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The Best Discipline Strategy For Toddlers & Kids, According To Pediatricians

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When it comes to child-rearing advice, many parents (after frantic Google searches) turn to their family's pediatrician. From middle-of-the-night fevers to teething troubles, growth spurts, and more, pediatricians offer parents peace of mind and sound advice that comes from years of experience caring for many different children. To answer the age-old question of which is the best discipline strategy for toddlers and kids, Romper spoke with several different pediatricians throughout the U.S. Although their opinions may differ slightly, there seems to be a common thread of proposed recommendations from pediatricians that follows the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines when it comes to kids and discipline.

The AAP recommends using positive reinforcement methods when disciplining kids and strongly cautions against spanking, hitting, threatening, or shaming. According to Danielle Dooley, M.D., MPhil., a pediatrician and medical director of community affairs and population health at Children’s National Health System, the AAP guidelines for discipline offer a three-step system. "Establish a positive, supporting and loving relationship with your child; use positive reinforcement to increase the behavior you want from your child; if you feel discipline is necessary, the AAP recommends that you do not spank or use other physical punishments but instead use timeouts for younger children or removal of privileges for older children," Dr. Dooley explains.

Because every parent and each of their children are different, the discipline dynamic that exists between a parent and a child will vary widely depending on who you talk to. "It is important to recognize that discipline approaches and styles are influenced by cultural factors as well as historical factors, for example what kind of discipline style the parent or caregiver grew up with," Dr. Dooley says. "As a pediatrician, it is my goal to create an open and welcoming atmosphere in my practice that is culturally competent and respectful and creates a space for discussion and listening with parents and caregivers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach or style — each family has different strengths and challenges and structures."

To practice positive reinforcement, Dr. Dyan Hes, pediatrician and medical director at Gramercy Pediatrics, explains how parents can reward the behavior they wish to see their children engage in. "Positive reinforcement is based on rewarding a child for good behavior. For example, if you want your child to stop sucking his thumb, a caregiver can give a child a sticker on a calendar if he does not suck his thumb all afternoon," Dr. Hes says. "This is a reward for good behavior, rather than scolding the child when he puts his thumb in his mouth in the evening. The child is more likely to not suck the thumb again in order to get another sticker (or an M&M), etc."

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Dr. Hes also acknowledges that there are a variety of different parenting practices that she has seen when it comes to disciplining children, but notes that she has observed that children do better with rules. "Children need to know boundaries and they also feel more secure that their parents are invested in them. I have not seen that strict parenting works from toddlerhood through adolescence. These children often rebel and have low self esteem," she says.

Dr. Aliza Pressman, co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, says that parents should also be focused on what a child is doing right instead of just their incorrect behavior as a part of a well-rounded approach to discipline, as well as remembering what the focus of disciplining a child actually is. "For every correction, notice four positive opposites (in other words, behaviors that you want to see more of) of the negative behavior you are correcting," Dr. Pressman tells Romper. "Remember that discipline isn’t about punishment or proving a point. In fact, the word discipline actually means to teach. We’re teaching our children how to exist in a world where they will be respected, where they will be respectful, and where they can be productive members of the family and the larger community."

Dr. Pressman also encourages parents to foster a strong sense of connection to their child before attempting to discipline. "Before trying to guide a child, remember to connect with them. If you can first send a message of empathy and then help correct their behavior, you are more likely to prepare a child’s brain to be calm enough to hear you. There is a saying from Dr. Dan Siegel, 'Connect before you redirect,'" she tells Romper.

Although the advice from all of the pediatricians Romper spoke to seem to follow the same general guidelines, Dr. Catherine Gritchen, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Medical Group in Long Beach, California, points out that "there is not one best discipline style. But overall, it is important for parents to 'parent' and have set rules and boundaries. A 'balanced' style is best, that is not too permissive and not too authoritarian."

Dr. Gritchen also notes that parents should take into account their child's personality, age, and level of cognition when deciding on a method of discipline, as well as set an example for their own children to follow and to be consistent. "Be an example of behavior you want to see. Be in control of yourself and your emotions. It’s OK to say 'mommy needs a break, but we are going to address this later,'" she says. "Just because your child doesn’t like what you are doing or recommending or asking does not mean it isn’t good for them and their long-term growth and development. Often a child’s behavior is due to an internal struggle (anxiety, hunger, etc). This does not excuse the behavior, but identifying the trigger is important and may help prevent the unwanted behavior."

No matter how you choose to discipline your child, establishing boundaries fosters healthy child development, according to Dr. Dooley. "Discipline is an important part of parenting — creating structures and rules can help children to feel safe and supported and contribute to healthy child development," she says.