North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service



Respectful Discipline

Preschool children are delightful in many ways. They are learning words and skills that make caring for them much easier. Three-, 4- and 5-year-olds make special occasions and family traditions exciting and full.

Preschoolers generally have wonderful memories, making them the family historians. They are also likely to remember the items you forgot on a grocery list. Friends and play dates may fill the calendar for these social beings. Grandparents and other relatives relish phone calls with preschoolers and marvel at how well they carry on conversations.

There is another side to the pre-school years as well. Children are just beginning to learn appropriate social behavior. They tend to be energetic, self-centered and lost in their own world much of the time.

Three-, 4- and even 5-year-olds will have toileting accidents or become constipated because they are so busy and have no interest in stopping play for bodily functions. Parents often notice that pre-school children need help or reminding for the same situations over and over again.

Common concerns with preschoolers include picking up toys, coming in for lunch, cleaning rooms, putting away clothes or belongings, dawdling and fighting with other children, and roughhousing.

It's easy to love and spend time with children who behave like little adults, but it's not realistic to think children can be happy this way. So what about those times when they are acting their age and it's troublesome?


What about discipline for the 3-, 4- or 5-year-old?

A common response might be to let the behavior build and then shout, belittle or nag. For some parents grounding and spanking are quickly called upon because these techniques are what they grew up with. This type of treatment is called punishment, and it generally leads to hurt, anger, tears and more misbehaviors.


What can parents do?

The word discipline means "to teach." Teaching preschoolers what to do instead is the key to calm and respectful discipline.

If a child is throwing blocks in the house just to watch them fly, stop the blocks, recognize the child's need to throw something, roll a pair of socks together in a ball and provide a clothes basket as the target. An assortment of containers and colored socks will add to the fun. This way you provide an outlet for throwing that is safe and acceptable while teaching the child what to do instead of throwing blocks in the house.

There are also a number of things to try before children have the chance to misbehave. Prepare a place that is interesting to the child, where he can safely explore and learn and put away his own things. Provide a few simple rules, take the child's schedule into consideration when planning your day, and teach and model cooperative problem solving.


If the prevention steps aren't enough, use some of the following guidance suggestions:

Offer two positive alternatives.
Would you like to pick up the books first or the trucks?

Help with frustrating tasks.
It's tough to get those shoes on. I would be happy to help you get them started.

Brainstorm other alternatives for next time.
No hitting. Hitting hurts. What could you do instead of hitting when someone has something you want?

Because children are individuals, no discipline technique will work every time. Parents may want to learn and practice a number of techniques. Consistently using respectful discipline instead of punishment will result in happier families, competent, responsible children and a less violent world, one household at a time.


Top 10 Reasons Not to Spank, Hit or Slap...

Children who are punished:

Adapted from Straus, M.A. (1994) Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment By Parents and Its Effects On Children. Lexington Books/McMillan.


This newsletter is published for North Dakota families with preschoolers by the NDSU Extension Service and distributed through your county extension office. See your extension agent for more parenting information and other home economics programs.


Parenting Preschoolers, Issue No. 7


NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
This publication will be made available in alternative format for people with disabilities upon request (701) 231-7881.


North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service