Discipline Without Name Calling: What To Say When Enforcing Rules

Our interactions with children shape their view of themselves.   The words that we use when we need to teach acceptable behavior are just as important as the words we use when we are proud of our children.   We have learned a lot since the years of “children should be seen and not heard.”  We know that we need to teach children to seek positive attention and so we commit random acts of pride.  Parents today are willing to learn about making respect part of discipline methods.  The truth is that those actions are easy when compared to measuring your words when children are pushing boundaries and breaking rules.   

It is imperative that we use language that addresses the offending behavior without diminishing the child.  We need to speak simply, firmly and consistently.  We need to demonstrate that behavior can be addressed directly and calmly.  We need to simply say, “That is not allowed.”
“That is not allowed.”  The subject of that sentence is the action and not the child. 

A child tells another child that she is stupid.  An adult might say, “You are being mean” or “Be nice.”  The subject of those sentences is the child.  When the subject of the sentence is the child, the child personalizes and integrates that negativity.  It impacts his/her self-esteem, your relationship and your future communication.  Children will more like grow up to have an honest and open relationship with you if they don’t grow up feeling personally attacked when things go wrong.  Instead say, “That is not allowed.  The rule is that we have to be kind to other people.”   That statement is about the behavior.  The behavior wasn’t allowed.  That is a far more productive and instructive message than a personal attack.

“That is not allowed.”  It is simple.  It states the truth.  It works for all ages.

Your teenager needs to learn to speak with you without yelling at you but, once again, there has been a disagreement and he is emotional.  It is hard to stay calm and factual.  The best thing you can do is to diffuse the energy of the emotional situation by staying calm.  Calmly say, “That is not allowed.  The rule is that we speak respectfully in this house.” You have stated a fact and demonstrated the respect that you are trying to teach. 

“That is not allowed.”  It draws the boundary.  It is not debatable.   It often should apply to you, too.

Your child yells at you.  You yell back.  You, through your actions, have just taught your child that yelling is acceptable.  Children learn what they see and not what they hear.  We send silent messages to children all the time.  They are watching, noting, imitating and forming a world view based on their observations of the adults in their lives.  There are rules that are different for adults –we can drive, watch R rated movies and stay home alone.  We cannot be disrespectful while teaching respect.  We cannot be mean when teaching kindness. 

“That is not allowed.”   It cannot stand alone.

One sentence will not do it.  You need follow that sentence with the rationale and the expected behavior.  The reason that a behavior is not allowed should not be a mystery.   If you cannot come up with a good reason for a rule, then question the validity of the rule before you enforce it. 

Children need to know their boundaries.  They need to know what is acceptable, what is not and how far they can push before they have stepped over the lines that you have set for their behavior.  Calling them names – “you were mean,” “you are rude,” “you are being bad” – those “you” statements are not allowed.

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  1. I'm not comfortable with this. That makes me the judge and jury of what is and isn't allowed. And it doesn't help the child understand WHY he or she should obey the rule.

    We can talk with children about the kind of school we want. And decide, rather than have teacher-interpreted rules. So, "I can't let you do that" is sometimes appropriate, and "look at his face" sometimes is helpful, and "can you cross the room so nobody gets hurt?" is thought-provoking (compare with "no running" which is as foreign to a 3- or 4-year-old as it can be.

    We need to be in the present with the child, whose behavior expressed something she or he felt, and not be godlike in allowing and dis-allowing. If you're interested in this attitude, I have more at www.eceteacher.org

    1. I think an important early childhood lesson is socialization which includes coping with the real life microcosm of society. I absolutely do explain why something isn't permitted. Children need to learn that in the world, sometimes they can help set boundaries and other boundaries are pre-existing. Their school principal, board of education, government, future employers will have rules that they do not help form. In real life, they can participate in goal setting sometimes and can ask why other rules exist. They will not get to decide them all.


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