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Time Out: How to Create a Discipline Plan

Amy Leibrock
Aug. 15, 2011

What if your nanny spanked your child? Do you have a family punishment plan? Here are 4 discipline strategies parents and caregivers can stick to.

For Cyndi and Ed Holbert of Powell, Idaho, discipline is a touchy issue -- literally. Ed doesn't hesitate to give their 3-year-old son Garrett a spanking when he misbehaves. Cyndi prefers to employ calm and consistent discipline. Spanking, she says, should be a last resort.

Their different approaches to parenting have not only put a strain on their marriage, but Garrett seems to be catching on. "He can tell something is up, and he's started to kind of play us against each other," Cyndi says.

Sound familiar? When you and your partner don't approach discipline in the same way, it can feel like you're being undermined at every turn. And if you're lucky enough to agree on discipline strategies, there may be other caregivers in your children's lives, like nannies or grandparents, who have their own opinions. No one wants their kids getting away with bad behavior during the day -- because the babysitter lets them off easy.

But no matter what their beliefs, most adults agree that children need discipline. In a recent survey on Care.com, 31% of parents said they do not have a discipline plan in place, 54% have spanked their child, and 94% believe there are social pressures against spanking. The lesson learned: No matter how they do it, parents need to get on the same punishment page.

"The whole idea behind a punishment is to teach the child a lesson that you feel will ultimately be in their best interest," says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, parenting expert at Care.com. Here are her four strategies for creating a discipline strategy the whole family can stand behind.

  1. Discuss Discipline Upfront and Often
    "Discipline is an issue that can be discussed even before you have kids," says Ludwig. Talk with your partner about how you were raised and how you feel about how your parents disciplined you. For the Holbert's, their discord stems in part from their difference in age: Ed is 22 years older than Cyndi. "We were raised in very different families, and a lot of the ways that we each parent comes from how we were parented," says Cyndi.

    You should have a similar discussion with your nanny during the hiring process. Ask her what she would do in different scenarios to make sure you will be comfortable with her discipline philosophy. And keep communicating with all parties as issues come up. If you take away a favorite toy from your daughter in the morning, make sure your nanny doesn't give it back to her as soon as you leave for work.

  2. Learn to Love the Differences
    Not everyone in your children's lives will approach discipline in exactly the same way. That's okay, says Ludwig. Her father-in-law, for example, has a pet peeve about noise; he will verbally discipline his grandchildren when they play loudly. "It seems like a strong reaction to me, but when I'm struck by it, I step back and look at the overall picture, which is he that loves my children, he has his way, and that's okay," says Ludwig. "The whole idea behind discipline is to help prepare your child for the world. Kids need to learn that there are different personalities in the world who have different reactions to things."

  3. Try the Mildest Interventions First
    That being said, you and your partner should work to have a unified game plan. "If the parents start arguing, then the child realizes that he can pit them against each other," says Ludwig. When you disagree on strategies for teaching your little one to behave, she advises starting with the most benign philosophy first. "If your partner believes in spanking, and you don't, then you can say, 'What you probably believe is that kids need to have limits set. My thinking is let's try to do that with a time out. If that doesn't work, then we can try your way'."

    Ludwig doesn't recommend spanking. Neither does the American Academy of Pediatrics. Studies have found that children who are spanked are more likely to be depressed and aggressive as adults. "Spanking tends to be a highly reactive approach to discipline," she says. "I think if spanking is done with control as a single, deliberate intervention to make a point with a child who is completely out of control, it's not abuse. But it shouldn't be the first or even second line of defense."

  4. Take a Step Back
    When dealing with a caregiver, it's important to communicate your philosophy for discipline. Go over how you handle different levels of bad behavior and ask her to do the same. But there comes a time when you need to relax and let her figure out what discipline methods work best between her and your children (as long as she avoids spanking). "If you trust and love your nanny, and you really feel that she's smart and loves your kids, you can let them develop their own style with your children," says Ludwig.

The bottom line, however, is that parents have the ultimate say in how the children are disciplined. If you feel like you're being undermined, your children are not responding well to a caregiver, or worse -- that they're in danger -- don't hesitate to intervene. "If you see something you feel uncomfortable with, let them know," says Ludwig.

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