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Direction and Discipline

Basic principles of understanding and communicating to help children develop positive self-esteem and self-discipline

There is no single right way to raise children. There are, however, some basic principles of understanding and communicating which seem to help develop positive self-esteem and self- discipline. Self-discipline is direction which first comes from the outside (the parent), and then develops inside the child.


  • Remember who is in charge (the parent).
  • Use “I” language to speak for and about oneself.
  • Set reasonable, developmentally appropriate standards so children do not become discouraged.
  • Make sure your rules and policies are really important…Don’t sweat the small stuff!
  • Separate hurt and angry feelings from requests for behavior change.
  • Avoid assuming the child has bad motives.
  • Focus on the solutions.


  • Define the rules and policies already in your own mind.
  • Children generally respond best to being told what is expected rather than what they did wrong.
  • Be brief when possible: “Bedtime, dear.”
  • Say what you really mean, rather than hinting or implying.
  • Avoid asking “Why?” when the answer won’t make any difference.
  • Stick to solving a single problem rather than a list of bad behavior.


  • Most children behave better and feel better with regular routines.
  • Be as consistent with rules and routines as is reasonable.
  • Parents need to agree on or at least accept similar rules and policies.


  • Role-model courtesy and respect within the family.
  • Discipline yourself to express yourself in a way that does not injure the child or the relationship.
  • Avoid: name-calling, humiliating, using sarcasm, blaming, threatening, commanding, lecturing, prophesizing (predicting failure)
  • Ask your child how they feel and what they think… and then listen.
  • Accept differences of opinion when reasonable.
  • Role model admitting your own mistakes and correcting yourself.


  • Offer a choice when possible: “Bath or shower?” or “Now or in ten minutes?”
  • Offer choices only when you can accept the child’s choice.
  • Offer alternatives to unacceptable behaviors.
  • Make contracts rather than nag.
  • Offer a choice between leaving a situation or changing behavior.


  • Allow logical consequences to follow behavior when reasonable and safe.
  • Reward with time and privileges rather than objects when possible.
  • Use ignoring as negative re-enforcement when appropriate.
  • Set small increments of punishments such as “time out” or restriction and abide by them.
  • Follow through with consequences.

In Conclusion

  •  Promote an identity as a family. “In our family…”

Suggested Reading

  1. Questions Parents Ask, Louise Bates Ames
  2. Your One-Year-Old, Ames, et. al. (A series for years 1-14)
  3. How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Faber & Mazlish
  4. Good Behavior, Garber, Garber & Spizman
  5. Between Parent and Child, Haim Ginott
  6. Parent Effectiveness Training, Thomas Gordon
  7. Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking, Wyckoff and Unell

Suggestions for Loving Discipline

Discipline is not punishment; it is training that comes from the parent that instills self-discipline and self-control in the child.

  • Make sure that you expect age appropriate behavior from your child.
  • Make every misbehavior an opportunity for teaching positive behavior.
  • Role model the behavior you wish to see and hear your child use.
  • Give your child time and some undivided attention, every day.
  • Help your child practice the behavior you want from him or her.
  • Criticize the child’s behavior rather than the child as a person.
  • Children learn best when they feel safe and relaxed.
  • Children feel safe and relaxed when the parents are clear and firm, rather than loud and angry.
  • Play with your children in ways that teach them how to play with others.
  • When you give your child a new object, explain when and how the object is to be used.
  • Ask everyone in the family to have “the speaker go to the listener,” rather than yelling from room to room.
  • Tell the truth, always, in an age-appropriate way.
  • Teach your child life-skills to promote a sense of healthy pride and self-confidence.
  • Limit and supervise screen-time.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and has regular hours!

Help Your Child to Manage Anxiety

Anxiety is normal. We all have to have a healthy amount of anxiety to keep us stimulated and engaged. Too much anxiety is a very unpleasant physical and emotional experience. Children and adults can feel shaky, nauseated and have stomach aches. Managing anxiety requires a combination of addressing physical, emotional and practical contributors to anxiety and coping.


  • Children (and adults) are more resistant to anxiety when they have a regular sleep wake schedule, every day of the week. Varying the sleep-wake schedule by more than an hour increases the vulnerability to anxiety.
  • Children (and adults) are more resistant to anxiety when they engage in physical exercise for at least 15-20 minutes a day.
  • Children (and adults) are more resistant to anxiety when they do something deeply relaxing for 15-20 minutes a day. Television and computer time do not produce the level of relaxation that helps the brain relax and recharge.
  • What works? Soaking in a warm bath, yoga, yoga breathing, meditation, reading or being read to, tensing and relaxing muscle groups one at a time, until you are as “floppy” as a rag doll or stuffed animal. Teach a child to feel the difference between tense and relaxed muscles.


  • If your child is reluctant to go to school or to a particular person’s home, gently inquire what might be contributing to the child’s anxiety. It could be that there is a problem that will require parental problem-solving. It could also be that the child is misperceiving a situation, and needs adult help to understand a situation that is okay, but simply different from the way things are done at home.
  • If there is a problem that your child could solve but is not doing so, he or she might need guidance in practical problem-solving. Teach problem-solving by teaching courteous assertiveness. Role model courteous problem-solving within the family. You might even try some role-playing at home to help your child have the confidence to solve the problem independently.
  • Avoid sentimental good-byes at departures. Practice bright and breezy “Good-bye for now, I look forward to hearing about your day.”
  • Resist letting your child stay home from school, unless you think there is something truly wrong at school such as bullying or a serious problem with an adult at school. Avoidance tends to make anxiety worse.
  • Provide stimulating activities but be careful not to over-stimulate or over-schedule.
  • Help the child gradually get used to new situations and skills. I have found that one or two private lessons will allow a child to enter a group class much more confidently. One bumper-bowling or ice skating with mom and dad will help a child be more successful at a bowling or skating birthday party.
  • If there are adult problems or tensions at home, your child might be affected by them. Try to reduce your tension and get the adult problems solved. Get help for yourself if necessary.


  • Listen to your child’s perception of the problem. Be sure to express sympathy and empathy before correcting or solving a problem. Make sure no one makes fun of a child’s misperception or fear. Ridiculing a child will teach the child to keep their needs and fears secret, then you won’t be able to help.
  • Teach your child to talk himself or herself through a problem. For example: “I can do it.” “I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to do my best.” “Off the track? Bring it back” (Refocus)
  • Teach the child to breath in through the nose and sigh off the tension. (Don’t let the child pant because it will make the child feel worse!
  • Allow your child to carry an inconspicuous comfort object: a photograph of a parent, a small quiet, soft toy that can be handled inside a pocket, an encouraging note in a backpack or lunchbox.
  • Remind your child to relax muscles and do relaxing breathing as soon as anxiety begins.

If you need more help I like What To Do When You Worry Too Much by Huebner and What To Do When You Dread Your Bed, if your child is anxious at bedtime. If these techniques don’t work within two to four weeks, consider a consultation with a therapist who is experienced with children who are anxious. The next article is about promoting resiliency, which also helps children be resistant to anxiety and depression.

Promoting Resiliency in Our Children

  • Teach our children life skills.
  • Teach and role model problem solving.
  • Teach children how to plan ahead.
  • Promote a real sense of competence.
  • Teach and role model persistence.
  • Teach and support an absence of rigid gender roles.
  • Give attention to positive attitudes and behaviors.
  • Promote their sense of internal control.
  • Teach our children to have compassion for others.
  • Promote a true sense of humor.
  • Teach and role model a respectful manner.
  • Provide opportunities to develop religious or spiritual sensibility.
  • Role model and support moral pride.
  • Support intense, directed interests.
  • Teach and role model an optimistic attitude.
  • Provide and/or support long, close relationships with adults.

Motivation and Our Children

Important Principles of Motivation:

  • Motivation is inborn but differs between individuals.
  • People are born with the drive to learn and accomplish tasks.
  • People are motivated by accomplishment and mastery.
  • People are discouraged by excessive failure, and by excessive praise.
  • People need a clear feedback loop to see what they accomplish.
  • Intrinsic rewards are most motivating.
  • Interpersonal rewards, such as time and attention, are next most motivating.
  • Extrinsic, or material rewards, should be a last resort to help a child develop or change habits.
  • Excessive exposure to immediate rewards will decrease motivation, and attention span.
  • People thrive when they are loved for themselves, and not for their accomplishments.
  • Support your child’s healthy interests, even if they seem pointless.
  • Don’t get more enthusiastic about their interests than they do.
  • Don’t be surprised if they change their interests and passions over time.
  • People have a tendency to avoid their weaknesses. Children need support to accept challenge.
  • Teach children how to tolerate, and learn from, failure; the earlier the better!
  • Offer assistance, but don’t help excessively.
  • Never, under any circumstances, use sarcasm, humiliation or shaming. They do NOT motivate; they discourage.
  • Assist children to set reasonable expectations of themselves and others.

Motivation Problems:

  • Perfectionism
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Power struggles
  • Developmental readiness
  • Undiagnosed learning disability or emotional problem
  • Excessive family stress
  • Mixed messages from family and friends
  • Inappropriate learning environment
  • Excessive parental control Insufficient parental leadership

Suggested Reading:

  1. The Unmotivated Child, Rathvon
  2. The Myth of Laziness, Levine
  3. Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, Levine
  4. Adulthood, Csikszentmihalyi
  5. Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults, Webb et. al.
  6. The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Neihart et. al.

Developing Good Habits

Parents often ask for assistance in helping their children change bad habits and develop good ones. The following list is the foundation for teaching positive habit change.

  • Observe the behavior: around whom does it occur, when and where does it occur. Why do you think it might occur? How many times does it occur in a day or week?
  • Identify the behavior you wish to decrease and the substitute you wish to increase.
  • Alter the antecedents to the behavior, such as fatigue or overstimulation.
  • Identify the reward system very clearly. The adult should chose it, not the child.
  • Identify the increments of behavior that need to change rather than the complex or conceptual behavior, such as “make your bed” and “put clothes into the hamper”, rather than “Clean your room.”
  • Try a “dry run” or short implementation of the system to see if it needs to be adjusted.
  • Target only one habit change at a time.
  • Implement for a month until the positive behavior becomes a habit.

When my child “won’t listen”…

Many times a child is listening, he is just not doing what you are telling him to do (complying).

Be sure to get your child’s attention before telling him what you want him to do. Whenever possible, give your child a few minutes warning that it will be time to take a bath, leave the park, begin to clean up. Recognize that a child might be deeply concentrating on what he is doing. We want children to learn to concentrate! By the way, if you have to leave home in 25 minutes, it is not likely to work well for you to put on a 30 minute DVD. Read the articles above, to help a child be more cooperative and compliant.

On the other hand, if your child routinely has difficulty following verbal directions, has a history of ear infections, is highly sensitive to loud sounds, or speaks less clearly than other children his age, consider the possibility that he might have one of several kinds of auditory problems. There are different kinds and degrees of hearing problems. Sometimes they are missed by pediatric and school screenings. If you are concerned, and problems persist, consider asking your pediatrician for a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist, or an audiologist.

Another kind of auditory problem is called Central Auditory Processing Disorder, or Auditory Processing Disorder. In this case, the person can hear, and can even say back to you what you just said. Central Auditory Processing Disorder, or CAPD can interfere with a person turning what he hears into meaningful communication. The person can seem inattentive, and is sometimes misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Other manifestations of CAPD can be extreme sensitivity to sound, an inability to distinguish background noise from important sound such as the parent or teacher’s voice, and difficulty following multiple step verbal directions. A good book on the subject is called, When the Brain Can’t Hear. An ENT or a specially trained audiologist can diagnose CAPD with a painless, one time test. There are treatments, again, painless, that can help persons with CAPD. A diagnosis of CAPD makes your child legally eligible for public school accommodations.

If your child has CAPD, parents should discuss the pros and cons of treatment with the diagnosing clinician. With or without treatment, there are many things that parents and schools can do to help children (and adults) with CAPD. I have listed some of these below:

  • Get the child’s attention with a gentle touch to his shoulder, and make eye contact before speaking to him.
  • Give one or two directions rather than a list.
  • If the child can read, supplement verbal directions with written directions. S
  • peaking more slowly can greatly improve cooperation.
  • Single questions, rather than a rapid-fire series of questions, are more likely to be answered.
  • A person with CAPD tires of listening easily, and benefits from shorter verbal instructions and from movement breaks.
  • Avoid unnecessary background noise such as a television or radio in the background.
  • I recommend a family policy of “speaker goes to the listener,” rather than calling from room to room.
  • At school, the child should sit close to, and facing the teacher, when possible. The child should not be seated close to a fan or a noisy critter or fish tank pump.
  • Students benefit from a teacher who stays in one place while giving instruction, rather than walking around the classroom.
  • Children and youth with CAPD sometimes seem tired or inattentive. Parents and teachers can be offended when children and youth seem to ignore them. These young people are not being uncooperative; they are exhibiting symptoms of their auditory problem.
  • A disability should never be an excuse to “get out” of something, but rather should guide us to finding an alternative method or solution.

Understanding Executive Function

Everyone has a set of characteristics which, collectively, are described as “Executive Function.” I think the easiest way to understand this group of characteristics is to think of them as “the boss inside of you.”

Almost everyone is born with a capacity for executive function. Some children have more difficulty with executive function than others, but everyone can learn to get better at executive functions. Executive function skills grow and develop as a child grows up, especially during adolescence. Parents and educators can increase a child’s executive function through education and experience. Games and sports with rules help children develop executive functions. Helping children make lists and plans cultivates executive function. Working with calendars and (analog) clocks to understand time are very helpful in developing executive function. When a family travels parents can help a child make a packing list. Cooking and baking with children help them learn to plan and organize. Making something as simple a homemade play dough can help children lay out ingredients and supplies, measure ingredients and follow directions. Doing science experiments and assembling models both promote following directions. Even helping a child notice the weather and activities for the day in order to choose clothing can help a child develop the ability to anticipate, plan and decide. Remember to teach a child to do things for him or herself as soon as able, rather than doing things for the child.

If an adolescent or adult has underdeveloped one or more of the executive functions he or she can still increase those abilities with help from a spouse, friend, teacher or a professional therapist or consultant.

Below is a list of the characteristics of executive function. You can evaluate yourself and your child to determine if you and/or your child could benefit from increasing executive function.

  • Response inhibition-the ability to think before acting
  • Working memory-the ability to hold one kind of information, such as a procedure, while performing tasks suing that information
  • Self-regulation of affect-the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals or control behavior
  • Sustained attention-the capacity to maintain attention in spite of distractions or boredom
  • Task initiation-the ability to begin projects; to get started
  • Planning/Prioritizing Organizing, both physical materials and abstract ideas
  • Time management, and an accurate perception of time
  • Goal-directed persistence-the ability to set a goal and work toward it
  • Flexibility-the ability to consider more than one way to solve a problem; the ability to respond to unexpected situations or changes of plan
  • Metacognition-the ability to self-observe, self-critiques and self-correct

Remember, everyone has the capacity for executive function. While some individuals seem to have a greater natural capacity for executive function than others, almost everyone can improve his or her executive functions.

Vision and Eye Coordination Screening

Pediatrician and school vision screenings do not identify all of the kinds of vision and eye coordination problems. If you observe, or your child reports the following symptoms it would be worthwhile to take your child to an eye care professional for a thorough evaluation.

Print out the list below, check the observations and symptoms and take it with you to the doctor.

  • Does your child complain that his or her eyes feel tired when reading, even after enough sleep?
  • Does your child complain that his or her eyes hurt?
  • Does your child say that the words jump around on the page?
  • Does your child say that the words float around the page?
  • Does your child have trouble copying from the board at school?
  • Does your child get headaches or “face-aches”?
  • Does your child have trouble remembering what he or she reads, but not what is read to him or her?
  • Does your child report seeing two objects when there is only one?
  • Does your child read much more slowly than others the same age?
  • Does he or she report that words or pages come into and out of focus?
  • Does he or she frequently lose his or her place when reading? Is your child being evaluated for dyslexia or ADHD? Please consider a complete eye examination before treatment for dyslexia and ADHD.

To support eye health, be sure to follow “20-20-20” guidelines for digital devices such as keeping screens 20 inches from the eyes, and resting eyes for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Recommended digital exposure under 3 is zero, ages 3-10 is 30 minutes, 10-13 is 60 minutes, 14 and older-120 minutes. Ideally, electronic devices should not be used in the hour before sleep. Filters for blue light should be used if it is necessary to use electronic devices in the hour before sleep.

Check the following resources and discuss vision health with your eye care professional: