also when you are asking your children to do things, be aware of their limitations. For example, if a room is full of toys, depending on the child's age it might not be realistic to ask him or her to tidy them all away. They'll just get bored halfway through the task. Your better of joining them and making it fun to tidy up."


If you do believe you have discipline problems or that your child has behavioural problems, discuss your concerns with other others, such as your partner, other parents or, if applicable, your child's school.

"Sometimes parents can feel very alone," says Burke. "It's important to find support for yourself. Parents can learn a lot from just talking to one another."

Noonan adds: "Very often parents suffer from low self-esteem and blame themselves for something like biting, which is a phase children go. Children go through all sorts of phases and just after you've got them through one phase, along will come another one to challenge you."

However, both say that if you are concerned about your child's behaviour talk to someone, such as a community nurse, a school liaison officer or someone from an organisation like Barnardos or the ISPCC.

"Just to put your mind at rest, its worth talking to someone," says Noonan. "Sometimes there may be quite a good reason for a change in a child's behaviour - it a child has suffered a bereavement recently then it is natural that they might be a bit more clingy.

"But if you think there is a problem, talk to the professionals. Remember, you're the person who knows the child best, you're the person who will first spot if there is something wrong."