As parents, our short-term goal is to have our children listen to us and respect the rules and boundaries we set for our family. Yet our long-term goal is to raise children who truly understand why we created these rules and boundaries and develop an internal motivation to be kind and do the right thing. In other words, we want them to follow the rules because they care about being a nice, moral person, not just because they’re afraid of getting in trouble. In research, we talk about internalization. So how do we make sure we’re working towards that long-term goal? Could our short-term discipline strategies interfere with this long-term goal?
A recent study addressed this issue. The researchers found that when parents used specific discipline strategies, they were more likely to have children who showed early signs of internalizing the rules than parents who used different strategies.
What strategies helped the children internalize the rules?
- Logical consequences instead of punishments. Logical consequences are consequences related to the child’s actions, such as removing a toy your child threw at his sibling, ending mealtime because he plays with his food, making your child clean up a mess he has made or leaving the playground when they do not follow the rules. These types of consequences are more likely to result in children actually take responsibility for the problem they created and help children understand the importance of the broken rule.
- Practice “autonomy-supportive” parenting instead of “controlling” parenting. “Autonomy-sustainable” parenting includes acknowledging your child’s feelings about a rule or boundary, giving them some sort of choice or participation in decision-making about rules and boundaries, and providing the rationale for the rule or limit. Parental control often involves threats and punishments to get your child to behave or try to induce guilt or fear. Autonomy-supportive parenting helps children internalize rules, while controlling parenting makes children more likely to behave to please parents or stay out of trouble.
How is internalization going?
This study, along with previous research, finds that when children experience less anger and more empathy in response to their parents’ rule-making, they are more likely to find the rule or limit acceptable. Research suggests that the more children accept the rule or limit, the more likely they are to appreciate and internalize the values underlying the rule or limit. Research also suggests that anger in response to a parent’s discipline strategy may interfere with internalization, because it makes children think more about the unfairness of discipline than about the values their parents are trying to teach. Research finds that any parental discipline strategy that increases empathy is likely to enhance the internalizing process. Logical consequences and parenting that supports autonomy are effective because they help reduce anger and increase empathy in the context of setting rules or boundaries.
So how do parents apply this research?
- Gently remind your child of a rule or limit before using any type of discipline. For example, if your child is throwing sand in the playground, remind them “We will have to leave the playground if you keep throwing sand” before acting on this logical consequence.
- Acknowledge their feelings if they are unhappy with the boundary you set. It’s so important to remember that you can maintain the boundary while acknowledging that they might not like it. For example, “I know you don’t like being strapped into your car seat. It’s uncomfortable for you, but it’s the only safe way for us to get into the car.
- Use logical consequences instead of punishments when possible. Logical consequences are parent-created consequences that are tied to the behavior and make logical sense as a result of the behavior. For example, if your child hits his brother, you ask him to stop playing and get him an ice pack. If they make a mess, they should clean it up instead of watching a movie with the rest of the family. A punishment is a negative consequence that is usually unrelated to the behavior and intended to be aversive towards the child so that he or she does not repeat the difficult behavior. For example, taking away screen time when they hit their sibling or yelling at a child for making a mess. Research finds that logical consequences are more palatable to children, making them less likely to provoke anger and more likely to increase empathy.
- Give them a chance to make some type of choice or participate in decision making or problem solving in some way. If your child is having trouble with a limit or rule that you have set, give them the chance to make a choice. For example, you can say something like, “We have to leave the playground now, you can walk or jump to the car.”
- Explain the reason for the limit, focusing on the impact on others when possible. Explaining the reasoning (translation: giving them the reason for the rule rather than just saying “because I said so”) helps reduce children’s anger about the rule, which then increases their likelihood to internalize Rule. Additionally, focusing on the impact of the rule on others can help build empathy, which is also essential for internalization. For example, you can say something like, “We need to clean our toys or someone might trip over them and hurt themselves,” or “When you took that toy from your brother, it hurt his hands and interrupted his game.
- Avoid threats (“If you don’t clean your toys, I’ll throw them away”) or anything that’s meant to induce fear or guilt (“Why are you always so mean to your little brother?”). These approaches can be effective in the moment, but may seem to control children and increase anger, which ultimately reduces the chances of internalization.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, mother of three, and founder of Parent translatora non-profit newsletter that turns scientific research into accurate, relevant and useful information for parents.