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How to Reason With Your Child

Effective parenting melds authoritative discipline with fairness — here's how to do it

Published on: May 20, 2020

mom talking to her daughter

When it comes to misbehavior, you might have a child who reels it in after a simple explanation or even just the raise of an eyebrow. Most kids, however, do best with a combination of reasoning and consequences for behavior transgressions. Authoritative parents, who exercise the gold standard of parenting styles, enforce disciplinary reasoning with nonphysical punishment. Authoritative parents are also willing to negotiate with their children in order to arrive at mutually agreeable compromises.   

By providing your child with reasons behind household rules and discipline, you portray yourself as a predictable, trustworthy and wise adult.  Unpredictable, arbitrary and coercive discipline will undermine your child’s respect of your authority. Your child is more likely to comply with rules and consequences when they see you as considerate and thoughtful in your parenting. This is not to say that your child won’t be angry with you in the wake of discipline, but when you are reasonable and fair in your discipline, the parent-child bond will be preserved. 

Setting limits with reasons

While the most effective parents use reasoning with their children, it’s also true that it’s easy to overdo the reasoning. When reasoning crosses into lecturing and moralizing, you are probably undermining your effectiveness. You want to avoid getting too wordy lest the core message gets lost. Lengthy explanations are aversive to kids. Plus, lectures aren’t what builds moral character in our children.

Which of the following options comes across as the most clear and authoritative? 

Option 1: “Don’t hit your sister! Look at how you hurt her and now she’s crying. Hitting is wrong. You’re supposed to love and be kind to everyone in the family. We would never hit you. It’s okay to be angry but we don’t hit. You need to get your anger out in other ways.” 

Option 2: “We don’t allow hitting or hurting others.”

Option 3: “No hitting! Remember to treat others how you would like to be treated.” 

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with what is being said in the first option, but the key message gets lost in other content. Options 2 and 3 are preferable — for most kids, these reasons will need to be accompanied by a (calmly delivered) disciplinary consequence in order to effectively set the limit. If you rely on explanations alone for serious behavior transgressions, your child is less likely to develop the inner controls that you are attempting to foster. 

Giving directives with reasons

When giving your child directives, be sure to give the reason before the directive.  

“It’s not safe to stand on the table get down now, please.”

Compared to:

Parent: “Get down from there — now!”

Child: “Why!?!”

Parent: “It’s not safe.”

Child: “But I’m being careful!”

Parent: “I know that, but you could still fall — plus, I need you to set an example for your little brother, who always wants to copy what you do.”  

In the first example, your child might still attempt to argue with you, but you’ve said all that needs to be said. Rather than getting dragged into a senseless debate, you can move into limit-setting if your child defies your request. The last thing you want to do is give a directive, get pulled into a debate and then decide to relent because the argument is too exhausting.  

When explaining the reasons behind rules, keep it simple.

Setting rules with reasons

Authoritative parents have clear household rules. Rules need to make sense to your child, be clearly defined, be developmentally appropriate and flex as your child matures. By having rules that are fair, your child will respect your authority. 

It’s easy to fall into the trap of too many rules. Long lists tend to include rules that are vague and impossible to enforce. You’ll want to prioritize rules that you can realistically enforce. Stick with themes that involve safety and boundaries to protect (but not overprotect) your child and other family members. 

Rules that are not enforceable should be left off the list. A good rule of thumb is to limit house rules to five at the most. For many families, a single rule, such as “no hurting” or “safe bodies,” is a good place to start. I discourage rules such as “good listening” and “be respectful” because they are too vague and difficult to enforce consistently.

When explaining the reasons behind rules, keep it simple and appropriate to your child’s developmental level. As an example, you might have a rule that all family members put up their own plate after dinner. 

For young children, it will suffice to say: “We want the table to be all clean after we eat.”

For older children, you might elaborate with: “Everyone in the family needs to pitch in, and dinner cleanup is part of that.”

For teens, you might inject a brief dose about values: “We expect everyone in our household to pitch in by holding you to this, we are preparing you to be a responsible and independent adult.” 

Effective parenting melds assertive discipline with fairness and clear explanations to the child; then you must hold your child accountable to the rules and limits. The discipline strategies for doing so will differ depending on the developmental stage and temperament of the child. 

Originally published by Child and Teen Solutions.

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