Synergistic Parenting

What is Discipline? How?


Parenting home



Cause-effect discipline

Drugs, Sex

Whose problem is it?


Explore alternatives

Sibling teams

Share values



























Inner or external?
Synergistic parenting's goal is discipline that develops and grows within the child, while less comes from the parent or caretaker. Discipline is most effective the less you must impose it and the more the child grows in being aware of the need to exercise the child's own inner discipline.

When discipline is discussed by parents, some think of punishment. Punishment is directed toward the child, done by the parent. Punishment is negative, and psychologists and other scientists in careful studies find that negative discipline or punishment often fails. Discipline that is positive and supportive is far more effective.

In parenting groups I ask those who were punished physically if they will raise their hands, and generally some do. I then ask if any feel free to talk about it. Usually a few are, and among many comments two reactions are most frequent.

  • These adults, looking back into their childhoods, say that it damaged their feeling about their parents; that their trust and love were not the same afterwards.
  • Many say that they continued doing the punished behavior, but were much more careful to hide it.

How much do you want your children to hide behavior and to be secretive? How much do you want to strengthen their feelings of trust and affection, and to build a growing relationship with each child?

The carrot is better than the stick, though it may take longer and require thinking and planning, and it saves tempers.

Why you use these tools
As you practice these skills of discipline, remember that they will work effectively as you practice them as an expression of your love for your child. These are not gimmicks, but are tools that you can develop and fine-tune to express your love for your child and strengthen your child’s trust of parents.

Perhaps the best summary of your attitude and outlook that you try to express with discipline is what my Dad called the three A’s: acceptance, appreciation, affection. I add a fourth: affirming each child. Think about each of these A's in terms of how you can express each "A" with each child.

Positive discipline
Here think with me about the foundations for practicing discipline. Later in this section I will explain several techniques. In another page you may explore the one most effective way to discipline — cause and effect. The word discipline like the word disciple refers to learning and growing. In music and science, for example, some are called disciples of masters in those arts and sciences. With children discipline as opposed to punishment can grow within each child, and be something you impose less as the child matures.What I like to call cause-effect discipline is effective in leading children to learn discipline within themselves that does not depend on who is watching.

Some parents think of discipline or punishment as forgiveness and penance, which puts the parent in control, but does not develop the child's own inner discipline. Do you want your child to grow in being responsible, and to see a parent as one who lovingly and patiently led them, and continues to be available for counsel and advice — and perhaps forgiveness?

Discipline to be most effective comes after you practice your own disciplines such as careful listening and decoding to seek the feelings in your child’s personal communication, using I-messages to communicate your own feelings in personal and business communication and seek a more personal response from the child, and exploring alternatives that leads your child to take initiative in thinking about and making choices. And all of these are expressions of your unconditional love for each child in that child's uniqueness.

Deed and doer
Separating the child's deed from the doer is hard, except when we think about our own actions. Thinking of your children, ponder the vast contrast between saying, "You did" and "You are." The child can often easily admit to doing certain deeds, since the evidence is there or the child was seen doing it. But to say that the child is bad or evil is a direct insult and cuts against love and trust. Reflect on yourself, and how the best and most positive managers or supervisors have talked with you when you made mistakes or errors – even costly ones. Probably they dealt with what you did, and explored what you learned by the experience.

Sometimes we will automatically say, "You bad boy", or "You nasty girl." As soon as we realize what we said, we can apologize and with a hug indicate this is not our usual view. We might even relate it to when they have said similar things to playmates or others, but did not really mean it.

Setting Limits
Both parents and children have a stake in setting and enforcing limits. If parents set limits, then children may be skeptical or hostile to what they may consider arbitrary limits on their exploring and roaming. If parents bring children into the limits setting, and secure their cooperation, those limits will be better accepted and supported. When a child is only beginning to understand and reason, support and encourage it by sharing your concerns — concerns and cares but not fears. Children eager to explore need channeling of their energy. Setting of limits must not be arbitrary, but direct the child's actions as you secure the maximum cooperation of the child, and to recognize why you are concerned. As the child's language skills increase, you can increasingly bring them into discussion that leads to setting limits.

Enforcing limits when children are very young is more of a parental act, but again as children grow in their ability to reason, use imagination and creativity as you use varieties of discipline with children. The yes-no game is an example of creating ways for younger children to accept limits. Children generally want to please parents as part of their dependence on parents for survival, and we can use that urge in children to involve them in enforcing limits, using games and interactions as much as possible.

Parents on occasion must be firm, especially in emergency or serious situations. If being firm is infrequent, that firmness will be listened to and noticed and probably followed. Involving the child often interactively in limits and decisions will contrast to the times when parents are firm.

A difficult limit setting is when teens start dating and driving. When our daughter needed deadlines for when she would be home, I negotiated with her, starting with questions about why we as parents wanted her home earlier rather than later. She offered several reasons, and I added others. Together we set limits on how late she would be out. Because she was part of making the decision — a "stakeholder" in the decision — she was more likely to cooperate. One night on returning home from a date, she talked about an erratic driver they had seen that reminded her of the dangers of drunk drivers, and, she added, that there are more the later in the night.

Enforcing limits on teens works best the more we involve them in decisions. Since we both worked, often neither of us stayed up for her arrival, and she told us in the morning when she arrived. Often when our daughter was late, there was laughter as she described unusual events. I think this approach is far superior to the parents who stay up to be sure the limits they set are followed, and having their teens want later limits on certain nights, and deciding how to deal with being late a few minutes or quarter-hour.

Teens may test parents, depending on the teens own motivation and creativity. They sometimes work with peers to push limits. Here is an example:


This may seem extreme, especially having arranged for a car for the trip, but teens may want to arrange trips at spring break, for out of town athletic events, plays, competitions, concerts, and other times. How do we respond to this request within the framework of involving teens in decision-making and limits-setting? Do we know the other ones, and does being in a group make us feel they are safer? Think through how to handle this situation. List as many alternative responses as you can and evaluate why they may be more or less effective for your individual child.

Playful discipline
Discipline can be playful almost as often as we think to try it. An example that is useful with younger siblings is called "marble mania." Begin with a clear bottle in plain view. Every time any of the siblings do desirable behavior, a marble goes in the bottle. When it reaches a certain level, the same reward is given to each sibling. Thus each sibling is motivated to contribute, and all receive the reward equally. Parents who tried it warned that adventurous children may climb up to add marbles to the jar! So make it unreachable, and make the time frame short enough to keep the attention and interest of the youngest. A book in the resources has many ways to have playful discipline.

Spanking and other corporal punishment deserve special information. I have four problems with spanking and similar physical punishment:

  • it and other forms of negative discipline do not work as well as positive re-enforcement — re-enforcing behavior you want;
  • it is violence by bigger people against weaker ones, which teaches all the wrong lessons;
  • the parent does it without any serious attempt to help the child learn inner discipline, and
  • these damage love and trust in children.

For a thorough study of spanking see the book, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families by Murray A. Straus. Recent research reported in a medical journal finds that corporal punishment actually increases unwanted behavior.

Time-out, grounding
Two frequent forms of discipline are time-out and grounding. I do not recommend either, because they tend to be imposed by parents, and are a shotgun approach – one way to deal with all problems. Next time you see either used, listen for hints of anger in the parent. How do they build inner discipline in the child?

However, they can be effective if used occasionally. Time-out can be effective, for example, at meal times. It can be most effective if these few rules are followed:

  • explain your rules for it carefully, and when you use it, walk the child through those rules, recalling them;
  • the time-out location must be planned ahead; it needs to be where she cannot provoke the others, yet able to hear that the rest of the family is going on enjoying themselves, and have no toys to play with;
  • warn the child once to stop a specific, named behavior, or he will have time-out;
  • one parent determines how long it will last; the time should be short enough for the child to be invited to return and demonstrate improved behavior.

Grounding always reminds me of a mother in one of my groups, who joined our study because her grounding of her son now added up to months. She said there had to be a better way. Think of grounding as house arrest, and reflect on how frustrating that is. What does it teach the child; what does the child learn? Does it increase the anger or resentment behind the problem behavior? Think of it as a very short-term emergency tactic to give you time to think of a better way.

An effective form of discipline that requires creative thinking is reframing. This means you set a different frame of reference or way of looking at a situation. A teen daughter who was baby sitting with a stubborn boy used reframing. When it was time to go to bed, as instructed by the parents, he refused, and continued playing. She commented that he was overweight, and looked like he was probably the slowest boy in his class; she bet that he could not get to the tub and take a bath and get on his bed clothes in ten minutes. It was a dare he could not refuse. She reframed going to bed into a challenge, a game.

My "yes-no" game is a form of reframing. When our daughter was in the "automatic-no" stage, I made a request, to which she said no. I repeated the same request quickly a few more times, then reversed the request, so her automatic no was really yes. That triggered laughter, and doing what she was asked. An example: "Come to supper" was reframed into "Skip supper." The game quickly became cut-throat, and I did not always win. But we usually both laughed. The automatic no is reframed into a game and often into a "yes." Her hostile "no" is also self-affirming, declaring independence! The shift challenges; laughter heals!

"Clean up your room!"
Some parents ask how to make children keep their rooms clear. Take the time to think through such questions as, Why should children's rooms be any cleaner than they are comfortable with? Why not let children have their rooms as their's? Why do I want their rooms clear? How clear do their rooms need to be for them to study, play, and invite their friends in?

Some parents decide to let their children's rooms alone, but insist that the children's clothes and games not clutter the rest of the house. With younger children one tactic, if children leave things outside their rooms at bedtime, and they do not respond to requests to get them, parents put them out of reach – visibly – for a while. Requests for those things leads to conversation about why they are up there — an example of "logical" cause-effect discipline.

To learn more about discipline, click on Resources, and look into most of those listed. Check the chapter headings and the index at the back for what we have explored here. Many of these resources have further explanations and discussion and give examples of practicing the skills discussed.

Time alone with
Perhaps the most important parenting you can do is to spend time with each child, doing what that child wants to do, more than once a month. If pre-school, your child may want to play games or have you read. If the child is a teen, you may spend hours going to a movie the teen wants to see with you, followed by talking together while eating or walking. Do whatever your child suggests as you focus on that child.

Some books and speakers warn that parents and friends are two different qualities and roles, and that parents should never be friends. I think the more you get to know each child in their uniqueness, and interact with that child, you are becoming an understanding and appreciative friend.

Many parents in my groups reported that this one-with-one time was extremely valuable.

Focus entirely on this child of yours, deepening your bonding to each other regularly from the active child to the sometimes overly quiet teen.



Murray A. Straus, PhD; David B. Sugarman, PhD; and Jean Giles-Sims, PhD reported in the August 1997 issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine their study designed to deal with the causal relationship between corporal punishment and antisocial behavior (ASB) — whether one causes the other.

The method of their study: Data from interviews with a national sample of 807 mothers of children aged 6 to 9 years in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-Child Supplement. Analysis of variance was used to test the hypothesis that when parents use corporal punishment to correct ASB, it increases subsequent ASB. The analysis controlled for the level of ASB at the start of the study, family socioeconomic status, sex of the child, and the extent to which the home provided emotional support and cognitive stimulation. Results: Forty-four percent of the mothers reported spanking their children during the week prior to the study and they spanked them an average of 2.1 times that week. The more spanking at the start of the period, the higher the level of ASB 2 years later. The change is unlikely to be owing to the child's tendency toward ASB or to confounding with demographic characteristics or with parental deficiency in other key aspects of socialization because those variables were statistically controlled.

Conclusions: When parents use corporal punishment to reduce ASB, the long term effect tends to be the opposite. The findings suggest that if parents replace corporal punishment by nonviolent modes of discipline, it could reduce the risk of ASB among children and reduce the level of violence in American society. (Volume 151 Pages 761-767)

Will you share your comments or concerns


Copyright © 2002 John F. Yeaman


Locations of visitors to this page