Discipline—Why Parents Must Be Leaders in the Family

Parents desire education on behavior and developmental topics, so discipline is a natural topic for many well child visits. Pediatricians should be able to articulate a philosophy of parenting, along with specific teaching tools that will encourage parents to be the leaders and teachers in their families.


Discipline is often viewed negatively in our society and may be equated with harsh punishment. This is unfortunate because discipline actually comes from the Greek word “to disciple” and is defined as “training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.”

The fundamental goal of parenting should be to teach children character traits such as self-control, teachability, respectfulness, integrity, honesty, and competency. These traits do not come naturally to the infant, toddler, or preschooler. Instead they are acquired through the disciplinary process and provide children with tools to eventually live as successful, responsible, and independent adults. Self-disciplined children even do better in school, so it is important to encourage parents to take on the difficult task of disciplining their children and then reap the rewards of effective parenting. (1)


  • Parents often turn to their pediatricians and other health care professionals for parenting advice, including information on appropriate discipline techniques. During counseling, there are some basic principles that should always be considered. Because children are inherently capable of making bad choices and are usually self-centered, parents should expect children to misbehave to varying degrees. As child psychologist John Rosemond says, “No matter how good a parent you are, your child is still capable, on any given day, of doing something despicable, disgusting, and depraved.”(2) Appropriate discipline depends on the child’s developmental stage and temperament and assumes a loving, nurturing relationship between parent and child.
  • Parents should balance setting limits with demonstrations of love. Every child needs daily expressions of love and affection. Overly harsh or inconsistent discipline has been associated with childhood mental health concerns.(3)
  • Parents should be the leaders in the home. Children will learn from parental leadership how to function in society. Parents should never take on a battle they cannot win. Otherwise, the child will view their leadership will as weak. Natural functions such as feeding, sleeping, and toileting should never become argumentative “battles.” There are other approaches that are more useful in these situations.
  • Parents should accept the fact that, in the process of discipline, there will be some degree of conflict between them and their child. This naturally occurs when wise counsel meets with selfish desires. Parents must remember their ultimate goal is the development of the child’s heart and character traits, not merely his or her actions.
  • Physical and verbal abuse are never acceptable. Extremes of parenting—overly permissive or overly rigid—are counterproductive and should also be avoided. Parents should regularly review their approach to discipline with all of the children’s caretakers to ensure consistency.
  • Parents should be proactive, not reactive, in their discipline. Tell children in advance what behaviors are expected and what the consequences will be for disobedience. Parents should avoid idle threats, bribery, and yelling (which teach children to ignore or disrespect parental leadership).


Number of Families In Study

In the 1960s, Dr. Diana Baumrind studied more than 100 preschool children and their parents. She identified four dimensions of parenting: disciplinary strategies, warmth and nurture, communication styles, and expectations of maturity and control. Based on these factors, Dr. Baumrind described three basic styles of parenting—authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative.(4) (Other researchers have added a category for uninvolved parents—these parents are detached and may neglect to meet their children’s basic needs.)


The authoritarian parent is in charge, keeping the child safe and protected by making most of the decisions that affect the family and providing strict rules for life. The authoritarian parent may fail to explain the reasons for the rules. This parent has high expectations for the child and may focus more on “obedience” than character. During adolescence, the authoritarian parent is overly controlling of the adolescent’s life and may not allow the teen to take on age-appropriate decision making. Children raised by authoritarian parents may be obedient but may not be as happy and may have lower self-esteem.


Permissive parents are overly indulgent as they make few demands of their children. Permissive parents allow excessive freedom with few restrictions and often believe that the child’s misbehavior cannot be helped. They view rules as unnecessary because they inhibit the child’s growth and development. Permissive parents have low expectations of children and are lenient in their approach to discipline. Permissive parents may have a difficult time providing their children with consistent limits and interact as their child’s friend rather than as the parent. These parents are usually nurturing and communicate well with their children. Children raised by permissive parents often lack self-control and may perform poorly in school. They tend to be less satisfied later in life.


Authoritative parents (mentoring/affirmative) provide rules and guidelines for their children just as authoritarian parents. However, authoritative parents are more demanding yet also more responsive to their children, allow questions, and tend to be more nurturing and forgiving.(5) Authoritative parents fairly establish basic rules for behavior and consistently enforce them. Rationale for rules is provided. These parents set clear guidelines with consequences for misbehavior. This teaches children they are responsible for their own behaviors. Authoritative parents focus on relationships, competent instruction, and supporting eventual autonomy in their children. Children are allowed to express their feelings and their emotions are validated. Many studies have shown that children, teens, and college students raised by authoritative parents are more likely to achieve higher levels of academic success because they are achievement-oriented and more motivated.

Most parents are strongly influenced by their own upbringing including ethnic and religious practices, but will also develop their own distinctive styles of teaching their children. The descriptions of authoritarian and permissive parents are meant to show the extremes of the spectrum. Studies demonstrate that children raised by affirmative/authoritative parents have the best life outcomes with higher levels of academic success. But a child will usually thrive with almost any combination of parenting styles as long as there is consistency and the child feels loved and valued.(5)

In America today, some parents think they should be their children’s friend, rather than assuming the leadership role in the family. The health care provider should teach parents the importance of providing leadership and structure, and the conversations below will be of assistance.



This timing of the conversation is dependent on the age of the child. Ideally, this could become part of a yearly discussion with parents, 

This conversation involves the parents of the child.

For infants and toddlers, beginning at 9 months of age

In order to have a meaningful discussion of discipline, the pediatrician must understand the parents’ philosophy of parenting/discipline, but has very little time to delve into this emotionally charged topic. One way to quickly assess the parents’ philosophy is to ask a developmentally appropriate question that assists in developmental screening such as, “Is your child starting to understand some of what you say to him?”

Parents often acknowledge this and give the example of, “I told him ‘no’ and he looked at me funny.” If parents say something like this, it is evident that they are willing to use the word “no.” If the parents don’t give that as an example, then specifically ask, “Does your child seem to understand ‘no’?” If parents acknowledge they have used the word, then the conversation regarding how to teach the concept of “no” can continue. If the parents say that they do not wish to use the word “no,” their concerns about this can be addressed in more detail.

For parents who are willing to use the word “no,” their approach can be encouraged. Several developmental changes are occurring now, indicating it is the right time to start teaching your baby about correct behavior. Your baby is beginning to develop her own identity as she displays her independence by crawling or moving away from you. She learns by exploring her environment and checking out every corner of the home. She is also starting to understand your directives, and can begin to understand the concept of “no” or “stop.”

For parents who do not want to use the word “no,” they may rethink their approach with the following information. Parents are often concerned about using the word “no.” They fear it will be one of the first words their child says back to them. They also worry that they will be stifling or inhibiting their child’s creativity or development. We understand these concerns, but want to reassure you that it is very important for a child to understand there are limitations to their behaviors.

Having this concept of “no” actually helps his development. (This approach will appeal to many parents who would not otherwise be interested in the topic of discipline.) During the second year of life, your child will strive to develop more independence as he realizes that he is a different person from you. The best way he can show you that he thinks differently and wants to act differently from you is for him to say “no.”

Hearing the word “no” helps her learn what behavior is unacceptable. You may choose another word(s) such as “stop” or “don’t touch,” but the concept of “no” is implied. There is no way to tell your toddler to stop touching something dangerous without having the concept of no.

Hearing the word “no” actually enhances your child’s ability to problem solve and be creative. If your child is told, “No, don’t touch the hot stove,” then your child will start thinking, “If I can’t touch the stove, what else can I do for fun?” This allows your child to begin to think creatively and problem solve.

Hearing the word “no” will help keep your child safe. Most parents realize they use the word “no” at this age mainly to protect their children from danger.

Hearing the word “no” will help your child recognize your leadership as parent. Your child needs to respect and submit to your leadership and authority over him in your home. Once this concept is grasped, he will later respect his teacher at school and his boss at work.

For preschoolers

There are additional benefits to learning the concept of “no” now that your child is older. Many parents think it is their responsibility to make and keep their children happy. Their goal is to maintain their children’s smiles and avoid disappointment and frustration at all costs. If you as a parent take this approach, what are you teaching your child?

You are most likely teaching your child to: Expect immediate gratification; Expect to be entertained; Expect rewards without work; Avoid difficult situations and hard work; or Blame personal failures on someone else. However, most parents would say they want their children to develop personal characteristics such as perseverance, patience, diligence, and self-reliance.

Children can only develop those traits when they have parents who feel comfortable denying them their every desire and saying “no.” When you set limits on your child’s behavior and enforce those limits, you are helping him learn to respect authority and accept disappointment, handle frustration, and begin to think creatively about acceptable alternatives. These are important skills that will help him become more successful in his relationships with others as well as in his life’s work. Children are also beginning to learn morality/ethics. What is appropriate behavior versus wrong behavior and why? Therefore, this is an important time to teach children your values.

For elementary-aged children

Parents should be encouraged to continue to be involved, monitor, and set limits for their children. Here are some reasons why:

  • Children of this age are developing their ability to process information in a more mature manner. They can recognize similarities and differences in objects and situations, so they begin classifying information. Children also need to learn how to classify their behavior and actions. “Is it right or wrong to lie?” “Am I rewarded or punished if I turn in my homework on time?”
  • Children are also developing their sense of self-esteem or confidence. Self-esteem is the way we view ourselves—our competencies and our accomplishments. Self-esteem must be based on reality. Children quickly recognize “false” praise—if they are praised when they have not worked hard to accomplish a task. Unwarranted praise may actually discourage or demoralize a child from attempting to learn something new.(6)
  • Children who have learned to accept a challenge, work hard, and persevere are more likely to develop a sense of self-confidence. The “stress” experienced when tackling difficult situations can be positive and help children realize their competence. Setting limits on your child’s behavior ultimately helps your child develop characteristics such as perseverance that will allow your child to accomplish more and feel a better sense of competency.

If you have been setting limits with your child, as well as affirming right behavior, your investment will help you navigate the adolescent years a little more smoothly. You can expect all teens to occasionally question their parents’ authority and rules, but wise parents will determine which rules are most important and which rules can be relaxed as the teen demonstrates more maturity.

Pre-Teens and Teens

Teens definitely need you to set limits for them, for many of the same reasons as toddlers. Teens need you to set limits to keep them safe. Just as you would not let your toddler cross a dangerous street by herself, so you should not allow your teen to attend an unsupervised party where she could participate in dangerous activities. Adolescents need your monitoring, teaching, and instruction to help them safely navigate the teen years. However, as your teen demonstrates maturity and responsibility, your role will change.

In early adolescence, while your teen needs you to continue to set limits, you can now engage him in discussions. What rules are appropriate, and what are the consequences for broken rules? What are appropriate expectations for behavior and chores? Allowing your teen to participate in establishing the rules may help her take responsibility to follow them.

Teens need your guidance to know your values. Teens do better when parents convey their expectations and convictions. One study from Columbia University’s Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse found teens much less likely to experiment with marijuana if their parents expressed their disapproval.

Remember, the adolescent brain is “under construction” and the prefrontal cortex, which is the CEO of the brain (helping with decision making, strategizing, and planning), is not yet mature. So, adolescents are unable to consistently make mature decisions and need your help and guidance.


  1. Duckworth AL, Seligman MEP. Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychol Sci. 2005:15:939-944.
  2. Rosemond J. The Well-Behaved ChildDiscipline That Really Works. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009:3. https://www.amazon.com/Well-Behaved-Child-Discipline-Really-Works/dp/0849947154/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696098&sr=1-1&keywords=the+well+behaved+child+john+rosemond
  3. Bayer JK, et al. Risk factors for childhood mental health symptoms: national longitudinal study of Australian children. Pediatrics. 2011:128:3865-3879.
  4. Turner EA, Chandler M, Heffer RW. The influence of parenting styles, achievement motivation, and self-efficacy on academic performance in college students. J Coll Stud Dev. 2009; 50:337.
  5. Baumrind D. Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs. 1967; 75(1):43-88.
  6. Owen DJ, Slep AM, Heyman, RE. The effect of praise, positive nonverbal response, reprimand, and negative nonverbal response on child compliance: a systematic review. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2012:15:365-385.


  1. American College of Pediatricians (ACP) position statement, “The Teenage Brain: Under Construction,” http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/the-teenage-brain-under-construction
  2. American College of Pediatricians position statement, “Discipline of the Child,” http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/discipline-of-the-child
  3. American College of Pediatricians handout, “Childhood Tantrums & Whining,” http://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Childhood-tantrums-and-whining1-1.pdf
  4. American College of Pediatricians, “Guidelines for Disciplinary Spanking,” https://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Disciplinary-Spanking1.pdf
  5. Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline, https://www.amazon.com/Parenting-Love-Logic-Updated-Expanded/dp/1576839540
  6. The New Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson, https://www.amazon.com/New-Strong-Willed-Child-James-Dobson/dp/141439134X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696288&sr=1-1&keywords=the+new+strong+willed+child+james+dobson
  7. The New Dare to Discipline by James Dobson, https://www.amazon.com/New-Dare-Discipline-James-Dobson/dp/1414391358/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696321&sr=1-1&keywords=the+new+dare+to+discipline+by+james+dobson
  8. Have a New Kid by FridayHow to Change Your Child’s Attitude, Behavior and Character in 5 Days by Kevin Leman, https://www.amazon.com/Dr-Kevin-Leman-Attitude-Character/dp/B00HTJY7RM/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696353&sr=1-1&keywords=1.%09Have+a+New+Kid+by+Friday%E2%80%94How+to+Change+Your+Child%E2%80%99s+Attitude%2C+Behavior+and+Character+in+5+Days+by+Kevin+Leman
  9. Setting Limits by Robert J. MacKenzie, https://www.amazon.com/Setting-Limits-Responsible-Independent-Boundaries/dp/0761512128/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696389&sr=1-2&keywords=Setting+Limits+by+Robert+J.+MacKenzie
  10. One, Two, Three Magic by Thomas Phelan, https://www.amazon.com/1-2-3-Magic-Discipline-Effective-Parenting/dp/149262988X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696435&sr=1-1&keywords=One%2C+Two%2C+Three+Magic+by+Thomas+Phelan
  11. Six Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children by John Rosemond, https://www.amazon.com/Six-Point-Plan-Raising-Healthy-Children/dp/0836228065/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696482&sr=1-1&keywords=Six+Point+Plan+for+Raising+Happy%2C+Healthy+Children+by+John+Rosemond
  12. The Well-Behaved ChildDiscipline That Really Works by John Rosemond, https://www.amazon.com/Well-Behaved-Child-Discipline-Really-Works/dp/0849947154/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696523&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Well-Behaved+Child%E2%80%94Discipline+That+Really+Works+by+John+Rosemond
  13. The Discipline Book by William Sears and Martha Sears, https://www.amazon.com/Discipline-Book-Better-Behaved-Child-Birth/dp/0316779032/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696552&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Discipline+Book+by+William+Sears+and+Martha+Sears
  14. Nature by Nurture by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, https://www.amazon.com/Nurture-Nature-Understand-Childs-Personality/dp/0316845132/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696589&sr=1-1&keywords=Nature+by+Nurture+by+Paul+Tieger+and+Barbara+Barron-Tieger
  15. NOWhy Kids of All Ages Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It by David Walsh, https://www.amazon.com/No-Kids—Ages–Need-Hear-Parents/dp/074328920X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466696542&sr=1-1&keywords=NO%E2%80%94Why+Kids+of+All+Ages+Need+to+Hear+It+and+Ways+Parents+Can+Say+It+by+David+Walsh