Good cop. Bad cop. How about better cop? We asked experts: If you could change anything about the way parents approach discipline, what would it be? Here's the tough love.

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Illustration: Parents disciplining child
Credit: Simone Shin

1 Limit the time outs.

Time-outs are rooted in the idea that giving attention to behavior (good or bad) reinforces it, while ignoring decreases it. “But in the past few decades, with spanking falling out of favor and parents desperate for an alternative, it’s become the go-to,” says Marti Erickson, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and a cohost of the podcast Mom Enough. Time-outs are intended to give everyone a chance to step back from a difficult situation and calm down, but they are overused. “Often parents engage in a lot of lecturing beforehand or insist that the child stop crying or wiggling,” which defeats the purpose of giving her a time to chill and reflect, says Erickson. A few tips for using time-outs properly: Save them for when your child is starting to be overwhelmed with emotion (for example, when she starts throwing things)—not for every minor infraction. Aim for a minute for every year of age. And frame it as a cooling-off period, not strictly as a punishment. “When the message is ‘If I deem something you do as inappropriate, I have the right to isolate you,’ it teaches shame,” says Vicki Hoefle, the author of Duct Tape Parenting. Afterward, do a brief check-in: What would she do differently next time? And know your window. “Time-outs are most effective with three- to eight-year-olds,” says Michele Borba, a school consultant and the author of No More Misbehavin’.

2 Make the punishment fit the crime.

“You talked back, so the sleepover is off!” Fair enough, right? Afraid not. Arbitrary sentences will only stir up confusion and resentment. “The punishment should be related to whatever happened,” says Rebecca Jackson, a neuropsychological researcher and the founder of the website “If the rule is that your kid calls home after school and she violates it, then taking her phone away for a period makes sense. But taking away something completely unrelated won’t change the behavior.” Why not, exactly? Because suffering in and of itself is not a great motivator. “Random punishments, as painful as they may be, only teach children to fear getting caught,” says Jackson. “Even young kids know when things aren’t fair—and then they become hurt and angry. An appropriate punishment is easier to enforce because children usually understand that they deserved it.” Catch your eighth grader riding his bike without a helmet? Then he’s off those wheels for a week—not banned from hanging out with his friends. Length and scope matter, too, says Jerry Weichman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of the adolescent self-help book How to Deal. “If you take away all screen time for three weeks, you as a parent have just given up your leverage for the next three weeks and eliminated your ability to set steeper con­sequences down the line.” P.S. Nixing scheduled extracurricular activities, such as drama, sports, and dance, should be off-limits. Says Weichman: “Even people in jail get time in the yard.”

3 Lots of rules = lots of rule breaking.

An endless slew of edicts—Don’t touch Mom’s laptop! No jump­ing on the bed!—only creates temptation. “When you say, ‘Don’t do this or else that,’ kids feel compelled to test it,” says Charles Fay, Ph.D., a coauthor of Taking the Stress Out of Raising Great Kids. Have major house rules, and explain why they exist, then hold your tongue. “You want kids to make connections without a parent always nagging or yelling,” says Jackson. With little kids, take away the toy being used as a weapon without saying a word. Eventually your child will realize that A leads to B, and B isn’t fun. With teenagers, choose your big-ticket items; don’t pounce on every eye roll. And keep it simple. “Teens work well with bullet points: Do well in school, have a decent attitude, and come home on time and sober,” says Weichman. With his own family, Fay issued this broad rule: You may do anything you want, as long as it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone in the universe. “So our son goes to the neighbor’s without telling anyone. We would say, ‘What’s our one rule? How does what you did cause a problem for us, your worried parents? I’ll bet you can think of how to not cause that problem again,’ ” says Fay.

4 Accentuate the positive.

“Discipline is thought of as something that happens after bad behavior, when really it should be the other way around,” says Erickson. Parents should breed good behavior. The best way to do that? Follow the adage “Catch a kid being good.” Offering props to Leo for doing his homework without being asked is more likely to generate a repeat performance than is bugging him about it when it doesn’t happen. “Pointing out success instills confidence in kids,” says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., the author of The Everything Tween Book. Keep props short and sweet. If you are a constant font of “Atta boy’s,” kids will find it annoying, and it dilutes the message, says Weichman. In addition to praise, offer kids perks when they are deserving. “As they demonstrate maturity, widen their boundaries,” says Weichman. By the time they’re teenagers, they’ll intuitively raise their game, because there’s a track record of being acknowledged and rewarded—“not necessarily with words, but with a trial run of a later curfew or more time with electronics,” says Weichman.

5 Stop worrying about looking bad in public.

“I hear parents talk all the time about feeling more anxious and pressured in public. They think others are judging them, expecting them to control and quiet their children,” says family therapist Julie Wright, the founder of the Wright Mommy and Me parenting classes, in Los Angeles. The result, says Erickson: “We often cave in to avoid a scene, or we do the opposite—go overboard with a consequence because we want to look like strong parents.” The next time your child decides to play pantless tag with her sister at the DMV, just corral everyone and make a beeline for a private (or semiprivate) spot. “Anywhere you feel you can handle the situation the way you would without an audience,” says Wright. “That may mean scooping a flailing toddler off the floor while saying, ‘I know you really want those cookies. Let’s go to the car so we can talk about it and calm our bodies down.’” No escape route in sight? No worries. Stick to your guns and find solace in the fact that everyone endures his or her share of non-Instagrammable exchanges. Says Fay, “Having an upset kid doesn’t make you a terrible parent.”

6 Outsource the consequences (sometimes).

Occasionally, defer to your trusty coparent, the universe. “Allow­ing natural consequences to occur is such a perfectly equitable system. Life lessons are better disciplinarians than we ever could be,” says Hoefle. Your junior high schooler stays up until the wee hours playing video games, then sleeps through his alarm in the morning? “You could punish him for it—or you could let him go to school without breakfast and wearing inappropriate clothes,” says Hoefle. “The problem will take care of itself.” (Same goes for the sandbox: Getting bopped on the head by another toddler for grabbing his truck is part of the learning process.) You can also let your child play judge. “Even kids as young as four can be very good at com­ing up with logical, appropriate conse­quences,” says Erickson.

7 Don't yell!

Simple but hard. Your kid has cried, “Mommy!” 847 times before noon, thrown a tantrum over wearing shoes, and spilled a gallon of milk on the living-room carpet. Your patience is shot. You go Hulk. The problem is that yelling—even fully justified—scares off your audience and makes the lesson moot. “Being yelled at sends children into the primitive part of their brains, where shame and anger live,” says Wright. “They can’t hear what’s being said.” Teens, in particular, will beat a hasty emotional retreat. “It’s easy for them to become numb,” says Weichman. If you have a sensitive kid, you need to be especially careful. “Yelling hits them to the core,” says Weichman. When you start seeing red, leave the room. Allow the dust to settle, and with teenagers and younger children alike, address the infraction after you cool off. And when you do lash out and scream? Say you’re sorry. “Explain that you reacted out of frus­tration, apologize for the tone, and tell them how you wish you had handled it,” says Wright. “Repair the damage.”