Providing Structure for Your Child: How to Assert Your Parental Authority

What is Structure?

When parents provide structure, it means they are asserting and establishing their parental authority and control in a responsible manner in order to encourage healthy growth and development of their children. In this article, we will look at a number of ways parents can provide structure for their children, including structuring their child’s environment, setting up daily schedules and routines, and controlling their child’s behavior through discipline strategies.

Why Provide Structure?

For safety and security: Children need structure and limits to ensure their physical and emotional safety and security. Chaotic and unstructured environments are detrimental to children’s healthy development.

For learning about the world and the people in it: By learning rules and understanding limits on their behaviors, children are educated about the world and how to get along with the people in it.

For understanding about disappointment and frustration: In a structured environment, children learn how to handle feelings of frustration and disappointment. They also learn how to delay gratification. These are important skills for later in life.

For developing self-responsibility: Limits and demands provide children with an opportunity to learn self-control and to make responsible choices on their own.

How to Provide Structure

1. Structuring the Environment:

Providing structure for your child can mean structuring your child’s environment. Often this means determining what activities your child will engage in and how your child will fill his or her time. If you are the one in charge, it will mean being available physically and mentally to provide appropriate monitoring and supervision for your child. If others are in charge, it will mean ensuring the competency of these other people.

2. Establishing Daily Routines:

Providing structure for children can mean setting up routines for daily living that are consistent and predictable. Important daily routines include morning, mealtime, and bedtime routines. Children learn many things from these routines, such as how to take care of themselves and how to interact with others. However, the most important thing they learn from regular routines is that life runs more smoothly if things are organized and predictable.

3. Using Effective Discipline Strategies:

Providing structure for children can also mean controlling children’s behaviors using various discipline strategies. Parents usually control their children’s behaviors in two ways. The first way is by making demands on their children to engage in certain appropriate behaviors, for example, to do their homework, clean their rooms, or be ready for school on time. The second way parents control their children’s behaviors is by setting limits for unacceptable behaviors, for example, to not hit others, draw on the walls, or watch violent TV shows.

How to Use Effective Discipline Strategies

Effective discipline strategies are based on behavior modification principals, which simply mean that children’s appropriate behaviors are encouraged by rewards and inappropriate behaviors are discouraged by consequences. Effective discipline strategies follow these three principles:

  1. Establishing Family Rules
  2. Using Rewards to Increase Positive Behaviors
  3. Using Consequences to Reduce Undesirable Behaviors

Establishing Family Rules:

Rules should be specific (“no hitting your sister” as opposed to “be nice to your sister”), clear and easy for your child to understand, achievable, age-appropriate, and consistent. Ideally, rules should be discussed and decided upon ahead of time in mutual collaboration between both parents without the child present. Then, after the rules have been agreed upon by the parents, they should be explained to the child.

Using Rewards to Increase Positive Behaviors:

Rewards are used to increase the occurrence of desirable and appropriate behaviors in your child, for example putting his shoes in the closet. It is generally better to reward desirable behaviors than to use consequences on undesirable behaviors. It is also best, if possible, to provide the reward immediately after the desired behavior has occurred.

It is important for parents to be aware of their child’s desirable behaviors. Often these behaviors go unnoticed by parents with the result that the child has no motivation to continue with the “good” behaviors. Make a list of desirable and appropriate behaviors you would like to see in your child; these will often include opposites of unacceptable behaviors, for example your child not hitting after being provoked by her younger brother.

Parents often feel uncomfortable when the hear the word “reward” and think it means rewarding only with material items such as toys or money. However, contrary to what you may think, the easiest and most important way for you to reward your child is to provide positive attention to your child during or after he or she has completed the appropriate behavior. You can acknowledge the desired behavior (“I noticed you played quietly when I was busy with Dad”), express appreciation or approval (“I like it when you put your dirty clothes in the basket”), praise the behavior (“Well done! Good job!”), or show interest in the child and his or her activities by describing the child’s behavior or acknowledging the child’s feelings (“you cut up the carrots into little circles”, “you like to put your shirt on like that”). Even something as easy as a smile or gentle touch from you will provide an instant reward to a child.

You can also reward a child with a favorite activity. Examples include extra time for the TV or computer, going swimming, eating out, going to the playground, or going to a movie. Material rewards can also be used and examples include toys, craft materials, clothes, sports items, CDs, DVDs, computer games, or money.

For these types of rewards, the point system works well where the child accumulates points for good behavior. After a certain number of points have been accumulated, the child receives the reward. (“If you are able to color quietly on your own for 10 minutes when I am busy talking with dad, then you will get a point on your Reward Chart. Remember, when you get 5 points, you will get your special prize that we talked about.”)

Using Consequences to Reduce Undesirable Behaviors:

Consequences are used to decrease the occurrence of undesirable behaviors, such as hitting or damaging things. Consequences should be specific and explained clearly to the child ahead of time by giving a warning.

Consequences should also be chosen carefully ahead of time by the parents and should be easily enforceable, or in other words be something that the parent is willing and able to carry out.

Consequences do not need to be harsh or severe to be effective. Generally, if consequences are too harsh, resentment, defiance, power struggles, and tantrums are frequently the result. Consequences should be reasonable and are generally more effective if they are relatively mild.

Consequences can also be negotiated ahead of time with the child to make them meaningful to the child (“What do you think should happen next time you don’t put your toys away when I ask you?”).

Examples of Consequences

1. Loss of Privileges:

Loss of privileges means loss of the opportunity to participate in a special or favorite activity. This is based on the concept that privileges come with responsibilities and if a child is irresponsible, a privilege is lost. Examples include not participating in a special or favorite activity (such as staying up late, “You will not be allowed to stay up half an hour later tonight”; watching TV, “You will not be able to watch TV for tonight”; using the computer, “You have lost your chance to use the computer this morning”), not going on a special outing (such as movies, eating out, going to the playground, “We will not be able to go the playground/restaurant/movies this afternoon”), or ending an activity (such as going home, “We will have to go home right now ”; or ending a playtime, “You will have to end your play time with Jessica for today”).

Usually, the loss of the privilege would be for a specific, limited time period (“You will not be able to watch TV tonight”; “You are grounded for this afternoon”). Loss of privileges for extended periods of time such as weeks or months, is often no more effective than losing privileges for a shorter time period, such as an afternoon, evening, or day. The advantage with the shorter period is that it is easier for parents to keep track of and enforce.

2. Loss of a Material Item:

Children can lose the opportunity to use a toy or needed item (“I will have to put away the truck for today”, “You will not be able to use the scissors for the rest of the afternoon”) or they can lose points on a reward chart (“You will lose a point on your reward chart”).

3. Time-Out:

Children can be sent to their room or a specific time-out area as a consequence. For time-out, the general rule is one minute for each year of the child’s age (a 3 year old would get 3 minutes of time-out). It helps to have a timer handy to keep track of the time-out.

An alternate way of doing time-out is to view the time-out area as a “feeling better place”. The child goes to this area to calm down and “feel better” and may leave the feeling better place when he or she chooses to behave appropriately (“You need to go to your feeling better place until you can stop calling your sister names”).

The Process of Using Consequences

The process of using consequences is simple and follows a step-wise procedure:

Step 1: State the Rule
Step 2: Give the Warning of the Consequence
Step 3: Enforce the Consequence

Step 1: State the Rule

Rules need to be stated frequently to children. They seem to need to hear them repeated over and over again, which can be very frustrating for parents.

Step 1 can be repeated several times if the inappropriate behavior continues without moving on to Step 2 immediately. The reason for this is to give the child an opportunity to assume self-responsibility. When to move on to Step 2 is a judgment call for the parent; in some cases you may want to move on quickly and not repeat Step 1 if the inappropriate behavior continues. However, too often parents move on too quickly to Step 2 without giving the child a chance to comply without having to use a consequence.

Giving choices is also sometimes helpful (“You can either pick up the crayons now or after you have had a snack”, “You can either leave your sister’s dolls alone or you can go play by yourself”).

Target acceptable alternatives to unacceptable behaviors (“You can’t hit me, but you can hit the pillow”).

Step 2: Give the Warning of the Consequence

This step should be carefully stated so that the child clearly understands he has a choice and that whatever consequence happens will be the result of his choice; children need to realize they have a choice and the consequences are related to their behavior.

Step 2 is not repeated and once you have moved on to Step 2, giving the warning of the consequence, you must move immediately on to Step 3 if the inappropriate behavior continues. Parents can get into a bad habit of repeatedly giving warnings on the same broken rule over and over again without moving on to enforcing the consequence.

Don’t forget to prepare ahead of time and to think ahead for what consequences you will be giving for a particular inappropriate behavior. It is very difficult to think of a consequence when your child is in the middle of acting inappropriately.

Step 3: Enforce the Consequence

Move on to Step 3 the very next time the child exhibits the unacceptable behavior after the warning has been given. Too often, parents give the warning over and over again, which makes it ineffective.

Things to Remember About Rules and Consequences

Be brief and limit your talking to stating the rule and consequence only at the time of the inappropriate behavior. Lengthy debates, explanations and arguments should be avoided at this time. Ignore complaints from the child. Further discussion about the rule and consequence should be done at a later time when things have cooled down for both parent and child. See below for the details of any further discussion.

Rules and consequences should be stated in a calm, patient, matter-of-fact, confident, and firm manner. Avoid anger and hostility. Don’t let your emotions take control. Refrain from yelling or shouting. Stay calm!

Sometimes ignoring inappropriate behavior, especially whining and complaining, can be very effective.

Distraction techniques can also be effective; if a child is behaving badly, distraction with something of interest can focus your child on more positive behaviors (“Let’s go outside and kick the ball”, “Oh look, this looks really fun over here”)

Prevent negative behaviors by anticipating problem situations and structuring the environment. For example, don’t let your child get into a situation where she becomes overly tired, hungry, bored, or frustrated.

Discussions About Rules and Consequences

Discussing the details of rules and consequences with your child is important and generally should be done at a time separate from when your child is actually engaged in the inappropriate behavior and when parent and child are calm. Things you can discuss with your child can include the following:

Give reasons for rules (“You have to get up early for school so you need to be in bed by 8:30”, “Toys left all over the floor can get broken and it is also very dangerous”, “The window might get broken if you throw things at it”, “When you paint on the wall, it makes a mess and it takes time to clean it up”).

Reflect the child’s feelings or desires (“You were so angry you just wanted to hit her when she took your crayon”, “I know you wanted to go to the movies”, “You like to jump on the couch because it feels good”).

Use “I” messages where you express your feelings and point of view. Remember to send the message that you disapprove of your child’s behavior only and not his or her “self” or character. (“I feel worried when you don’t phone me because I think something happened to you”, “I’m really disappointed that you pushed Sarah into the gravel”, “I’m angry that the carpet has stains on it now”, “I don’t like it when clothes are left on the floor because then I have to pick them up”, “I don’t think it’s very nice when Sarah is not included because she is the only one left out”)

Warn your child of the negative natural consequences and dangers of his or her behavior (“If you ride without a helmet, you could hurt yourself very badly so that you might never be able to do active things like run or skate or ride anymore.”)

Explain the impact of your child’s unacceptable behavior on others. Help your child become aware of other’s feelings as a result of the negative behavior (“When you laughed at Jamie, he probably felt very hurt”, “When you touch Paul’s fort, he doesn’t like it because he worked so hard on it”).

Re-state the rule and your expectations for future appropriate behavior (“Next time I want you to hit the pillow when you get so angry instead of hitting me”).

Help your child use problem-solving skills in order to make a future plan for changing behavior in the future. If the behavior involves difficulties getting along with others, help your child learn appropriate communication and conflict resolutions skills (“What can you do next time Brenna won’t share?”, “You could put your clothes in the laundry basket every time you take them off, then you won’t have such a big pile to clean up”).

What About Punishment?

“Punishment” and “consequences” are sometimes used interchangeably. “Consequences” are generally used to indicate an appropriate action on the parent’s part as a result of unacceptable behavior on a child’s part. “Punishment” is generally used to indicate an overly severe type of consequence given by a parent as a result of a child’s unacceptable behavior.

Harsh punishment is now considered unacceptable as a parenting option. It is also an ineffective method of discipline. Harsh punishment includes any form of physical aggression such as spanking, grabbing, squeezing, pushing, shaking, hitting, etc. It also includes verbal aggression such as criticisms, put-downs, sarcasm, teasing, humiliation, swearing, name-calling, etc. This type of punishment is not respectful and will undermine a child’s self-image. It can also be considered as physical or emotional abuse to a child. We are living in a violent society today and using aggression and violence, whether physical or verbal, is saying to a child that aggression and violence are the ways to handle frustration or anger. It is important for parents to know also that there is no scientific evidence to support spanking.

Children who limit their behavior strictly out of fear of harsh punishment are likely to behave themselves only in situations where there is an authority figure present. These children do not learn to “internalize” values and may not develop a healthy conscience. Harsh punishment also results in resentment by the child towards the parent, which in turn weakens the parent-child relationship and can result in the child acting out even more. Harsh punishment can also lead to excessive fear and anxiety in a child and can result in a child being overly anxious and inhibited so that healthy expressions of assertiveness and self-identity are restricted.

A Word About Parental Flexibility

Because children change as they develop, parents need to be able to be flexible and to change their parenting strategies. What is appropriate structure for a 4-year-old may not be appropriate for a 9-year-old.

Parents who are overly rigid and inflexible in their parenting can cause problems for themselves and stifle their children’s emerging self-identity. Sometimes, being flexible with limits and demands is helpful for parents to get through a difficult situation. It is normal for all children to want to negotiate limits and demands with their parents, especially as they get older and approach adolescence. Parents need to develop their ability to make changes to the rules.

It is always appropriate to listen to a child’s point of view about a rule; sometimes, especially as children get older, it is appropriate for parents to consider making changes to the rules based on their children’s reasoning. This does not mean giving in to a child’s every demand, but rather it means at times being able to negotiate with a child on a rule and to reach a compromise. A compromise means each person gives up something so that each person gets something.

Finally, Independence Training!

Although providing structure and using parental control strategies are important skills for parents to use, it is also important to be aware of the importance of allowing children some independence and autonomy. It is beneficial, when safe and appropriate, to allow children to have some opportunities to make their own choices and decisions, to respect these choices and decisions, and then to allow natural “real-world” consequences to occur. Often, this learning from natural consequences is very powerful for children and seems to be more meaningful for them than if parents merely set limits or made demands. For example, letting a child go to school without a coat or to be late for school because she did not get ready in time will make a big impression on a child.

Why encourage independence and autonomy in a child? Children develop a sense of confidence in themselves if they are allowed to make choices and decisions and if these choices and decisions are respected. The message you are sending to your child is that you have confidence in him and trust him to make an appropriate choice. This results in the development of healthy self-esteem in the child as well as strengthening the parent-child relationship. In addition, allowing children to make choices and decisions encourages a sense of self-responsibility in a child and prevents dependence of the child on parents and other adults.

It is important to remember however, not to confuse independence training with excessive permissiveness, lack of attention or supervision, or neglect. Although too little independence from too rigid or controlling parenting strategies is not healthy for children, neither is too much independence. Children very much do need structure, routines, limits, demands, and supervision for healthy development. So remember that, as a parent, you do have a responsibility to assert your authority in order to provide a safe and healthy environment for your child to thrive in.

A Parent’s Real Power

Where does your power come from as a parent? It is true that understanding effective discipline strategies will enhance your ability to control your child. However your real power as a parent comes from the strength and quality of your relationship with your child. The stronger the parent-child relationship, the more your child will want to behave in ways that are close to your own values and to not disappoint you. Understanding the importance of the parent-child relationship on the effectiveness of discipline strategies can be neatly summed up through the concept of reciprocity in parent-child relationships. Reciprocity means that a parent who shows a willingness to cooperate with a child will encourage the child's willingness to cooperate with the parent.

Copyright Kathy Eugster, 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Kathy Eugster, MA, RCC,

Pacific Spirit Play Therapy Resources

Kathy Eugster