By Dr Benjamin Spock updated by Dr Robert Needlman
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Mum and toddler interacting in backyard
The true goal of discipline is to teach children the rules of behaviour – they need to learn what society and other people expect of their behaviour. This will help them grow up to be socially productive and personally fulfilled individuals.

When most people use the word ‘discipline’, what they really mean is ‘punishment’. Sometimes they’re even referring to ‘physical punishment’. Physical punishment is ineffective and harmful to children and parents. While providing negative consequences is part of discipline – hopefully a small part – it’s not the whole story.

Discipline comes from the word ‘disciple’. It really means ‘to teach’.

Preserving your child’s sense of self-worth

Of course, you could create a harsh system of controls and punishments – like a good little robot, your child would behave perfectly a lot of the time. But what would be the effect on your child’s spirit, on his sense of self-worth, on his personal happiness, or on his feelings toward others?

On the other hand, you can imagine a child whose every whim is indulged, and whose every action, good or bad, is praised. Such a child might have a certain measure of happiness, but most people wouldn’t want to spend much time with her.

Video Encouraging good behaviour

This video demonstration features tips on encouraging good behaviour in children, including strategies to avoid tantrums, whining and hitting. Children learn a lot from watching their parents' reactions and behaviour. Praise and encouragement are also important. The video highlights the importance of clear communication and connection with your child.
Your delicate task is to teach your children the how and the why of acceptable behaviour, but never at the expense of their sense of self-worth and optimism.

Strict or casual discipline?

This looms as a big question for many new parents, although most find their own balance in a little while. For a few parents it remains a tricky question, no matter how much experience they’ve had.

Another word used for casual discipline is ‘permissiveness’. This means different things to different people – to some it means an easygoing, casual style of management, but to others it means letting their child do or have anything she wants, which is likely to produce an obnoxious, spoiled, rude child.

But parents who aren’t afraid to be firm when it’s needed can get good results with either moderate strictness or moderate casualness. The real issue is what spirit you put into managing your child, and what attitude is instilled in the child as a result.


Expecting reasonable behaviour from children means parents need to be kind, moderately strict, flexible, and have consistent expectations.

Strictness is fine as long as the parents are basically kind, and as long as the children are growing up happy and friendly. But strictness is harmful when parents are overbearing, harsh, and chronically disapproving or when they make no allowances for a child’s age and individuality. This kind of severity can produce children who are either meek and colourless or mean-spirited.

Parents who have an easygoing style of management can also raise children who are considerate and cooperative. Such parents might be satisfied with casual manners as long as the child’s attitude is friendly. They might happen not to be particularly strict – for instance, about promptness or neatness. The key is that they’re not afraid to be firm about the matters that are important to them.

Permissiveness – angry parents, unhappy kids

When parents get unhappy results from too much permissiveness, it’s not so much because they demand too little, even though this is part of it. It’s more because they’re timid or guilty about what they ask, or because they’re unconsciously letting the child rule the roost.

If parents are too hesitant in asking for reasonable behaviour – because they’ve misunderstood theories of self-expression, because they’re self-sacrificing by nature, or because they’re afraid of making their children dislike them – they can’t help resenting the bad behaviour that comes instead. They keep getting angry underneath without really knowing what to do about it.

This bothers their children too. It can make them feel guilty and scared, but can also make them meaner and all the more demanding. For example, if a toddler gets a taste for staying up late and the parents are afraid to let him, the child might turn into a disagreeable tyrant who keeps his parents awake for hours – and his parents would start to dislike him for his tyranny.

If parents can learn to be firm and consistent in their expectations, it’s amazing how fast the children will sweeten up and the parents will, too.

Parents can’t feel right towards their children in the long run unless they can make them behave reasonably. Children can’t be happy unless they’re behaving reasonably.

Firm but friendly discipline

A child needs to feel that her mother and father, however agreeable, have their own rights. They know how to be firm and won’t let the child be unreasonable or rude. She likes them better that way. Their firmness trains her from the beginning to get along reasonably with other people.

Spoiled children aren’t happy creatures, even in their own homes. And when they get out into the world, whether it’s at age two or four or six, they’re in for a rude shock. They find that nobody is willing to bow down to them. They learn, in fact, that everybody dislikes them for their selfishness. Either they must go through life being unpopular, or they must learn the hard way how to be agreeable.

Conscientious parents often let a child take advantage of them for a while – until their patience is exhausted – and then turn on the child crossly. But neither of these stages is really necessary.

If parents have a healthy self-respect, they can stand up for themselves while they are still feeling friendly. For instance, if your daughter insists that you continue to play a game after you’re exhausted, don’t be afraid to say cheerfully but definitely, ‘I’m all tired out. I’m going to read a book now, and you can read your book, too’.

Or maybe a child is refusing to get out of the wagon or tricycle of another child who has to take it home now. Try to interest him in something else, but don’t feel that you must go on being sweetly reasonable forever. Lift him out of the wagon or tricycle even if he yells for a minute.

Video Smacking

The parents in this video understand that ‘children can drive you to the point where you feel like smacking them’. But these parents also say that smacking is never an effective form of discipline. It teaches children that hitting others is an acceptable way to get what you want. And it can negatively impact on children’s behaviour and emotional development.

Instead of physical punishment, these parents talk about how discipline should be about setting boundaries for children and sending clear messages about behaviour.