Whether a child is a toddler who is just carving out their role in the world, or a fully independent adolescent who feels like they’ve long since outgrown their parents, discipline can be problematic. Behaviors often make parents angry, and it is easy to threaten the child in those situations. However, idle threats are counterproductive for a number of reasons.
Children test limits. This is a perfectly normal and natural part of growing up. When parents set limits that are not always hard and fast, the child is actually encouraged to test that limit and all future limits placed by the parent. Furthermore, when those limits are accompanied by idle threats of punishment, the cause and effect relationship between action and consequence is not clearly understood. Both of these mistakes can cause parents nightmares as they try to help their child learn to function properly.
This means that a parent must be selective in the limits they set. This is particularly true with young children, who might not have complete awareness about unique situations. For example, it may be fine to play with a stick by a family bonfire while supervised. It is not acceptable to place a stick in the grill when no one is looking. A good boundary to set might be “do not play next to fire, under any circumstances.” That way, the toddler can make the simple correlation that fire equals danger. So, sticking to broad boundaries that deal primarily with safety issues is a good strategy.
If parents follow the “safety issues only” framework, they will need to decide what issues to be strict with, and what issues to let slide. One way to accomplish this and to avoid idle threats is to distinguish between encouragement and mandate. For example, it should be a mandate that kids do not play by open fires. We can encourage our toddler not to burp at the dinner table. Similarly, we can reward the toddler who does not burp at dinner with a nice dessert. This keeps parents away from the idle threat response to unwanted behaviors.
A proper discipline plan that promotes a child’s learning involves both boundaries and rewards. By keeping the boundaries to issues that deal with safety, and using incentives and encouragement with lesser issues, parents can retain the impact of their mandates while allowing children the freedom and autonomy to develop appropriately.