10 Tips for Disciplining Your Preschool-Aged Child

Discipline is a touchy subject with many parents. No one wants to be told how to discipline his or her own children. However, as parents most of us realize that we don’t know it all. Discipline is one of the most difficult aspects of parenting so who couldn’t use a few tricks and tips? As an educator and the parent of a preschooler and an infant, I’ve disciplined children from two different perspectives, and the following tips for disciplining preschoolers have kept me sane through it all.

Individualize. If you have more than one child you are well aware that two children coming from the same parents can easily be polar opposites. Keep this in mind when disciplining your preschool-aged children. When I was a child my parents often sent me to my room as a punishment or consequence for ill behavior. Isolation was pure torture for this social butterfly. My sister, who found no greater pleasure than reading, loved spending hours alone in her room. So, my sister was not sent to her room as a punishment. Discipline has to fit the child so tip number one for disciplining your children is to ditch the “one size fits all mentality” and individualize discipline to each child. And don’t let your kids run in with a “that’s not fair!” mantra. You are the parent; you choose the method of discipline.

Sacrifice. Sure, we love to scoff at the old saying “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” but in reality sometimes proper discipline really is harder on the parents than the child. For example, say you have promised your four year old dinner at McDonald’s if he takes a quiet nap. He misbehaves during his naptime. You have to take that dinner at McDonald’s away which means Mom and Dad now have to come up with alternate dinner plans. My husband promised to take my four year old to a comic book convention one weekend if my son got a good report at preschool all week. He didn’t. My husband was crushed because he was so looking forward to sharing this special event with his son. But sometimes, good discipline takes sacrifice on the parents’ part (and sometimes you learn not to promise something as a reward that you yourself really want to do!).

Act Immediately. Preschoolers have short attention spans so discipline needs to be immediate. If your son picks up a toy in the store and throws in down the aisle, you have to come up with an immediate way to discipline. Perhaps you leave the store right away (was he shopping for a toy?) or maybe you make him ride in the cart when he had asked to walk (taking away independence). Whatever the offense, make sure your discipline is immediate whenever possible.

Model. Every book, article, etc on discipline will warn parents that they must “practice what they preach.” You cannot tell children to “do as I say, not as I do.” Preschoolers in particular want to act like Mom and Dad. If you don’t want your children using profanity, you can’t use profanity. If you constantly ask your children to stop name-calling, screaming “moron!” at the truck driver that just cut you off isn’t a good idea. I’ve never used profanity in my daily life, but I have a bad habit of scoffing at celebrities on TV with rather colorful vocals. I quickly realized that my son was picking up my behavior, but not with television personalities, but rather with real life friends and relatives. Show your preschooler how he should act, and he will not only get a lesson in appropriate behavior, but he will also develop a strong bond and trust with his parents (and you might learn a thing or two about your own behavior while you’re at it!).

Dictate. I know you don’t want to be a called a dictator, but when it comes to disciplining your children, you need to be one. What dictators say, goes. Period. Discipline is not up for negotiation. Don’t let your children think they can alter punishments based on their ability to argue. For instance imagine that your son just bopped his little sister on the head with his favorite action figure. You decide to discipline him by taking away the action figure and putting it in “time out” for 24 hours. At this point, your son may begin his negotiations. “If I am good at the store this afternoon, can I have my transformer back?” or “If I eat all my vegetables at dinner can I have my transformer back?” Kids are natural negotiators but you are a dictator and dictators are not swayed by the people! Stand your ground, and don’t be swayed by your little guy’s arguments. What you say, goes. Period.

Reward. Rewards are just as important as consequences when it comes to disciplining your children. Is your preschooler having trouble putting his dirty clothes in the hamper? Set up a chore chart for him and you’ll be surprised how quickly the good behavior becomes habit. Preschoolers are very goal oriented so set up some behavior goals and watch the good behavior evolve.

Praise. Praise is a fundamental part of any good discipline plan, but it is especially important for preschoolers. Be sure to praise your child when he is doing what he is supposed to do. For example, my son used to constantly jump on the couch, a big no-no in our house. When I see him sitting on the couch I try to offer praise, “You are doing a great job using the couch how it is supposed to be used!,” or “You are doing an excellent job remembering that couches are for bottoms, not feet.” Praise your preschooler when he isn’t misbehaving and the misbehavior will start to diminish.

Follow Through. Preschoolers have amazing memories (Mommy: “The dentist is fun!” Preschooler: “But Mommy, I heard you tell Daddy you hated going to the dentist.” Oops). Because of this great memory, you must follow through with your disciplinary action. If you tell your daughter that the next time she sticks her tongue out you are going to take away her favorite doll for a week, make sure it happens.

Involve Others. You aren’t the only person in your child’s life. Others such as caregivers, grandparents, and friends may also be in a situation where your child needs to be disciplined. Preschoolers thrive on consistency so make sure that the other adults that your child spends a lot of time with understand your methods of discipline, and use them when necessary. You can also involve others when praising and rewarding your child. For example, my son loves nothing more than calling Grandma and Grandpa when he gets a compliment or earns a prize at school. Involving others in your child’s life in the discipline process is a must.

Flex. Last week your preschooler responded really well to having toys taken away when he misbehaved. This week removing his toys doesn’t seem to faze him. Of course last week pizza was his favorite food and this week he hates it too. Preschoolers are changing so rapidly that what works one week may not work the next. You have to be flexible as a parent and be willing to try new tactics as your child grows and changes. Being flexible, and not continuing to beat a dead horse (i.e. using the same methods over and over if they aren’t working) is very important when disciplining a preschooler.

Preschoolers are a unique set in the world of discipline. No one ever said it was going to be easy and indeed disciplining your preschooler may be the challenge of your life. Keep the above tips in mind, give yourself a break when you make mistakes, and remember that one day your little guy or girl may be calling you asking for discipline advice for his or her preschooler.

Related Resources:

Alternate Quiet Time Activity for Preschoolers who Refuse to Nap

How to Start Assigning Chores for your Preschooler

The Chore Jar: A Great Way to Motivate Kids to do their Chores