Discipline is hard. It's hard to be the bad guy, hard to always be the one in control. But it can be done.
The first thing to remember is the old adage that prevention is the best medicine.
Run it off.
Keeping your kids moving--playing tag, digging in a sandbox, throwing a ball, riding a bike, jumping hopscotch or skipping rope--will burn off the excess energy that leads to trouble. Getting little ones to play alone can be hard, so remember: helping burns off energy, too. Cleaning? Give them a rag and let them "dust." Gardening? Give them a shovel and let them dig. Better busy than bored.
A hungry child is a cranky child. While no kid needs to gorge on junk, children do need a diet full of protein and calcium and carbohydrates. They need plenty of water (most dentists recommend juice only at meals), and healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables in between meals. A baggy of raisins and a water bottle will increase the pleasantness of any outing by 100 percent.
Let them sleep.
Kids who miss naps are bound to be cranky. No teenager will be a ray of sunshine when you wake them up at 6 a.m. Little ones who stay up until all hours of the night are likely to act out the next day. Kids need plenty of sleep; so we as parents need to make sure they get it. Set a bedtime and enforce it.
Even if you follow those three pieces of advice, despite all your best efforts, your child is going to act up. It's what kids do. They push their limits. They make mistakes.
And it's our job to teach them how to function. When they go over the line, even by accident, we have to discipline them.
Say what you mean.
Set definite responsibilities, limits and consequences. Often, rules are unwritten in families. If that works, great. But actually writing out a list of house rules is not a bad idea, especially when the rules are new or certain family members need a reminder. (Maybe you're just starting to get serious about disciplining your toddler. Maybe you're realizing your teenager needs a whole new set of rules.)
When you talk to your child, don't waver. If you say you expect him to get dressed in the next five minutes, follow through and tell him what he can expect if that doesn't happen. Set the kitchen timer and when it dings and he's still half naked, pick out the silliest, most embarrassing shirt you can find and dress him in it.
Finally, be the example for your child. Respect, which is really the basis for discipline, starts with the parent. Your kids should hear you say thank you, please and I'm sorry. They should see you waiting and not interrupting a conversation. They should know that when you talk, they need to listen. They'll pick up good behaviors just as fast as they will bad ones.
Mean what you say.
Be consistent. If the rule is no hitting, then that's the rule--even if your daughter accidentally elbowed her little brother in the eye. (I'm amazed at the number of "accidents" my kids have. Of course, I remember having quite a few myself when I was a kid.)
Don't threaten. Every parent throws out an exasperated, "I'm going to sell you to the circus!" But don't make empty threats like telling a 4-year-old, "Clean up your toys or no supper!" Are you really going to send a preschooler to bed without eating? If you are, that's your choice, but if not, you need to find a real punishment.
Let the punishment equal the crime.
In every house, there should be a few zero-tolerance policies. In ours, we have zero-tolerance on hitting. Any hitting at all means immediate timeout plus loss of toy, if one was involved.
Here's what I mean by timeout: The child is immediately told what specific rule he broke and made to sit down in an isolated spot. He is told he will stay there for a number of minutes equal to his age. He must sit still. He does not interact with anyone. He is allowed to cry. When time is up, he is required to tell us (with prompting, if necessary) what he did and to apologize. We move on with our lives.
Timeouts are effective if used consistently. But they're not the only punishment, nor should they be. If timeouts are your big gun--the punishment for your zero-tolerance policy--then you need something smaller for smaller infractions. The best way to think of these is consequences. If my kid spills, he cleans it up. If my kid accidentally bumped his brother with a toy, he must give a hug. If he yanks the toy out of his brother's hand, he forfeits the toy.
When kids get older, timeouts become takeaways--what can you remove from their life that will hurt? I was a bookworm and some major infraction one summer left me without any books. It was the equivalent of taking away video games for most teens.
And don't be afraid to get creative. Fighting kids? Make them sit on a couch and hug each other.
Finally, my last word of advice: know how and when to pick your battles. I normally don't put up with whining--but last night, when we'd been traveling all day and my preschooler was tired, well, I just pretended not to hear the tone in his voice. Consistency is a key to good discipline, but so is remaining in control, and that includes of your own temper.
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Humane Association