With summer upon us, we are spending a lot more time with our families and especially our  children. It’s a great joy, and something I look forward to for months. However, close contact can often cause friction as children act as children do, pushing boundaries and making ill-advised decisions. Understanding proper discipline technique and how to use it can make this time much more meaningful and actually lower tensions in the house.

Discipline is really designed to teach. Children are not born knowing where all the boundaries are; they need to be taught. They learn a lot by imitation, following what you do, seeing how you react. If you are kind, share, and show good judgment, they will usually follow suit. Being cruel, quick to anger, or showing bad judgment will unfortunately also have similar results.

Proper discipline is meant to guide children to make good choices, to follow the rules of the house and those ideals that you feel are important. It should not be done to be vindictive, cruel, or to express parental anger. It is fine to let the child know you’re angry, but not ok to lash out in that anger.

The key to good discipline is consistency. If a child realizes that sometimes they can get away with a certain behavior, like smacking their brother, they will do it more often. Understanding that a consequence will follow every time enforces the rule much more effectively. Being consistent means the rules pertain both inside and outside the house.

Knowing your child’s limitations and emotional states is key also. Too many times I’ve seen children who are obviously high energy forced into extended situations where they are expected to sit still and not touch anything. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck. It’s fine to condition a child to tolerate longer situations of behavior but to ask a child to suddenly “behave” is simply not a reasonable request. Scheduling an “out” after a period of time, or at least an opportunity to blow off some steam, can help enable good behavior. It’s important to note if they are getting agitated or upset, as behavior may be about to turn for the worse. Allowing them time to regroup not only helps them calm down, it teaches them that you have empathy for their emotions.

Discipline can take several forms. Time-outs are most effective, since they are easy to do wherever you are, give the child a chance to reflect on their behavior and you a chance to cool off. Pleas and requests should be ignored. One minute per year of age is a general guide, but you might adjust that time based on the reaction of your child. After time is served, there should not necessarily be a forced apology or a long lecture, as that diminishes the impact of the time-out. Grounding older children and teenagers is really just an older kid version of a time-out.

It’s also important to mention when the child is doing well. Most children want to please, and will respond to positive cues. Most parents forget that that absence of bad behavior is not a neutral act. If your child is good when you go out, or shows kindness or another action you value, say something. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but a brief “you were good today in the doctor’s office. Thank you” goes a long way.

Spanking has been shown to be the least effective form of discipline though many parents still do it. There is no time for reflection, and most of the time is done as the parents lash out in anger. Further, it teaches children that the response to a behavior they dislike is to lash out, and it’s not uncommon to see a child who has been spanked in the past become more physically aggressive both towards peers and to their own children later on.

Children with firm boundaries and consequences learn where the hard limits are, and learn not to push them. They feel more comfortable knowing how far they can go and still be in your good graces. While discipline may still be necessary to remind them from time to time, your time with them moves from a continuous battle for them to behave to the fruitful summer fun you were hoping to have.