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Discipline - how parents can discipline children

discipline; teach; teaching; behave; behaviour; misbehave; rules; punishment; consequences; time; out; in; physical; smack; smacking;

Methods of discipline need to fit with your child's age, abilities and needs. This may mean you will use different ways for each child within your family. You will need to change them as your child grows older.


It is important to respond to children when they misbehave, and when they behave well.

Methods of discipline need to fit with your child's age, abilities and needs. This may mean you will use different ways for each child within your family. You will need to change them as your child grows older.

For more information about discipline, see the topics

Also you could have a look at the Parent Easy Guide Parenting style. This guide was developed by Parenting SA. Parenting SA is a partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network - South Australia


Discipline usually requires careful thought and methods which include:

  • planning
  • teaching
  • explaining
  • showing
  • distracting
  • giving choices
  • making rules
  • giving consequences.

Often with planning you can prevent a behaviour issue from arising. This means taking your needs and your child's needs into account.

  • For example if your toddler always misbehaves when you are shopping, her needs might be boredom (shopping takes too long) or she is tired or hungry.
  • Your need is to get the shopping done. So your plan might be to shop in short bursts when the shops aren't busy. It may help to shop when your toddler isn't hungry or tired, and to let her help you in some way.

Planning is a good way to avoid problems that happen often.

Making the rules

Thinking about rules that you want for the family is best done before a problem starts.

  • It's best if parents can work together to manage  behaviours and the types of responses you'll give.
  • Older children can be, and are more likely to accept, family rules and consequences if they are involved with you in making them.
  • When telling your child what you want him to do, make sure you:
    • have only a few rules, because too many rules can be confusing.
    • are clear, eg. "No" to your toddler without explanation of why it's wrong means little to him and he is likely to do it again. If you give too much information at once, he won't remember, and if you don't give enough he won't know what to do.
    • both understand what you mean, eg. "Be polite" may not mean anything to a very young child. Your older child may have a completely different understanding of the same word.
    • choose your time well, eg. trying to teach your son while he is watching his favourite television program is not likely to work.
    • know what your child is able to do, eg. if the task is too hard, your child may fail and you may feel disappointed or angry.
    • are prepared for a difference of opinion if you give a choice, eg. the question "Do you want to come with me?" can lead to your child responding with a "No". Don't give your child a choice if there isn't one.
    • don't give mixed messages to your child, eg. the way you look can give a different message from what you say. If you laugh at your son's mischievous behaviour while you say "No" it will be unclear if you approve or not.
    • back up what you say with action. If you do not follow through what you said would happen if he disobeyed, your child is likely to disobey next time.

Giving consequences

Learning about consequences (what happens when we do something) is an important part of discipline and will help teach your child responsibility. When you set rules everyone needs to be clear about the consequences. This is best done when you're feeling as calm and in control as you can be.

  • Consequences should be short. They need to happen as soon as possible after the misbehaviour, or they will lose their meaning.
  • They can be natural, eg. when your child leaves her toys in a mess, the natural consequence is not being able to find what she wants.
  • They can be given by you, eg. when your child's bike is run over because it was left on the driveway, she has to share the cost of repairs or do without it for a time.
  • Consequences should be linked to the original problem where possible, eg. when your child makes a mess, she should clean it up. This means that your child is learning how people can make up for mistakes.
  • Consequence should be small. If you use a major consequence your child may think it's unfair and not respond. Consequences should fit the behaviour and help your child to know how to do it better.
  • Consequences should always be safe for your child.

'Time in'

'Time in' is a more positive way of teaching than 'time out'. A 'time in' approach to guiding children's behaviour involves staying close to your child when he or she is overwhelmed with strong feelings. Staying connected helps them feel safe and secure, and to calm down. Children gradually learn to manage their own feelings and behaviour.

  • 'Time in' means to remove your child from the situation that she cannot manage, so she spends time with an adult.
  • Keep her with you while you help to settle her, or just hold her until she is able to get calm again.
  • This is teaching time. It says to your child that you will not let her do anything to harm herself or others, and that you will not let her feelings drive you away or overwhelm you.
  • By being with her through this you are teaching her about managing feelings and difficult situations.

There is much more about this in the topic Time in: guiding children's behaviour.

'Time out'

'Time out' is when an upset child is removed from the situation and sent or taken to a 'time out' place. They are left alone to calm down and think about what they’ve done wrong, and to change their behaviour. 

'Time out' does not help a child learn how to manage strong feelings and out-of-control behaviour. It assumes a child can work out what you want on their own, or that they already know the right way to do things, and young children cannot do this.

It is especially important for an adult to stay near if your child's feelings are very strong.

There are times, especially when children are very young, that stressed parents are unable to cope with children's behaviour without getting very angry and losing control. At times of great stress, a brief separation may be the best thing to do for your child's sake. Make sure you leave her in a safe situation.

Physical punishment

You can discipline without using physical punishment.

What do we mean by physical punishment?

  • There are many terms used to describe physical punishment. These include 'smacking', 'hitting', 'slapping', 'spanking', 'beating', 'belting', 'squeezing', 'whipping', 'thrashing', 'punching' - with a hand or object.
  • Usually 'corporal punishment' and 'caning' is used when talking about physical punishment in schools. Corporal punishment is not allowed in any State school in South Australia.

What does the law say?

The law says that harsh or excessive physical punishment of children is illegal and considered child abuse. (Children's Protection Act 1993.)

Some things to consider from the research

  • While an occasional mild smack may not cause harm, the danger is the possibility of accidental injury or loss of control by the parent (a smack may lead to more smacking next time or a serious belting as the parent senses that the first smack did not work)..
  • An immediate hit may stop your child's behaviour for the moment, but she probably will repeat it (she doesn't learn what to do instead, only what not to do). 
  • Children learn not to do the action in an adult's presence, rather than learn not to do it at all.
  • Children's feelings of anger and hurt are often so strong after being hit that they can have difficulty remembering the reasons for the punishment.
  • If punishment is frightening, your child can learn ways to deceive (lying, cheating or blaming others) to avoid being hit.
  • Some children can become fearful, anxious, rebellious or withdrawn.
  • Children tend to copy what you do and may bully others.
  • Physical punishment teaches children that violence is acceptable and that it's okay to use violence when you're angry, to solve problems or to get what you want.

Most people would agree that settling conflict between adults with physical force is wrong. It is against the law to hit (assault) other people, eg. adults, partners, servants, apprentices.

There are more effective ways of disciplining children than using physical punishment.

What else to do

Here are some positive things to do.

  • Make sure that your relationship with your child is positive, and if it isn't, work on getting it better. Do things together, such as playing games and reading. Talk with your child about what he or she is interested in, and the things you are doing.
  • Teach what behaviour you want (say it clearly, and show for a young child). Let your child know that you are pleased when she cooperates.
  • Distract or offer alternatives if your child is doing something you don't like, instead of saying "Don't". Pick a young child up and move him or her to a place where they can do things that you think are ok.
  • Give your child a choice of something similar he can do, eg. "You can play your drum outside or play a quiet game in here".
  • Use consequences - helping your child to learn from what she has done. Don't make consequences so long or harsh that they lose their meaning.
  • Ignore things that don't matter - they are more likely to stop if no one notices.
  • Think about what you are about to say - how would you feel if an adult spoke to you in this way?

Note: Giving lots of attention to behaviour we don't like can often reinforce it (lead to it happening more often). Make sure that you notice more of your child's good behaviour and comment on this rather than the bad behaviour. For example, are you missing what your child is doing well - cleaning his teeth, getting dressed for school, eating his dinner, playing happily with his friend, sharing with his brother? Look for it and comment.

'Star' charts

Maybe you could make a chart of behaviours you want to encourage and give stickers to your child for every time they do what you want them to do such as sharing, brushing their teeth, put their toys away - be generous. Children seem to like showing their stickers or stars to other people who are important in their lives such as their grandparents and this is a great reward. They do not need other rewards such as toys for getting 'enough' stickers. If you do decide to give a reward make it a small reward and set a small number of stars to get the reward.

Review the chart each week and perhaps change the behaviour you want them to practise.

  • Star charts do not work for young children.


  • Children need discipline.
  • Discipline is about teaching and learning.
  • Discipline works best when you have a good relationship with your child.
  • Plan to prevent problems when you can.
  • Discipline includes rules and consequences.
  • Plan rules and consequences ahead of problems - before a crisis.
  • Don't make consequences so long or harsh that they lose their meaning.
  • You can discipline without using physical punishment.
  • Talk to other parents about their rules.
  • Spend energy on the really important things and learn to overlook minor irritations.
  • Think about what you expect - is it reasonable?

Few parents enjoy being in the company of angry, frustrated, crying children. Think about what you can do differently.


South Australia

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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