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Fathers and Discipline

When we hear the terms "discipline" and "father," there appears to be a natural connection, but often with negative overtones. The idea of a father as one who punishes or is an authoritarian figure runs deep in our culture. Yet, fathers have much more to offer than only helping their children learn self- control and social rules, and their role involves much more than punishment.

Discipline is one of those familiar words that carry different meanings. To many people, discipline simply implies the setting of firm rules and limits and administering punishments for breaking those rules. But, in fact, the meaning is more complex. The word discipline is based on the Latin word "discipulus," which means "a pupil," or more accurately, "one who is learning." Thus, the ancient origins of discipline are based on the notion of a reciprocal process of teaching and learning.

This notion is included in the modern definition of discipline. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (2000), the verb "to discipline" is defined as: 1. to train by instruction and practice, especially to teach self-control to. 2. to teach to obey rules or accept authority. See Synonyms at teach. 3. to punish in order to gain control of, enforce obedience. See Synonyms at punish.

When discipline refers to training and teaching specific behaviors of selfcontrol and moral development, this becomes a tall order for all parents, yet one that has historically been embraced by fathers. Indeed, prior to the 1900s in western culture, it was assumed that fathers more than mothers were responsible for the development of their children's moral behavior and self control. Men were expected to take on the critical teaching role. How can today's fathers provide discipline, in the sense of teaching and training their children? When does discipline start, and what form does it take?

Why Discipline is Important

The association between child-rearing practices and children's development of self-control has been well documented in research. Studies indicate that the quality of parental care is critical in the first year of life. Parents who are responsive, stimulating, and encouraging with their babies are laying the foundation for the development of self-control. During this first year, babies learn whether or not their signals, such as cries when hungry, or cold, are understood, and if their needs are met. A successful interaction involves a parent reacting to a baby's message and behaving responsively and leads to more successful social interactions (Parke & Sawin 1976). In the second year, when children begin walking and exploring on their own, it is important for parents to set limits for the child's safety and provide guidelines for acceptable behavior. Parents begin to think more and more about how and when to discipline their toddlers who are increasingly asserting their independence and autonomy which are necessary, normal aspects of early development.

The temperament of each young child affects each parent's approach to discipline. Research shows that fussy, active, or difficult toddlers often drive their parents to be more restrictive and more punitive (Patterson 1980). A cycle of negative interactions is set in motion; misbehavior is followed by punishment; punishment is followed by increasing, accelerating patterns of misbehavior. The father's role in these family interactions involves both the support of the mother and direct interactions with the child. Both research studies and parents themselves report that the hard-to-manage children are more compliant and agreeable with their fathers than with their mothers. Also, when the father is present in the room or nearby, children are much more compliant with their mothers (Patterson 1980; Lytton 1980). Research also indicates that when problems spiral out of control, sometimes fathers step in with harsh, direct punishment to get the situation back under control, which, unfortunately, can precipitate a cycle of punishment and misbehavior (DeKlyen 1998). Thus, poorly modulated behavior in a toddler or preschool child can overwhelm the mother or father, as well as split the parents into disagreement as they argue on how to manage the child. When parents disagree on behavior management, there is little improvement in the child.

The first positive strategy is to help the parents agree on how to handle some specific parenting issues. For example, they might come up with a plan to follow at bedtime, including specific ways to talk with the child. In this way, consistency is built up in the home environment. Calm, consistent behavior by adults is the model for teaching self-control in the child. The concept of discipline as teaching a set of behaviors to the child "not just punishment" becomes a reality only when there is consistency. A consistent plan on handling bedtime tantrums carried out by the mother and father can go a long way toward establishing a general pattern of discipline and the development of self-control.

Sidebar: Strategies for disciplining kids who have ADHD. Be clear about the expectations; consistent; patient; rather than just saying "no," explain (preferably show) the child what positive behavior you expect; reward positive behavior with attention.

Research emphasizes the important role of fathers in helping children to learn the standards of behavior for their group and to develop the capacity of self-regulation (Lamb 1987). When fathers are absent, curtail, or ignore their child-rearing responsibilities, there are implications throughout the family system. Mothers are likely to feel unsupported, abandoned, angry, and resentful. The resulting tension exacerbates the child's challenging behaviors. Lack of parental involvement by the father leaves the mother as the sole unsupported teacher of social skills and deprives the child of another role model. When fathers do not participate in child rearing, the results can be heightened intensity and duration of mother-child conflict and problems in discipline (Campbell 2002).

Playing with Children

The role of fathers for all children, not just those with challenging behaviors, is unique and important. As Lamb (1998) has indicated, the father is typically the one who engages in physical rough and tumble play with children. In the course of active play, children may test limits. Whether the activity involves tickling, wrestling or splashing in the pool, paying attention and stopping when needed are important lessons to be learned. Thus, discipline and learning self-control can start with play.

Fathers tend to be more active in their play, helping their children to be first in a race, catch the ball the most times, throw the farthest, jump the farthest, and leap into the water. While mothers are sometimes exasperated at fathers who get their sons and daughters excited, energized, and otherwise "all worked up," play has purpose. It tests limits and boundaries generally pushed less often by mothers. The children have to learn how to play without hurting someone else or getting hurt themselves, and how to direct their energy.

Constructive play is something both fathers and mothers can enjoy. Whether building with blocks to construct a road or a family's house, or "cooking" with play food and utensils, children enjoy the process of creating and constructing, then starting all over again. One of the most valuable interactions a father can have is getting down on the floor each day for 15 minutes and playing with his child - playing, commenting, and giving undivided attention.

Talking to Children

How parents speak greatly influences how often children comply with directions. While individuals certainly differ, the research is fairly consistent that mothers tend to explain more to their children, while fathers tend to use fewer words in all interactions. Fathers are often more tactile and physical, while mothers are typically more verbal and didactic (Parke 1996). Let's look at the task of giving a child the command to get ready to go to bed. Many mothers assume that if the child really understands why it is time for bed, they will be more likely to go to bed. For example, a mother might say, "Go to bed now because you have a busy day tomorrow," and follow it with a long explanation about how the body needs to rest, the child looks tired, and so on. However, the child, may lose track of the direction "go to bed" in the midst of all the other words.

On the other hand, some parents, more often fathers, tend to be a bit more direct, but often without the explanation. A very direct, "Go to bed now" appears harsh and may elicit some negative emotions from the child. An effective middle ground would be a brief explanation, followed by a clear command:" It's past your bedtime, you've had a busy day and have a lot to do tomorrow. It's time to go to bed." Repeating the direction (go to bed) at the end of the verbal exchange helps bring it to the child's attention.

Consequences: Positive and Negative

Consistently positive or negative responses to a child's behavior will change how often the child will respond the same way. Most child behavior is shaped by hundreds of daily back-and-forth interactions with the world around them, not by any single event or response. In short, parents need to do what they say, and to be consistent. If parents promise to do things and do them each time they promise, their children will trust and expect them to follow through. If a parent promises to play after dinner, and does, the child may eat more neatly and quickly. If a parent promises to take away a privilege because the child has broken a rule, the parent needs to do it so the child follows the rule next time. Promises are critically important when fathers do not live with their children and visits are arranged. Promised visits, phone calls and activities must occur, or the child learns not to trust the father, or other adults for that matter.

When positive and negative consequences are used to shape behavior, large, lavish one-time rewards of an expensive toy or video game, or harsh intense punishments such as being spanked severely or sent to one's room for hours, are not as effective as the little rewards of adult attention and time, or consistent brief mild punishments. For most children between the ages of two and six, a brief "Time Out" of sitting away quietly, not isolated, but not being paid attention is the most effective mild punishment. "Time Out" allows both parent and child to cool down, and the withdrawal of adult attention functions to reduce the problem behavior in the future. Other brief logical consequences include a short loss of privilege. For example if two children fight over a toy or what to watch on TV, and are unable to problem-solve, a parent might put the toy away temporarily or turn off the TV for a half hour. The key here is to follow through, calmly and consistently. Of course, these are also opportune times to teach children strategies for working out their disagreements.


When fathers understand that disciplining their child is an opportunity to teach by words and actions, they will have an important role in helping their children learn appropriate behavior and self-control. Engaging in fun play, conversation, and the use of fair consequences are times when discipline can be used in positive, nurturing ways.

Valuing Discipline

The following points are taken from the 21st Century Exploring Parenting Program, a Head Start publication. In Session 7 of the program, values are defined as standards of right and wrong that guide behavior. Though most parents do not realize it, their values determine how and why they discipline their children. It is therefore important for parents to evaluate their own values and to understand that every time they discipline their children, they are teaching about values.

Discipline is better understood as guidance and teaching, not controlling and punishing. Over time, children will learn how to control themselves, but until they can, adults need to help them by setting appropriate limits and modeling correct behavior. Discipline is an all day - every day teaching and learning process. These points will help parents as they continue to guide their young children.

  • Values are principles and standards that guide our behavior.
  • The values that individual family members hold dear vary considerably.
  • Parents want their children to accept their values.
  • The words "discipline" and "disciple" come from the Latin word "discipulus" which means pupil or student - one who learns.
  • Babies need to be loved, nurtured, and accepted as they are. Nothing they do can be called misbehavior.
  • Toddlers need adults to make rules that keep them and others safe and protect the family's belongings. They need help in keeping these rules and controlling their behavior.
  • Preschoolers still need help in regulating their behavior. They are ready for more explanations about why they must do some things and cannot do others.
  • The more time you spend in positive interaction with your children, the more likely it is that they will accept your values and want to please you.
  • The combination of positive time together and discipline usually works better than discipline alone.


  1. Campbell, S.B. 2002. Behavior Problems in Preschool Children: Clinical and Developmental Issues. Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press.DeKlyen, M., Speltz, M.L., Greenberg, M.T. 1998. Fathering and early onset conduct problems: Positive and negative parenting, father-son attachment, and marital conflict. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 1, 3-22.
  2. Lamb, M.E. 1987. The father's role: Cross-cultural perspectives. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.
  3. Lamb, M.E. 1998. Nonparental child care: Context, quality, correlates, and consequences. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & I. Sigel & A.K. Renninger (Vol. Eds) Handbook of Child Psychology: Volume 4. Child psychology in practice. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley.
  4. Lytton, H. 1980. Parent-Child interaction: The socialization process observed in twins and singleton families. New York: Plenum Press.
  5. Mash E.J. & Johnston, C. 1983. Sibling interactions of hyperactive and normal children and their relationship to reports of maternal stress and self-esteem. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. 12, 91-99.
  6. Parke, R.D. 1996. Fatherhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  7. Parke, R.D. & Sawin, D.B. 1976. The father's role in infancy: A Reevaluation. The Family Coordinator. 25, 365-371.
  8. Pickett, J. et al (Eds). 2000. American Heritage Dictionary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  9. W. Douglas Tynan is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Disruptive Behavior Clinic at A. I. duPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, DE

Head Start Bulletin
Issue No. 77
by W. Douglas Tynan
Last Modified: 06/17/04

Reviewed by athealth on February 4, 2014.