When you hear ‘discipline,’ you’re likely to conjure images of unruly kids and their parents trying to rein them in. Maybe some involve a system like time outs or counting to three, or punishment, grounding and spanking. Yet so often we forget that discipline in its basic form means teaching a code of conduct that yes, includes how we shouldn’t act, but also includes how we should. Discipline doesn’t always lie on the negative side of parenting and instead involves both positive and negative experiences working hand in hand.

Discipline: More than just time-outsAnd so, giving blanket discipline advice can be tricky under these circumstances. We can tell a fellow mom to try time outs, but how much do we really know about her situation, her children or how she handles other aspects of parenting? While discipline often involves “what to do when your kid acts up,” it should also include teaching your child how to act in general.

That said, since discipline often connotes misbehavior, I thought about how I approach it with my son and wondered if any patterns popped up.

These methods will help discipline children effectively:

  • Find the reason behind the outburst. Sometimes I can’t believe what sets my three-year-old off: it could be because I used the wrong color crayon or because he would rather stay in the van than go inside. But when I stop and think about what else could be bothering him, most cases point to the same culprits: he’s hungry, sick, tired, or emotional. When I can address any of those issues first rather than try to rationalize why it’s perfectly fine to use orange, we can usually avoid a catastrophe in waiting.
  • Maintain a sense of calm. You’re here to help your child, and the best way to do that is to try to remain calm. Yes, even when she’s yelling and crying and you’re ready to drag her by the arm and march her to a corner. You’re on the same team, and often, matching her frustration with your own does little to calm her down. Perhaps the most difficult piece of advice to follow, trying to stay calm can work wonders, especially since kids feed off your emotions.
  • Assert authority. One of the most important reasons to stand your ground is to protect your child from himself. When he’s throwing a tantrum, emotions are flying high, and he needs someone bigger than him to rein in his frustrations. Explain what is acceptable and what isn’t (“We do not do that,” “You have no right to hit her,”). Most importantly, follow through and remain consistent.
  • Redirect. If possible, redirect your child’s antics to something similar but more appropriate. Your son wants to color on the wall? Honor the impulse and acknowledge his desire to color, but redirect him to a more appropriate activity, such as coloring on paper or outside with chalk. The activity should be similar enough to the impulse—don’t suggest playing with a ball when he wanted to color.
  • Set boundaries where it matters but allow plenty of leeway where it doesn’t. We all have to pick our battles. Choose the non-negotiable boundaries you deem important and stick to it; in return, let the little things slide. Your child will learn what’s important to your family while still feeling able to explore within those limits.
  • Apply natural consequences. “Punishment” can work when the consequences follow the act. Is your kid thrashing around a toy and potentially breaking it? A natural consequence could be to take the toy away from him until he learns not to do that. Telling him he can’t go to to the park isn’t enough of a natural tie to the misbehavior.
  • Listen. We’re so reactive that we feed off one another’s emotions like wildfire before we really know what’s going on. Instead, stop and listen, whether you’re literally hearing out what your child is complaining about, or figuratively, such as taking a breath and assessing the situation before acting.

As you can see, discipline can be a mixture of different methods, and what may work one day may not work the next. And as any parent can attest, sometimes you just lose your cool. It happens, and we all try to do our best. Still, discipline should really be thought of as teaching our kids how to act appropriately, deal with frustrations, and harness their self-control. Not the punishment or tactic we use after the kids act up, but rather what we do every day to show them right and wrong.

How do you define ‘discipline’? What discipline methods have worked for you, and which haven’t?