Sunday 26 May 2019

Naughty naughty: The discipline methods that work, and those that don’t

When it comes to disciplining your children, it's something that most parents find tough. Parenting coach Val Mullally talks to Andrea Mara about the methods that do and don't work

Putting a child on a time-out is not necessarily an effective way of discipline
Putting a child on a time-out is not necessarily an effective way of discipline

Andrea Mara

Val Mullally's discipline takeaways for parents:

1The toddler's brain is still under construction. Don't expect young children to think and act like mini-adults - they can't. (That's why they need parents!)

2When your child's behaviour is most challenging is when they probably most need your kindness and connection.

3Your toddler's behaviour is about her/ him. Your response is about you.

Val Mullally's book Behave: What to do When Your Child Won't ( is available on Amazon in paperback and in Kindle format.

That parenting is a steep learning curve is no secret - just ask any first-time mum in the throes of getting to know her newborn. But parenting methods are evolving too, and many of the customs we grew up with - the ones we learned from our own parents - are falling out of favour. Parenting coach Val Mullally ( explains why some parenting methods are less effective than others, and offers practical alternatives.

Making children say sorry

This is something most parents do - a child hurts a sibling and our first instinct is to insist he apologises - "Say sorry to your sister". But what does this really teach the child?

"When we insist the child says sorry as a condition, we're teaching them inauthenticity," says Mullally. "We're not helping them to learn to be true to themselves or to learn compassion. They're now saying sorry for some other reason - to get to play with a toy or to shut mum up!"

So are there other options? Mullally explains that we need raise the child's awareness of how the other person is feeling in this situation.

"First of all we need to calm the child down - if they're upset they won't be able to see the other perspective. When we've calmed them down, then we can interact with them about the incident." She suggests asking the child to look at how the other child is feeling. "It might be saying, 'Look at Susie, how's Susie looking? What could we do to make things better?' Then we can get the child to connect, and sorry will come from a genuine place. And in a young child, sorry might be in an action rather than a word - they might offer a toy or do something to make up. In other words, you're helping your child to learn empathy by observing."

Labelling children

Many of us grew up with the notion of 'bold boy' or 'bold girl', but today, more is known about the downsides of this. "When we start labelling our children we're giving a message to ourselves, to our children, and to other people," says Mullally. "When you label a child 'bold boy' you're saying that that's what's inside that child, and the child is then likely to live up to your expectations and act out."

So to use a concrete example, if a child draws on the wall, instead of saying "Bold boy", it's more helpful to calmly state the limit regarding that behaviour.

"You say 'The wall is not for writing on'," explains Mullally. "And especially by three- or four-years-old. You can be giving them choices such as, 'You can choose to draw on the paper or you can choose that the crayons will be put away.' You can set a boundary without having to shame the child."

Bribing children

Giving a child a sweet for eating her dinner or promising a toy if she behaves in the supermarket - it can be irresistible in the heat of the moment, but counterproductive in the long term. "It's teaching them from a young age to manipulate; to push for what you want without being really engaged in cooperation," Mullally points out. "And where's it going to end? If you're bribing with a sweet now and a toy when he's six - what are you going to be bribing him with by the time he's doing his Leaving Cert?"

As parents know, there are times when bribery feels like the only option - are there ways to avoid this?

"Be aware of giving enough time to be able to take things at a pace that meets the child's needs," advises Mullally. "Which means maybe doing more the night before to be organised. Very often when we end up giving out to the child, it's because we're frustrated with ourselves."

It's also important to help children learn that cooperation is part of family life, as opposed to something they do in order to win a material reward, says Mullally. "Develop a mindset of 'We do things together, we help together'. When your toddler is looking to help to unpack the groceries, nurture that help, and the idea of 'we cooperate' is likely to flow on into later years."


Putting a child on time-out or on the naughty step is a very popular means of disciplining children, but are there downsides? Val Mullally thinks so.

"If you think about a young wild animal - if the mother disappears, the baby animal is probably going to die. When we abandon our children by putting them in the chair or whatever; to be disconnected from the parent is hugely threatening. It's going to churn up high levels of anxiety - the child is not going to remember the learnings, all they're going to remember is the anxiety. If we want our children to learn from a situation, we need to do it by connection, not by disconnection."

Mullally suggests alternatives. "When you're dealing with a toddler, try to see things through his eyes - use creativity to see when and how to develop opportunities for cooperation. Very often bringing in a bit of humour and a bit of fun will change the whole dynamic of a situation, instead of us getting wound up." She gives an example. "Your child doesn't want to go upstairs and brush his teeth - try saying, 'Let's see who gets up the stairs first!' All of a sudden, instead of getting into a power struggle, you change it into a light, fun interaction between you."

Making children share

Playdates up and down the country are filled with well-meaning parents begging children to share their toys. But as Mullally explains, this doesn't mirror real life.

"Even as adults we don't share everything - whether it's your iPhone or your diamond ring - you don't just give it away to anyone. We need to realise that an old teddy might be just as precious in the child's eyes as your diamond ring or iPhone. We have some rather strange idea that children should share everything though it's not part of how we do life generally."

So how do you get around the issue when friends are visiting?

"Try saying, 'Do you want to put some of your special toys away and leave them until later if you don't want to play with them with other children?' Try to have a variety of things to play with, and the great thing with toddlers is that you can easily divert. Taking action to prevent a conflict is more helpful than trying to deal with it afterwards."

Ultimately, in all of this, there's one common theme - are we trying to raise compliant children or are we trying to raise competent children?

Mullally elaborates. "How we parent in the first few years is hugely important because we're setting up a model of how we interact with people. If you raise your child to always listen and do what he's told with you, you're actually teaching him to ignore himself and what he needs, and go along with whatever the other person wants. When he gets into teenage years, often peers become more important than parents. If you've taught him to always go along with the other person, you run the risk that your child is going to be compliant and go along with other people's agendas. We need to help our children be socially and emotionally competent - to know how to remain true to themselves as well as being able to cooperate with others."

Irish Independent

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