The media recently highlighted a fundamental debate among parenting experts: Be a drill sergeant or an empathetic listener? To spank or not to spank? Punish or teach?

In more than two decades as a parent educator, I firmly believe that effective discipline means setting firm limits while treating children with respect and dignity. This is authoritative parenting, not punitive. What is the difference?

Example: Your kids are fighting over what TV show to watch. The overbearing parent yells, “Enough is enough! No more television for a week! That will teach the children to get along.” This parent dictates his solution and the children do not have the opportunity to solve their own problems or learn to cooperate. They may be resentful, but they are too afraid to express their true feelings.

The authoritarian parent says in a calm, clear voice, “If you two can find a way to share your TV time, you can watch it. If not, the TV will turn off. This parent uses firm discipline (stating a consequence that will result if the dispute continues), but also respectfully guides the children toward finding their own solution, and then follows it up. If she does not comply, she is not a credible mother and her statement becomes an empty threat that her children will not take seriously.

The problem with the authoritarian approach (“Do it because I say so!”) Is that it uses adult muscle to force young people to obey. This can work in the short term. But over time, children can become more defiant and disobedient. Some may get cunning and do the same thing again, but are more careful not to get caught. A child who is constantly under the control of his parents will find ways to evade or avoid the rules.

Here are some tips to help you become a more effective parent without becoming a sitting duck or a dictator:

Choose your battles. Parents and children have conflicting needs. Adults must hurry. Children want to waste time. We want some order. They like to make dough. The confrontations are inevitable, but do not get carried away by all the skirmishes. One of my favorite maxims is “If you are not selective, you are not effective.” Decide what’s really important to you, like getting out of the house on time in the morning without yelling or tantrums, yours or theirs. Talk to the children in the evening about how to prepare on time the next morning. (For example: fix clothes and pack lunch that night, or have a checklist of what to do to avoid “morning madness.” This way, everyone will start the day on a happier note.)

Talk less. Children become “parent deaf” when we lecture, scold, order, criticize, and cajole incessantly. They’ve heard it all before, so they ignore us. To get children to listen, the trick is to shorten the message. Brevity is authority. Instead of preaching about how cluttered your rooms are, make a short, impersonal comment that describes what needs to be done: “That dirty laundry should be in the hamper” or “The books are on the shelf.”

Set clear and firm limits. Example: Before your child goes to a friend’s house, let him or her know exactly what time to come home. If you come to pick him up and beg you to stay longer, you can say, “I know you’re having a good time, but it’s six o’clock.” If he resists, don’t be ambivalent by saying, “Okay, just five more minutes.” Don’t argue. Just say, “Six o’clock was our agreement. We have to go now.”

Use consequences instead of punishments. Example: Your child leaves his new skates outside overnight after you have reminded him to bring them inside. They are stolen. An authoritarian parent would read, “I warned you, but you never listen to me. You have just what you deserve! That’s the last time I’ll buy you something expensive.”

That won’t teach you to be more careful with your things. It will only make him angry, inept, or resentful of you. Instead, you could take an overbearing: “I can see you’re upset that your skates are gone and that you will have to do without them. Maybe you can think of a way to earn some money to buy another pair.” An empathetic response like this teaches a lesson in responsibility without being punitive.

Express your anger without insulting. It is human to get angry when children disobey or provoke us. Parents have the right to be angry, but we do not have the right to hurt, insult, belittle or scare children.

If you are about to explode, take some “adult time out” to calm down. You might say, “I’ll be in my room for 10 minutes and we’ll talk about this when I get out.” Parents who use demeaning language or physically lash out do not teach respect because they are being disrespectful to the child. This does not help a child develop a conscience, and spanking models the very behavior that we want children to avoid.

Respect is a two-way street: Children learn it best if we model it. They will not learn to respect themselves or others if they have not been respected. Another way to show respect is to listen to your child, especially when he is upset. Listening carefully, without interrupting or injecting responses from an adult, shows that you are genuinely interested and that you care about him.

Although they don’t always show it and probably won’t appreciate it at the time, children really want parents to provide a safe and predictable structure in their lives. We can do that by being an authoritative parent who sets limits on behavior, but also treats children the way we all want to be treated: with love, dignity, and respect.


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