About discipline

Discipline is helping your child learn how to behave – as well as how not to behave. It works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child.

Discipline doesn’t always – or even often – mean punishment. In fact, discipline and discipline strategies are positive. They’re built on talking and listening, and they guide children towards:

  • knowing what behaviour is appropriate, whether it’s at home, a friend’s house, child care, preschool or school
  • managing their own behaviour and developing important skills like the ability to get along well with others, now and as they get older
  • learning to understand, manage and express their feelings.
My parents used to send me to my room when I fought with my sister. I have used time out with my kids but I find that taking away a favourite toy or game reminds them to behave better.
– Mum of two school-age children

Choosing an approach to discipline

Choosing an approach to discipline is about finding the right balance.

Not enough discipline can leave children feeling insecure and parents feeling out of control. Too much harsh, negative discipline, and not enough praise and rewards, might get children behaving well, but out of fear. This can lead to problems with children’s self-esteem and anxiety later in life.

Discipline works best when it’s firm but fair. This means you set limits and consequences for your child’s behaviour, while also encouraging good behaviour with praise, rewards and other strategies.

Your approach to discipline will also depend on things like your parenting style, your child’s stage of development and your child’s temperament.

Physical punishment – for example, smacking – doesn’t teach children how to behave. When parents use physical punishment, children are more likely to have challenging behaviour, anxiety or depression. There’s also a risk that smacking might hurt your child.

Discipline at different ages

The ways that you can use discipline will change as your child grows and develops.

Under the age of one year, babies don’t really understand right from wrong, and don’t do things to be ‘naughty’.

A lot of your baby’s behaviour is about testing out what he can do and what happens when he does things. So when your baby pulls your hair, you might say ‘no’ and show him to touch your hair gently. You’ll probably need to do this over and over again because your baby might not remember from one time to the next.

Punishing or using negative consequences for babies doesn’t work, because they don’t understand what they’ve done. They need warm, loving care so they feel secure.

Our Baby Cues video guide helps you to work out what your baby is trying to tell you through her behaviour and body language.

From around the age of one year, toddlers start to understand a bit more about cause and effect. Your toddler might sometimes do something to get a reaction – for example, throwing food or having a tantrum.

Our Toddlers Behaviour Toolkit takes you through different discipline strategies you can use with your toddler.

From the age of three years, most preschoolers have a good understanding of what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. Preschoolers often also start spending more time away from home (at preschool, kinder, child care and playgroup), so they get more chances to test out acceptable social behaviour.

Our Preschoolers Behaviour Toolkit has information on tailoring discipline strategies to your preschooler’s behaviour.

School-age children
School-age children might know how to behave in different places – for example, school, home or the library. But they still need you to remind them of the limits and reward them for good behaviour.

Our School-age Behaviour Toolkit takes you through ways to use discipline with your school-age child.

In Australia, most teachers have positive strategies for managing challenging behaviour in the classroom and playground. If you’re worried about your child’s behaviour, talking with your child’s teacher is a great first step.

Discipline: setting behaviour expectations

Setting expectations for your child’s behaviour lays the groundwork for your approach to discipline. Here’s how to get started.

1. Decide on family rules
A good place to start is with 4-5 family rules. For example, your family rules might be things like:

  • We speak nicely to each other.
  • We look after other people.
  • Everyone helps out around the house.
  • We look after our own belongings.

When children are school age and above, you can involve them in helping to decide on some of these rules.

2. Teach your child what behaviour is expected
Children learn by watching what you do. Showing your child the behaviour you like by doing it yourself will help your child learn. For example, if you want your child to sit down to eat, sitting down together to eat family meals can help children learn this behaviour.

3. Praise your child for good behaviour
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about him or his behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, he’s likely to want to keep behaving well.

Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you like. It’s best for encouraging good behaviour. For example, ‘Ari, I really like how you used please and thank you just then. Great manners!’

4. Set clear limits and consequences
Decide on a consequence for breaking a family rule. For example, you might withhold pocket money from an eight-year-old if she hasn’t done her household chores. But if she hits her brother, time-out is a better consequence.

When you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect.