Discipline Tips For Dads Who Don't Want To Be Harsh (Like Theirs Were)

Being a modern, nurturing dad has some modern challenges.
"Put down the toy like I told you to before I SNAP, kid."
"Put down the toy like I told you to before I SNAP, kid."

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I fall firmly in the “don’t judge other parents; we’re all just doing the best we can” camp, but I still found it hard to stomach when I saw a dad spank his misbehaving kid outside our daycare last week.

WATCH: Countries where spanking is illegal. Story continues below.

It was dark, so I didn’t see which of my son’s classmates got the smack. But I felt profoundly sad for this preschooler as well as his dad, who was clearly on his last nerve trying to get his kid in the effing car.

My husband faces the same daily “GET IN THE GODDAMN CAR, OMG” battle with our strong-willed three-year old. I’ve watched him bargain, bribe, try to make getting in the car a game, do the dreaded countdown from five, snap, raise his voice, threaten to take away privileges, and finally carry him screaming under one arm out the door and wrestle him into the seat.

My husband has the patience of a saint, but I hate watching this scenario play out, especially since our kid (like a lot of children) tends to respond more calmly to me, his mom.

Which begs the question: why is it that so many dads struggle with discipline?

Several experts point out that this stems at least partially from the re-negotiation of a modern dad’s role. In other words, today’s dads, perhaps without great role models to fall back on, can struggle with how to discipline while still being the nurturing, involved fathers they want to be.

WATCH: How this dad models modern masculinity to his boys. Story continues below.

Modern dads have modern challenges

Today’s modern dads tend to be more involved in caregiving than ever before, shifting how fathers view their own roles and challenging tired stereotypes.

One of those stereotypical roles that is shifting is “dad the disciplinarian.” Gone are the “wait until your dad gets home” days of instilling fear in the kids. In fact, a widely cited 2018 study found that while some dads still do engage in harsh discipline techniques, that this only happens very rarely and is more likely in dads who adhere to “masculine norms.”

Many of today’s dads (who may have been spanked or disciplined harshly as kids) want their kids to have better experiences than they did, Fatherly points out.

“Fathers who have deemed their own experiences while growing up as harsh have reacted to them and soften their approach to their children,” Luke Tse, a psychologist who studies dads, told the website.

Plus, working dads tend to take on a more playful role with their kids, which can make discipline a challenge, Tom Beardshaw from the Fatherhood Institute told SuperNanny.co.uk.

“A common response to having precious little time with your children is to be very playful and fun – filling time with high energy, play, treats, and games. While this can be hugely effective for bonding quickly, it can make life really complicated if dad suddenly attempts to turn into a stern disciplinarian,” Beardshaw noted.

Remember it’s about teaching, not controlling

So, what’s a dad to do? How do you get the kids to listen without falling back on harsh discipline techniques, like yelling or (eek) spanking?

(For the record, spanking is still legal in Canada, but child health experts have called for a ban, noting that it can lead to an “increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children.”)

First of all, dads tend to have an innate pattern of discipline to “show my child who is boss,” but remember that discipline is about teaching, not control, psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein told Psychology Today.

“As a ‘yeller in recovery,’ I learned the hard way that shouting at your kids and issuing commands does little to stop defiant behavior. In fact, it tends to fuel defiance. Many older fathers I’ve counseled over the years have shared with me that their deepest regret was being too tough on their kids,” Bernstein said.

Don't be this dad, even if the kids are being total shits.
Don't be this dad, even if the kids are being total shits.

“You must consider discipline a way to teach your child rather than a way to control him or her. This is the only way to make discipline work for you.”

In this vein, Bernstein suggested trying to understand what fuels your child’s bad behaviour, and setting logical consequences that make sense to your child (for instance, if a kid whips his plate of dinner at the floor, making them clean it up is a more logical consequence than sending them to time out or yelling).

Don’t withdraw love

The worse your kid acts, the less ... enamoured of them ... one might feel. But no matter how shitty they’re being, try not to act like they’re an annoying burden.

Research has found it’s important for dads not to withdraw love as a disciplinary tactic. This can increase a child’s social anxiety and loneliness, according to a 2017 study, and is specific to fathers — the same effect on kids wasn’t found when moms withdrew love.

Even the brattiest kid needs your love.
Even the brattiest kid needs your love.

“How do you not lose patience with a difficult child? By relating to his insecurities,” psychologist Aaron Hass, author of The Gift Of Fatherhood, told Parents magazine.

“Ironically, it is the more difficult child who needs you the most. He hears your constant criticisms. He sees your looks of exasperation. And he feels terrible that you think those things about him, for he is desperate for your love.”

Try to show patience, self-control, and generosity, Hass said.

In terms of generosity, experts also recommend finding ways to say yes instead of no, within limits obviously, to diffuse a tense standoff. Some examples include “Yes, you can have candy ... for a snack, not breakfast,” or “Yes, I wish we could play outside all day, too, but we need to drive home. Why don’t we play when we get there?”

Be consistent and praise often

Whatever discipline style you adhere to, it’s critical to be consistent, Beardshaw noted. And co-parents should always back each other up in front of the kids.

“Pick your rules carefully – make sure there are only a few, that they’re easy to understand and that you ALWAYS enforce them,” he told SuperNanny.co.uk.

Beardshaw suggests praising your kids for their good behaviour about three or four times as often as you point out bad behaviour. In other words, all those times your kid gets in the car without a fight? Let them know how much you appreciate it, and they might do it more often.

And when your kid is seriously out of line ... act quickly and logically

So, back to the “kid refusing to get in the car” scenario, which has now hit a crisis point. You’re late. Your kid is screaming “no.” You’ve tried and failed every trick in your toolkit to get your kid to listen. Maybe they even did something really bad during the struggle, like kick the car or hit you.

Now what?

WATCH: What to do when your kid won’t listen. Story continues below.

Keep calm, set a logical consequence, don’t delay, and move on quickly.

“You can’t punish a child at the end of the day for something (or a bunch of things) he did earlier – he won’t associate the undesirable action and its consequence,” All Pro Dad notes.

Be specific and clear in the consequence, which in this scenario can be as simple as strapping the kid into the car seat against their will (as gently as you can). “You did not listen to me when I asked you to get in the car, so I had to put you in it myself. You also kicked the car when you were angry, which meant I could not let you stand outside anymore.”

Or, “Hitting me in the face hurt me and gave me a headache, so we cannot listen to your Raffi CD on the way home because it will make my headache worse.”

Once you’ve explained, drop it. Your job as teacher is done.

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