Sunday, January 29, 2023

Practice good choice parenting

by Bill Rutherford
| April 14, 2010 9:00 PM

Disciplining a child is difficult when a parent is frustrated, money is tight, the kids are late for soccer practice and the dog just soiled the rug. When one is frustrated, aggravated and overwhelmed it is important to focus on the reason one is disciplining a child - to change the child's behavior. We as parents want our children's poor choices to turn into good choices. Good Choice Parenting is a five-step program I created to aid parents to effectively praise and discipline our children and create a child who consistently makes good choices over bad choices. The five steps of Good Choice Parenting are:

1. Be consistent

A parent can teach their child to throw a fit in the grocery store, yell at them in public and never clean their room by intermittently reinforcing negative behavior. Allow me to explain. When a person plays a slot machine, fly fishes or plays poker they are rewarded intermittently by hitting small jackpots, catching a fish or winning a hand and continue to play or fish for the reward. Being rewarded feels good and not knowing when the reward comes creates an extremely strong drive to continue the behavior. When a gambler continues to put their entire paycheck into a slot machine or spends the month's rent on a poker game, they are desperately searching for the high of the jackpot reward they once felt.

A child does the same thing when rewarded to do so. In a grocery store, a child might ask for a piece of candy while the parent says, "not today." The child yells, "I want candy." The parent frustrated yells back, "I said no!" The child screams, "I want candy," and the parent, frustrated and embarrassed screams, "OK, now will you be quiet?" The child learns they must ask at least three times and start to whine loudly before their parent will become frustrated enough to give in - the child wins the reward, candy.

Once you say no to something you must continue saying no. You can't waiver - no negotiation. Kids get confused about their rules and pick up quickly that they have latitude. If a child really enjoys candy and knows that sometimes Mommy and Daddy give them candy if they whine or throw a fit, they are going to throw a fit to get candy. Since you don't want to say no to everything, pick your battles and decide what's really important to you.

2. Thinking one style fits all

Some children emotionally close down or behaviorally explode when a parent speaks to them sharply while other children are unaffected. Some learn the first time you tell them while others need to be told many times before they learn. Some listen right away while others need time to scream it out before you can talk to them.

It's not just temperament that causes our children to be different; it's age and development. Children are not little adults. Children before the age of 10 are black and white thinkers and seldom consider options which are not right or wrong, yes or no, black and white. The job of a toddler is to push limits, to do crazy stuff that you've told him time and time again not to do. The job of a tween (a child between 10-12 years old) is to start asserting her independence from you in sometimes obnoxious and disrespectful ways.

Neither the toddler nor the tween is going to listen to a big lecture. A toddler needs simple, direct quick discipline. A tween is most likely to respond to punishment that removes her from her peers. Despite your best effort, both the toddler and the tween are likely to keep doing the same bad thing for a while. Understanding where they are in life is key to picking the right approach to discipline and preventing your personal frustration.

3. Overdoing or underdoing it

The punishment should fit the crime, not your frustration level. Punishment needs to be something feasible and appropriate for the offense. Taking a deep breath and really thinking about what the child did wrong and what an appropriate punishment might be will save years of frustration from a child wondering why spilling milk deserves two weeks grounding while punching her little sister results only in a stern, "Don't hit your sister again." Make the punishment fit the crime, not your frustration level.

For a punishment to work well it needs to be something your child doesn't want to have happen again. Taking away video games, sending the kid to their room, declaring a time-out or losing screen time (computer and/or TV) generally works. Do not take away positive things like team sports or dance class. These items promote positive choices and should not be used for punishment.

4. Rewarding good behavior works better than punishing bad behavior

The solution is to catch your child being good. If she goes 15 minutes without picking on her sister, offer kudos. Even if it's only five minutes, try your best to notice it. You'll be surprised how effective this can be. It's human nature to like praise, and to want to please the people we love. Praise is more effective in changing behavior 5 to 1 over punishment.

Praise can work in other ways too. As you enter a store, instead of saying, "If you don't behave, I'll be really angry and you won't get a treat," try saying, "We have to get the shopping done, and I need help. If everyone is good and helps me, we'll stop for ice cream on the way home." Which would you rather hear, the threat or the reward?

5. Be calm

This is the most important and useful tool of Good Choice Parenting. When you raise your voice a child will raise their voice. When you are upset a child will become upset. When a child sees your frustration they believe they can negotiate and continue to persuade you to their way of thinking. Stay calm and take this tool away from the child.

State your desire, "quit whining, go to your room and clean it," in a calm, concise voice and never waiver. When a child starts to negotiate, whine, cry, becomes frustrated and refuses your direction, restate your direction in a clear, calm voice and continue to do so until the child follows your directions.

Stick with it. Good Choice Parenting works if continuously applied. A quick story - my daughter at 9 years old got into trouble for talking back to her mom. I told her in a calm voice she could not go to her friend Lindsay's birthday party due to her disrespect. She started crying, ran to the car (we were not home) and continued to cry for longer than I thought normal. I opened the car door and ask my little girl, "What's wrong?" She said crying, "I want to go to Lindsey's party but I know I can't because when you say something you mean it." My eyes welled for her pain but knew I did my job as a parent. It was a good feeling.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out

Recent Headlines