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Effective discipline techniques for long term learning

Published: March 28, 2024

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What’s your go-to when your kids just won’t listen? If you’re like practically every other parent out there, you’ve likely resorted to yelling a threat or offering a bribe  — at least once or twice (but who’s counting?). Anything just to get the kids to comply, right? A few times here or there isn’t ideal (nothing is ever perfect in parenting!), but probably won’t ruin your kids. That said, there is a super easy adjustment to make that can also give your kids the opportunity to work on important life skills. By simply re-arranging some words, you can use effective discipline techniques to help them see the consequences of their decisions. And what a powerful lesson that is!

Newsflash: Kids don’t always listen to their parents!

Kids will test boundaries. In fact, kids need to test boundaries — it’s a vital part of their development!

When — not if — kids test boundaries it’s our choice as parents to decide how we want to handle it. When we’re at our best, we may be able to handle it with grace and wisdom. But life happens, and let’s face it: we’re not always at our best. That’s when we tend to reach for solutions that may get us what we want in the short term, but might not be the best choice in the long term. For example, threats and bribes may force our kids into compliance right now, but it certainly isn’t teaching them long term life skills. (They may also not work if we keep relying on them long term.) The good news is that it doesn’t take much time or energy to make small adjustments to use effective discipline techniques that have a big impact.

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Imagine the scene: It’s time to get ready for bed, but your kid just refuses to stop playing and put on pajamas. You’ve asked, cajoled, invited, and tried to make it fun. Nothing works. You’re at your wit’s end. You feel disrespected. How dare they not listen to you! And you’re tired. All you want is for your kid to listen to what you’re saying. What do you do?

Choice one: Yell threats at them

The aggressive side of you comes out and your voice starts to rise: “If you don’t stop playing, put your toys away, and get ready for bed I’m going to throw your toys in the trash and there won’t be any bed time story tonight. It’s time for bed, NOW!”

Break it down: A threat is a promise of punishment, and you’ve now just promised to throw away the toys and skip story. Promises not delivered become empty promises, and will quickly lose their power — threats included.

So first question is: Are you prepared to follow through on that? Unfortunately it’s somewhat lose, lose here. You’ve made a threat. Follow through and you just might actually get them to comply. But the win is short term. Their compliance will likely be out of fear, not because they’ve understood their responsibility. In the long term, you may realize that as soon as they no longer fear your threat, they no longer have any interest in complying with your demands and will start ignoring you. Don’t follow through and it won’t take long for your kid to learn that you don’t actually mean what you’re saying and they’ll ignore you. So now what?

Choice two: Bribe them

How about the “good cop” method: You say — no, almost beg — “C’mon, I’ll give you an extra story if you go put your pajamas on right now”

Break it down: A bribe is a promise of payment or reward in exchange for compliance. Again, here, a broken promise quickly teaches kids to ignore what their parent is saying.

If you fulfill the promise what are you teaching them? By relying on rewards to influence behavior, kids learn that they get rewards for some behaviors. But it teaches nothing about why those behaviors are desirable? And importantly, if desirable behaviors are rewarded, what happens when there’s no more reward? Yup, you guessed it! Kids quickly start ignoring requests for desirable behavior.

So what is it that you really want as a parent? If you want your kids to obey your commands in the short term, then threats or bribes might be exactly right for you. But if you’d rather they listen to what you’re saying as they learn to take responsibility for their decisions, and understand that their choices and behaviors have consequences, well then you can help lead them towards that!

Effective discipline techniques aim for long-term learning

Choice three: change a few words to make it into a teaching moment

With just a simple change in wording and approach, you can actually turn these moments into positive learning opportunities for your kid.

The first step may be the most difficult, but it’s really important. Try to speak calmly, in as normal a tone of voice as you can manage, without yelling. You want your words to shine through, not your affective state. It’s hard, so just do your best.

The second step is to calmly explain the direct consequences of your kid’s decisions.

  • The threat formula looks like this: if you don’t do X (behavior I want), I’m going to do Y (punishment).
  • The life skills learning substitute looks like this: If you do it like this (you make a certain decision), then that will happen (these will be the consequences).


In our bedtime example, it could be something like, “Lights need to be out in 15 minutes. If you spend all that time playing and goofing off, then we won’t have any time left for your bed time story and I know that will be disappointing for you!”

  • The bribe formula looks like this: I’ll give you X (reward), if you do Y (behavior I want).
  • The life skills learning substitute looks like this: “First this needs to happen (action), then we can do that (result).”


This is how it could look in our bedtime example:  “First we have put our toys away and get in pajamas in the next 5 minutes. Then when we’re done we can read a nice story together!”

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Notice the message is always the same: no bedtime story if you don’t get ready for bed right away. But the delivery is totally different: these are effective discipline techniques because they clearly lay out that the behavior choices kids make affects what happens — and they empower kids to make their own decisions. Eventually they’ll learn to recognize and anticipate the consequence of their decisions on their own. They’ll learn to negotiate and interact in society without needing threats or bribes to force them into certain behaviors. Now those are important life lessons to learn!

The final step is to follow through! Just like with empty threats and unfulfilled bribes, nothing teaches a kid to ignore a parent more quickly than when the parent doesn’t follow through.

Effective discipline methods don’t always show results right away: You’ll also need lots of patience.

Here’s the news that’s a little hard to hear: Unlike threats or bribes, this kind of learning doesn’t happen immediately. Your kid may not comply the first time. Or the second, or even the third. But as with so many things in parenting: this is about the long haul! Yes, it takes an enormous amount of patience to keep repeating the same important life lessons and setting the same healthy examples over and over again. It sure isn’t easy, but the rewards are astronomical.