On Not Knowing the Secret to Discipline

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(Our three-year-old’s scowl during a time-out)

I really can’t decide what’s more exhausting: the sleep deprivation of the newborn stage or the behavioral challenges of “the terrible threes.” A few weeks ago a lovely reader asked for my thoughts on toddler discipline.  I called my husband over. “Daniel! Check this out! Somebody wants to know our approach to discipline!” We both got a good chuckle out of it. Because we don’t have any idea what our approach is. Do we practice “gentle discipline”? Authoritarian discipline? Are we too strict? Are we too permissive? We are constantly adapting our discipline methods and I’ll be honest: We don’t feel like we know what we’re doing.

But as I pondered our discipline style, I realized that at the very least, we have learned a lot from parenting our wild active and high needs delightful toddler with his willful little soul leadership potential. And you know what, hanging out with him is really awesome. He’s an amazing, generous, loving kid. And he always sits perfectly still and quiet during Mass. Just kidding on that last one.

Here are just a few of the things we’ve learned:

Create an environment in which it’s easy for your child to behave. If there are objects within reach that the child is not allowed to touch, move them. If you have an altercation with your child every day because he’s dangerously climbing all over the rocking chair, just remove it. (I don’t want to confess how long it took us, and how many minor head bumps, to figure that one out.)

Be engaged: In my experience, when I’m unengaged Benjamin will inevitably misbehave. Even if I’m only on the phone for 5 minutes, Benjamin will begin acting out in order to get my attention.

Know what your kid can handle. Don’t take your 3-year-old into a toy store and be surprised when he starts touching everything and wants to take such-and-such home. It is important for kids to learn to enter and leave a store without a meltdown when you don’t purchase anything for them. However, toy stores and gift shops (don’t even get me started on how annoyed I am by all the candy featured at toddler height in museum gift shops) are created to make kids want you to buy stuff for them. When a 3-year-old is swept away by good marketing, can ya blame him? Try to avoid situations that will be too much for your toddler or find creative solutions to help them behave to the best of his/her ability. Until a couple of weeks ago, I always had Benjamin ride in the cart at the grocery store because he wouldn’t be as tempted to touch everything. He is just now ready to walk beside me without grabbing anything that looks like candy. Expecting him to behave well without being in the cart a few months ago would just have led to frustration for both of us.

Offer some rewards for good behavior. When we are in stores I do not buy Benjamin stuff. He is used to this and does not often ask for me to purchase him things. When he does, I say, “No, buddy.” Or “We’ll think about it and come back later,” etc. The one exception is the grocery store. I allow him to pick out some dried fruit from the bulk section as a treat if he is well-behaved. Yes, it’s true, my kids are so deprived that they think dried fruit is a SUPER GREAT TREAT. And yes, I bribe them. I totally bribe them.

Head off the problem before it arises. Don’t take your toddler on a taxing errand when they are tired, hungry, or out of sorts. Just don’t. Inevitable misery will ensue.

Encourage, encourage, encourage. Some days I feel like all I do is criticize what Benjamin does: Stop touching that! Don’t do that! You’re not listening! Come over here! Clean that up! Sit still! These are days when I don’t feel like I’m parenting well. On a good day I try to make sure that I’m encouraging good behavior far more than I’m commenting on bad behavior. “Wow, you’re sitting in your chair with your feet in front! What a big boy! Thank you for sitting so nicely!” to balance out the “Stop climbing all over your chair at the dinner table! You’re acting like a barbarian and you’re totally gonna fall….again.” One of the things Benjamin is really good at is sharing with his baby sister. I try to comment on this all the time. “I saw how Lucy grabbed your toy and I’m so impressed that you cheerfully found another toy for her to play with and helped her start playing with it before getting your toy back. You were so gentle and kind to her! You are so generous! I know it’s hard when she takes your things and you dealt with that just the right way.

But what about when all that fails? What about when attempts at preventing a whining, screaming tantrum are unsuccessful or you’re faced with a willfully disobedient toddler pushing all your buttons and testing the boundaries just to see what you will do? Honestly, I think a parent’s reaction should differ according to what works with an individual child.

We’ve discovered that Benjamin needs constant reinforcement of the boundaries or else he loses his little three-year-old mind. He’s also not sensitive in the least. Just a strict command in a firm tone doesn’t do anything to turn his behavior around. We have to practice consistent time-outs or else all Hell breaks loose. We used to spank him occasionally, but don’t anymore. And it’s not because it traumatized him or anything of the sort, it just wasn’t effective. He would look into our eyes with his little stubborn face and say, “I want another spanking.” It just ended up making him more defiant. For him, time-out is truly a punishment. He’s very social and loooooves to be with us and talk talk talk. Spending 3 minutes by himself in his room is pretty miserable for him and seems to be an effective discipline. But that’s not the case for every child. For some kids, time alone in their room is a treat and not a punishment. My mom tells me that sending my older brother to his room didn’t phase him at all: “Playing legos by myself in my room? Awesome.

And we can already tell that Lucy is so very different from her older brother and will need a very gentle approach when it comes to discipline. She is already much more sensitive than Benjamin. She went through a phase of banging her head against the back of her high chair. We figured that can’t be good for her little head so, one day when she was doing it I said in a strong, firm voice, “Lucy: No, ma’am.” I did not yell, I just looked her in the eye and spoke in a “no nonsense” kind of voice. The little gal just burst into tears! Every child is so different.

So, I still don’t know exactly what our philosophy behind discipline is. And I often feel like I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t have all the answers but I’m learning a lot.

What kind of approach do you take to discipline? What have you learned in the process? Any books that you found helpful?

(Please try to be diplomatic in the combox, as you always are, wonderful readers. Parenting styles can be a very touchy subject so, please be respectful of the choices of other families with the understanding that wanting to do what is right for our children is the desire of every parent’s heart.)

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  1. says

    1) I’m right there with you, since i’m on the cusp of disciplining with an 18 month old. I have no idea what I’m doing, which is why I don’t write “parenting advice”.
    2) You’re not alone, Henry came home with a bag of dried raisins and cranberries from the grocery store yesterday as a reward for being good after a long day of teething woes. Also high on his list are plain graham cracker cookies, applesauce and yoghurt.
    3) I’d take the sleep deprivation over the “not knowing what to do in the middle of tantrum” stage any day. I even apologized to my 18 month old yesterday (multiple times) after reacting poorly (harsh tones and a – pretty gentle – swat to the bottom – and I’m not a fan of spanking at all!) when I couldn’t figure out he was asking for his tylenol because he’s cutting 5 teeth (including 3 molars) at the same time.

    • Haley says

      I’m getting really good at apologizing to Benjamin. I’m so grateful that he’s always willing to forgive me!

  2. claire says

    In consultations with client-families, my studies and what I know from working with other peoples’ children I think you are so right on with this. The technical behavior-psych term is to create the ‘least restrictive environment’ for your child to enjoy (one that encourages good behavior and allows for appropriate and fair discipline when necessary). My main approaches to discipline include:

    1. Offer choices (but the care-giver must be Ok with both).
    2. Only use time-out when ALL choices have been exhausted (and as scarcely as possible)
    3. Be sure to present choices, rewards and time-outs clearly (explain what is happening and why its happening) and do these things immediately after a behavior happens.

    But seriously, my dear Haley-friend, I’m pretty sure we’ve had the discipline discussion on numerous occasions and arrived at the same conclusions. So I’m sure those things are nothing new! 🙂

    For the most part, these things work really well for me. I have used them with all children I have worked with and have found I seldom have to raise my voice (although, to be fair– in my experience children are more likely to test their parents than another adult/nanny/psychologist).

    • claire says

      Man. I am writing up a storm on here (but seriously– this is something I care about greatly). I wanted to make of a note on your ‘encourage, encourage, encourage’: Most people that work with or live with small children do this intuitively but I learned from one of my professors that using phrases that encourage good behavior/action with toddlers is more likely to give the desired result than demands. For instance saying ‘use your walking feet’ rather than saying ‘move out of the way’ will get them to walk forward.

      So, basically, you are advocating a researched/more effective approach just by using positive phrases to achieve a desired result. I always think its interesting that some of the things we do intuitively align so well with current research.

    • Haley says

      Great words, Claire. And I think it’s so true that kids are more likely to test their parents. Sometimes I say to my mom, “how come he starts acting up as soon as I show up?” And she reminds me, “because you’re the mom!” Looking forward to lots more conversations about this stuff. Due for a phone chat? I think so.

      • claire says

        WE DEF NEED A PHONE CHAT! Get things figured out with that sweet little boy and then we will hollar at each other.

  3. says

    Thanks for sharing your observations, very nice and helpful. Even with four children I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing half the time!

    To the extent that we have one, our philosophy boils down to one idea – what is the language of this child’s heart. Each of ours are very different and our approach to discipline depends on which child we are addressing. It sounds like you are already be experiencing that too! 🙂

    Love the new buttons and graphics, by the way. Lovely!

  4. says


    I am right there with you! Everyday is a new test, I mean, parenting opportunity… some days go much better than others and I am learning as I go, too. I find when I try to understand why he is upset or not doing what I want, I can usually figure a way to appease him and satisfy my request at the same time. I give him choices so he can maintain some control of the situation. If those don’t work, he looses toys or has time outs for more severe discipline. I find loosing a toy is the worst thing ever for a 3 year old, and although I hate to use it, it really works as my last resort!

    I agree with all your parenting advice and I sure as our boys get older we will adapt to even more challenges…


    • Haley says

      You are so right about some days going better than others. Today was awesome (well, until he started having an asthma attack. Behaviorally awesome, I should say) and I was reminding myself to hold onto what today feels like on those more challenging days when I want to tear my hair out 🙂

  5. J H says

    Well, I’ve been challenged over the past two weeks so now I’m an expert (LOL). My 2 year old starting pushing down a little girl at a playdate recently, and none of our disciplining tools worked – timeout in the crib, stern voice – nothing. I was mortified. So, I did what any mother would do, I went to the library and checked out every book that sounded sane and read the first chapter of each (see how disciplined I am? Ha! ) I really did learn a few things – and the first is that self-discipline goes a long way in disciplining your kids. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you threaten a punishment, follow through even on the first infraction after the warning. The punishment should be quick and easy with a demonstrable beginning and end time – so we do two minute timeouts using the microwave timer. This way, my son knows what to expect, and knows that it’s over. It really has cut down on the crying part of the punishment. He gives me a kiss, I explain what he did wrong and then he goes to play again. There were a few days when I thought he was in timeout all day – but it’s been such a turnaround, that in retrospect, those hard days were worth the pleasant ones we have now. The most important revelation for me, was recognizing that he is capable of listening and follow through with an instruction to do or not do something. Before this, I was in constant stress about the outcome of every action (is he going to throw a fit? Will I have to give him a cookie if I eat one? Do I have to get him a toy before a I get my daughter a toy?). I realized that *I* was the one being trained. Anyway, we’ve had four exceptionally pleasant days, with two pleasant playdates – so it will probably all change tomorrow. Just thought I’d pass along a few observations from this mama of a wildman.

    • Haley says

      Such good advice in here, JH! I just bough a kitchen timer last week to help with the “what to expect” part of time-outs and it has helped a little with the crying so I think you’re on to something there.

  6. says

    Haley, we still (with a 6 year old plus some others) seem to be constantly adapting our discipline style. Perhaps not style, but you know, we’ll not spank for months, and then throw one in for good measure.

    In theory, I just like the idea of not spanking, of talking, of taking breaks (time-outs!!!), but sometimes I do it, when I feel I have no other options. 9 times out of 10, though, both of my boys will become more defiant and say something seemingly absurd, like, “I want another one” or “I liked it a lot” or “I’m going to hurt you more!”. So, yeah, on my parenting good days, I don’t even think about spanking. (Because it never ends well, with our two wild ones.)

    JH, I too think I am the one being trained.

    I wonder if, in every stage, we will be readjusting some part of our disciplinary approach to fit the needs of our growing child (eek, teenager!)? We will probably always be learning. This parenting thing is about our hearts just as much as it is about theirs.

    Haley, thanks for another great post.

  7. says

    Oh, I wanted to give one piece of advice, something that I have learned that I am very confident to pass on. (there aren’t too many of these…)

    And that is:

    Don’t stress about disciplining your babies, whatever that means. I read many, (too many) books about discipline, starting when Laith was 5 months old, and I really regret my naiveté. I took a lot of tips from people who are very different from who I am, who I want to be, in worldview, lifestyle, etc, and I think it really hurt my relationship with him. (Zach’s relationship with him, too.)

    Bela was probably well over 2 before I even started giving him consequences to his actions that were not intuitive ( an example of intuitive discipline, in my mind, is just common sense: gently taking something he was using to hurt people…) Noni isn’t even there yet.

    Perhaps that seems radical – I’m really not sure how it seems – but I personally believe that severe or overly-obsessive discipline or “attention” to behavior at a young age can result in a child’s later defiance.

    With kids 2 (at least) and younger, we’re all about removing babes from the situation (taking away a stick used to hit, realizing breakfast is finished when the throwing of food begins, etc.), along with, obviously, vocalizing the right way to do things.

    I think has saved us a lot, A LOT, of unnecessary power struggles and later behavioral issues with a child who isn’t developmentally ready to understand non-intuitive consequences to actions…

    Just my two cents. It’s worked wonders with our other two kids, who seem much more secure and less eager to buck the system.

    • Haley says

      Yes! I think we will always be learning and adjusting. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons Lucy seems so much easier than Benjamin is because we’ve already “done” the baby stage once. But with Benjamin, each new stage is uncharted territory!

      And your words about skipping ‘baby discipline’ make so much sense. I think that’s generally what we did with Benjamin since consequences are still so difficult to understand for teensy ones. With Lucy, I think we’re doing exactly what you were saying about “intuitive consequences.” When she starts standing up in her high chair, I get her down and snack time’s over. I don’t attempt to “reason” with her about why it’s a good idea to stay seated so she doesn’t fall, haha. Or say, “no no! if you do that, i will get you down!” But interestingly, she seems very in tune to wanting her behavior to please me (something Benjamin did not do at all…still doesn’t, haha). For example, we don’t really let her crawl around in the bathroom because it’s, ahem, not exactly pristine and it grosses me out that she would be crawling around on the floor in there. If the door does get left open, though and she starts to crawl over there, she will look at me (because she knows we don’t want her in there) and if I tell her not to go in she will….wait for it….actually listen! That would NEVER have happened with Baby Benjamin, so the whole thing is just fascinating to me. But yes, I totally agree that there’s no reason to start fruitless power struggles with an infant that isn’t developmentally ready for “consequences” and more formal discipline. Great wisdom, as always, Amy.

  8. says

    I can relate to the feeling. My husband and I often lain in bed at the end of a hard day and thought “Where do we fall? Are we too harsh or not harsh enough?”. I think we tend towards strict, but it’s very easy to second guess ourselves.

    Our boys seem to be cut from the same cloth. 3 minutes in his room are enough to drive him crazy and spanking rarely produces any fruit. The only time we spank now is when we feel he is doing something to potentially put him or his sister in danger. That way he knows “this is serious!” I love your point about being engaged. Something I fail at often. Just when you think he’s busy playing very well by himself and you slip away to return a phone call…blam! Crazy meltdown time. I need a snack time. I have to poop time. Anything to get your attention time. These boys, I tell ya. If they weren’t so dang cute, they would have been in some serious trouble by now ;).

    The baby girls though, Willow is like your Lucy. Not very testy, but much more sensitive. I can’t even imagine that discipline will look the same for them in 2 years!

    Comforting to know another mama struggles similarly these days. Sometimes I forget, it can feel so isolating inside these walls at home sometimes. Will send up prayers for you and your boy when I am reminded, and trust me, I am reminded regularly ;).

    • Haley says

      I’m glad I’m in good company! And yes, even though I know that the challenging days will come with Lucy, it’s just hard to imagine because…she’s just so sweet right now, haha. And I’ll be sending prayers back 🙂

  9. says

    Hooray! Thank you so much for giving this so much thought. I appreciate it immensly! It’s good to know that we’re pretty much on the same page with others who are in the trenches, too. I so much love what one person wrote about knowing each child’s heart. That is so important and very revealing, I think.

    Our biggest issue is that we can’t figure out what Mags’ trigger is. She doesn’t respond well to spanking, and only marginally responds to time-outs and verbal corrections. I think we just need to be a lot more consistent with her, over all. Great advice all around, though! Love, love, love!

    • Haley says

      Figuring out an effective “trigger” is so hard. One thing we tried with Benjamin that was semi-effective at the time was putting stuffed animals or toys in time-out. It kind of lost it’s effectiveness after a month or so, though. Hang in there 🙂

  10. J H says

    Let me clarify the “training” part – we are being trained, but I felt like I was engineering my entire day around NOT having to discipline. And I don’t think that this is a good thing. If there is never any conflict, how will my kids learn self-control or obedience?

    I also agree with minimal disciplining before 2. It just doesn’t go that far.

  11. says

    Oh, I get you, JH.

    I’ve definitely been there. Realizing that you’re almost walking on eggshells with your offspring is definitely unproductive. Sometimes I still find myself doing that on an especially “wild” day.

    I took “training” to mean, developing as a person just as your children are, learning how to love them, what discipline looks like in your family, and for me, how to soften my heart to my children, to discipline without taking things too personally.

  12. Elizabeth P says

    My pilates teacher recently was telling us the problems with sitting and sitting still. These little cushions not only help people who have to sit at a desk all day but they help antsy, figety children sit still because it makes them balance while they sit. It also has been proven to help children in learning settings! I thought of the cushion when you said B won’t sit still for Mass- try this!

    Another thing I’ve learned is the power behind realizing the difference between misbehavior and mistaken behavior. There is a great article out in the land of Google that I couldn’t successfully find. But I think this concept will help many parents, teachers, daycare providers with the everyday mistaken behaviors of children! 🙂

  13. Becky says

    “Discipline That Lasts a Lifetime” by Dr. Ray Guarendi. Awesome book. Awesome author. Gives lots of great ideas for all ages. We have a four year old, 3 year old twins (all boys) and an almost 6 month old little girl and we’re still trying to figure out discipline. And you’re right, every child is different and some days are way better than others. I just stumbled on your blog today (via, where else, Pinterst lol) and am so glad I did! It’s encouraging to know that there are other catholic moms out there struggling with the same things I am! Thanks!

  14. Jill Heffernan says

    I just love your website! I am a convert and mother of five and your posts crack me up. I find your explanations on why you follow the church’s teachings to be so well articulated, they are the answers I wish I had the confidence to give people. Your love of your children and your openness to more is very refreshing, people look at us like we’re crazy when we say we are open to more children.Oh
    Anyway, well done and God bless.
    Oh and as a Canadian I’m touched that you love Anne.

  15. Cayla says

    Hi Haley,

    I’m WELS Lutheran but I love your blog and think we are so similar. I know this post is old, but do you have any suggestions of parenting books that you have read? I feel like so many of the Christian parenting books I have heard of or read really seem to focus on finding problems in your children. This parenting thing is tricky!

    • Haley says

      Hi Cayla! I honestly have not read hardly ANY parenting books. And it’s not because I think I know everything, it’s just because I don’t really like reading non-fiction. Sorry to be so unhelpful! But I’ve heard really good things about the books by Dr. Greg Popcak.

      • Cayla says

        Thanks for responding. I will have to look into his books. I am starting to think it may be best to just ignore the parenting books, but I do think they give me a good jumping off point to develop my own style.

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