Discipline for different ages
behave; behaviour; teach; teaching; baby; toddlers; misbehaviour; misbehave;;
People often confuse 'discipline' with 'physical punishment', but they are quite different. Discipline is about teaching. It helps a child learn what is expected and to gradually learn how to control their own behaviour.
You don't need to physically punish children to teach them. They learn best when they feel safe and secure and 'good' behaviour is encouraged. The key is having a close relationship with your child as well as clear rules and realistic expectations.
The content of this topic comes from the Parent Easy Guide 2 Discipline (0 to 12 years) developed by Parenting SA.
What is discipline?
For many parents growing up, discipline often meant punishment. It could leave us feeling hurt, upset and unfairly treated.
Discipline is really about guidance. It is a way to keep children safe as they find out about the world. They need to learn how to manage their feelings, impulses and actions so they can learn and get on with others.
Discipline is also about helping children learn the values that are important to your family. Children learn to make good choices because they want to do the right thing, not just to avoid punishment. This teaches them self-discipline.
Warm but firm parenting that encourages the behaviour you want is the best way to guide children. A positive approach is less stressful for children and makes parenting more enjoyable. It takes patience but is worth it in the long run. It uses love instead of fear to teach life-long skills, and strengthens the bond with your child.
Children learn best when parenting is warm but firm. It builds on your child’s strong desire to please you.
Have a look at the topic Discipline - what is discipline? for more information about discipline.
Babies (0-1 year old)
It is a waste of time and can be harmful to use any kind of discipline on babies. They are not able to think ahead, understand reason or remember what you want.
Loving touch and gentle words are just as important as feeding and clothing babies. They need to learn that the world around them is friendly and safe, and that they can trust you to protect them.
Whatever your baby does, eg. crying a lot, it is not to be naughty or 'get at' you.
Toddlers (1-3 years)
At this age children are full of life and curiosity. They learn through touch and trying things out and this often means making a mess or using things the wrong way. They like to do things their own way and often get frustrated because they don't yet have the skills they need. They start to say 'No' as they learn they are separate from others.
- Teach and show your child new skills with patience and praise.
- Keep it simple – one new lesson at a time.
- Avoid battles, particularly with eating and toilet training. Unless they're ill, children will eat what they need if given a choice of healthy foods. Don't waste energy trying to make them eat if they don't want to. Avoid a struggle by saying 'You've had enough? OK, let's get you down from your high chair'.
- Toddlers don't yet understand consequences or know how to change their behaviour. It's best to distract them by giving them something else to do. Rather than 'Don't touch the TV' you could say 'Here's that book you like'.
The more your toddler feels competent, in control and able to do things, the calmer they will be.
Preschoolers (3-4 years)
By three to four years children are able to understand most of your instructions and predict the results of many actions. They begin to share and play with others.
Children at this age are easily excited. They can be a bit bossy as they like to be in control. Expect some 'showing off' and being silly. This is an age of copying others, finding fun in being shocked and trying out new words (including swear words if they have heard them).
If your child has reached this age feeling you are loving and approving, they will mostly want to do what pleases you. If they reach this age feeling you are overpowering, demanding and not 'on their side', your child may stop trying to do the things you want because they can never please you.
- Teach by showing your child what you want them to do, and giving choices.
- Teach your child to think ahead. Let them know in advance that a change is coming. You could say 'We need to leave the playground in five minutes so which swing do you want to play on for the last five minutes?'
Children of primary school age (5-12 years)
Children at this age understand much more about themselves, and about rules and limits. They start to see things from another's point of view. Parents need to explain to them about adult behaviours and feelings, and why you react as you do.
- Talk with your child about a wide range of topics. Listen to their views and be willing to discuss different opinions rather than forcing your ideas on them.
- Try to be in step with other parents who have children the same age. If you are too far away from what most parents do around discipline, you may find it hard to get your child to cooperate.
- Teach your child how to work out ways to solve problems. This is a useful skill at this age and an important step towards learning self-discipline.
When to seek help
If a child continually 'misbehaves' or has persistent behaviour that worries you, talk with your doctor or your Child Health Nurse. There may be some underlying cause that your child needs help with.
Learning to be a patient parent
Being a parent means juggling many competing demands. There can be days when things seem too much, especially if you work outside the home as well. It can be hard to let go of the frustrations of the day and come home to children who want your full attention.
If you feel overwhelmed, or get frustrated and angry easily, talk to someone who can help. Your doctor is a good place to start.
Learning to be a patient parent is as important as teaching patience to your children. It takes time!
Child and Family Health Service
Phone 1300 733 606 9am–4.30pm Mon–Fri for an appointment
Phone 1300 364 100
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For more Parent Easy Guides including ‘Time in: guiding children’s behaviour’, ‘Tantrums’, ‘Living with toddlers’ and ‘Living with young people’
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Topic content written by Parenting SA - see
Related Parent Easy Guide (Parenting SA web site - PDF format)
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.