The No. 1 Rule of Disciplining Children for Parents

Forget the yelling, coercing and bribery. A southeast Michigan child psychology expert and Growing Leaders CEO say to put your attention into consistent prevention, not punishment.

Your kid forgot to clean his room again. But hold on, mom and dad. You may want to hold off on yelling at him about it.

A new study from researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan found that yelling at kids can be just as damaging at hitting them.

According to an article from the Wall Street Journal, the study, published by Child Development Sept. 4, found that yelling caused an “increased risk of depression and aggressive behavior” – some of the same issues caused by hitting. The study specifically looked at families with children 13 and 14 years old.

“Disciplining” is really “parenting,” says Arthur L. Robin Ph.D., the director of psychology training at the DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.

With that in mind, he teaches parents “to always use a positive approach before a negative one” when it comes to teaching kids appropriate behavior. Parents should come up with expectations for their child’s behavior – and make sure that child is aware of them.

But part of understanding the expectations is praising kids when they’re doing well (like cleaning up something without being asked or being kind to a sibling) instead of only jumping in when kids are misbehaving.

A chart approach

Shannan Vester helps her youngsters visually understand her expectations of their behavior with a sticker chart. “At this age, my kids are too young to really understand what they’re supposed to do,” explains the Chesterfield mom, whose kids are 3, 2 and 1 – with one on the way. “When our kids do something good, (my husband and I) want to praise them to encourage them to do it more.”

Vester has a chart for each child with places for stickers in three categories – a happy face when they do something good, a sad face when they do something they shouldn’t have (which means they have to go to bed earlier), and mad face for times when they’ve misbehaved – and, as a consequence, miss out on fun activity that day.

The key is prevention

Vester says the approach is more about encouraging her kids to choose to be good, which is exactly where Robin says discipline begins – with prevention.

“If you looked at their charts, the happy faces spots are almost full,” notes Vester, who says that “sad” and “angry” faces are a rarity – but just the idea of getting one of these stickers is often enough for her kids to behave.

Vester is the first to point out that the sticker-chart approach isn’t right for everyone, but it’s been something that has worked well for her young family. “Parenting styles are different for every parent,” says Vester.

Fostering discipline daily

Along with praising good behavior, Dr. Tim Elmore, the founder/president of Growing Leaders, an international nonprofit dedicated to developing youth leaders, suggests that parents “keep the rules simple, few and understandable” and to be consistent when it comes to doling out punishments.

In other words, if you’re set on having your kids only play video games on the weekends while on school days it’s a no-no, every time your kids break the rules, the consequence needs to be the same. “As parents, we are most successful when we work to foster discipline every day,” says Elmore.

“Discipline isn’t just about reacting to a behavior, nor is it just about punishment – though there is a time for that in raising kids. I am referring to clearly expressing straightforward expectations that the child understands and is held accountable for.

“Simple things like making the bed each morning, taking out the trash on set days, etc. are a great way to create discipline without punishing.”

This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated for 2016.