Ethical Disipline Part II: But What if Kids Break my Awesome Rules?


In “How to Make Better Rules for Kids,” Part I of the post leading up to “Ethical Discipline,” the workshop I’m leading this Thursday, January 12, I discussed how tricky it is to make boundaries that keep kids safe while enabling them to take the positive risks that help them grow. 

Even if we didn’t have to enforce them, making appropriate boundaries is difficult. Part of working with kids is making tradeoffs and accepting ambiguity – a concept that might feel fun or maddening, depending on how tired we are.  We can make it a little easier by learning how to investigate our impulses, by getting a head start on thinking about risks, and by making transparent and reliable decisions that build trusting–rather than antagonistic–relationships.

We know, though, that making rules is only half the project.  What do we do when kids break the rules?  What if we find them crayon-to-grandma’s-wall, or pretending to stomp grapes in the lasagna, or trying to stick a fork in the baby?

At the workshop on Thursday, I’ll be teaching about how to place your reactions to misbehavior on a spectrum from very passive reactions to very aggressive reactions.  Let’s say you stumble upon little Rhonda about to deck little Frank. 

  • At the most passive end of the response range, you might react to seeing a fight by simply being present or by being a role model – in this case, modeling not hitting Frank. 
  • At the most aggressive end of the range, you might react by tackling Rhonda and getting her in a sleeper hold.

In between the extremes, you have intermediate options that at each level increase the amount of external control you’re exerting over the child’s behavior.  The options range from making observations (“Wow!  It looks like you’re really mad!”), to talking with the kids about the situation (“Why do you think I might have made a rule about hitting?”), to offering directives (“Let go of him right now!”), to offering rewards (“If you let go of him I’ll give you sardines for lunch tomorrow – and I know they’re your favorite!”).

The important takeaway is that discipline is not a single action or activity – it’s a spectrum.  This means that the key to getting better at discipline is not a “key” at all – the core skill is learning how to match the intensity of our reaction to the situation.

There isn’t a single “correct” strategy.  To match the strategy to the situation, consider four main factors:

How dangerous is this situation?  The more dangerous the situation, the more aggressively you need to act.  If you know Rhonda can throw down, get her attention fast by interjecting louder than the ambient noise (“Whoa!  Rhonda!”), or by physically intervening (pull her away, put your body in between her and Frank, or pick her up).

How much time do I have to act?  If Rhonda’s punch is about to land, modeling keeping your hands to yourself won’t work quickly enough to help.  However, if the situation is about a slower-moving issue, for instance, if Rhonda keeps forgetting to bring her lunchbox home from school, you’ve got some time. You can talk about it and help her slowly develop her own organizational skills – no need to tackle her in the driveway.

What is the age and developmental level of this child?  Aggressive strategies (such as physical interventions and directives) are helpful for emergencies, for small children, and for older children and adults who need significant help with self-regulation and need a greater degree of structure and direction to stay safe.  Asking open questions will probably not convince your two-year-old that it’s time to leave the lake.  And carrying your high-functioning fifteen-year-old out of the lake is probably not necessary.

What are the long term affects of the strategy I choose? 

The long-term affects are important because our goal is not obedient children, but successful, self-moderating adults.  Each discipline strategy might be appropriate at times, but some strategies encourage self-regulation more than others.  Discipline does not need to be adversarial—when you work to modify kids’ behavior, you are acting on their behalf to protect them from their immaturity. Your goal, as they grow, is to replace your control with their internal regulation.  As I mentioned above, aggressive strategies can be helpful in some situations, but when used over time or in non-emergency situations, they convey a misleading message that thwarts healthy growth: the concept that the reasons to self-protect are external, rather than internal, and that mistakes are intolerable.  Whenever you are able, using strategies like dialogue that encourage the development of self-regulation helps kids grow to be adults with an independent, internal structure for self-care: the ultimate goal of “raising” kids in the first place.


Join us on January 12 at 6:30 at The JCC in Manhattan for her next workshop, “Ethical Discipline.”

Ethical Discipline

January 12, 6:30-8:30 PM
JCC Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue
Beit Midrash, 7th floor
Discipline doesn’t need to be a struggle! Join Ma’yan Program Director Pippi Kessler for a free workshop where you can learn to modify behavior and set limits using techniques that encourage self-moderation and cooperation. Whether you’re a parent, educator, or relative, you’ll learn concrete strategies to help kids grow successfully.

To register, please contact Pippi Kessler at or 646.505.4424. Drop-ins are also welcome. For more information, visit  


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