Discipline: The Brazelton Way, Second Edition


By T. Berry Brazelton

By Joshua Sparrow

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World renowned pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow see discipline as a parent’s gift to a child. By following the doctors’ unique approach, which emphasizes teaching over punishment, parents will find effective solutions for common behavior problems. Not only will parents feel more confident and at ease but they will also experience the joy of raising children who learn to discipline themselves. The vital advice covers six stages of discipline, the power of consequences, ways to encourage moral development and empathy, dealing with misbehavior (from biting and fighting to cheating, lying and using foul language), and special disciplinary challenges (including academic pressure, illness, and digital technology).


Preface to the Second Edition

In the more than ten years since the best-selling first edition of Discipline: The Brazelton Way was published, our world has been transformed in ways that few of us would ever have predicted. Many parenting challenges remain the same, of course. Yet new ones—along with new opportunities—have arisen across the United States and in the many countries where Discipline has been made available in translation. Digital technology and changes in the workplace, families, neighborhoods, and in our increasingly connected planet are reshaping the world in which we discipline our children. These forces are also likely to shape the future for which we use discipline to prepare them.

Despite and because of these changes, parents still clamor for help in responding to their children’s misbehavior. It is our hope that this new, revised edition will bring parents the time-tested guidance they need, as well as a commonsense approach to the surprising new twists that they must confront. As with the earlier editions, this one is not intended to cover children’s behavior challenges exhaustively, nor to replace firsthand professional diagnosis and treatment.

Information Overload: The Internet

Today, parents seem to be turning less often to parenting “experts” and gurus, though the number of these keeps rising. Instead, parents are connecting with each other. The Internet makes this more immediate and convenient for busy parents than in-person parent groups. Other parents are easier to identify with than “the experts,” and may seem more inherently trustworthy, although this may not always be the case. Mommy bloggers, parent chat rooms, and other parent-to-parent sources of information give parents a chance to share challenges and tips, and simply to commiserate, in real time, as a crisis or meltdown erupts.

While parents can do a lot to support each other, and have much valuable wisdom to impart, sharing information through the Internet also brings its own limitations. First, the quantity of information on the Internet can seem nearly infinite, and overwhelming. The overload of perspectives and opinions available online is sure to overwhelm many parents who are just trying to be the best parents they can be. Second, the quality of information is for the most part uncertain and unverified, and parents are left to vet what they read for themselves. Much information—whether from other parents or professionals—is contradictory, rapidly changing, or a matter of opinion. Some of it may be far worse than that, and harmful.

To attract advertisers, websites and online magazines try to create the impression that their readers are all well-off enough to buy all kinds of products. Of course this isn’t necessarily true, and an overly rosy portrait is painted of life with young children that makes many parents feel left out, inadequate, or both. While parents may all share common concerns, there are important differences across culture, class, and individual circumstances that often seem to be whitewashed by the commercialization of childrearing. When such tips and advice seem out of touch with everyday realities, they are bound to make parents feel that those who offer them don’t understand what raising a child is really like. Parents need to remember that their most important guides will be their child’s behavior, their own deepest sense of who their child is, what they want for their child, and the expectations of their family, culture, and community.

Tips and Quick Fixes

Because there is so much more “information” than ever before, and so much less time, much effort is made by parenting media to reduce it to catchy tidbits. These are meant to put busy parents’ multitasking temporarily on hold, and to draw them in quickly, before the next banner or alert distracts them away to another website. One result of bite-sized information is that a child’s unique individuality is shrunk to fit a label, and a parent’s instinctive wisdom is passed over. Children’s challenging behavior—which is often a critical communication—is seen as a disturbance to be quashed, before it is understood.

Of course there are many behaviors that must be stopped, and can be. But if they are not also understood, many are likely to reemerge, or to fuel others. As inconvenient or distressing as misbehavior may be, it is also an opportunity. Each behavior challenge is a chance for a child to master, with a parent’s help, the job of learning self-control, perspective taking, problem solving, and of developing resilience. Instead, many websites and magazines peddle quick fixes. Promises such as “8 Tips for Taming Tantrums” and “End Sibling Squabbles in 5 Simple Steps” take advantage of parents’ understandable desperation, without building on the expertise they already have, and on the special strengths that each child brings to the task of growing up.

This kind of information aims only at extinguishing the immediate problem behavior, as fast as possible. Of course that is what any parent would want, and rightfully so. Yet attention must also be paid to what the child is learning as a result of these methods—“I should do what I’m told because I’ll be rewarded, or because Daddy has more power than me”—and to what might have been learned instead. Quick fixes create the impression that “successful” parenting means short-term behavior control, rather than teaching and skill building for life.

Many of the “10 Easy Ways to Stop Your Child’s Misbehavior” approaches actually do change behavior—in the short run. It is easy enough to use rewards, bribes, threats, and punishments to get a child’s attention, and to get her to stop. They also work well for training puppies. Some of them may have their place. Others may devalue children and parents when they do not spark the child’s inner motivation to control her own behavior.

Short-sighted parenting information also reinforces guilt that many parents feel:

           “There are simple ways to control any child’s behavior, but I can’t seem to make them work.”

           “My child’s behavior is a reflection on me and my parenting.”

           “Everyone else seems to know how to raise children.”

This vulnerability is all too easy to exploit. The truth is that parenting, like a child’s growing up, is a process of trial and error. Learning and growth take place through facing mistakes, not in never making any. Any advice, however wise or authoritative, has to be refined and adapted by each parent.

New Pressures, New Trends

Tiger Mothers

There’s no short supply of parents and other experts ready to say that their way is best for everyone. Yet the proof is less abundant. A tiger mother’s child may compliantly do what she says, and perhaps even gain admission to an elite college. Yet we won’t know for decades how they will fare in life or how they’ll face its challenges. And we may never know how these children really were raised.

Of course parents must provide expectations and limits. Of course children must learn perseverance and the value of practice and hard work. These do come from struggling through initially difficult tasks that are mastered only with patience and effort. But what else might a successful tiger mother really be giving her children, perhaps without realizing it? If encouragement, hope, and caring are at the heart of her deep investment in them, perhaps these are actually the secret ingredients for their drive and success.

Helicopter Parents

Sometime after the first edition of this book was published, more and more parents found themselves labeled “helicopter parents.” Such parents apparently hover over their children night and day, attempting to exert total control over their environment and experience. At times, the label is used when teachers, doctors, and other professionals who work with children want to keep parents out, and don’t recognize parents’ unique qualifications to understand their children. Yet partnering with parents almost always works better for everyone, especially the children.

Some helicopter parenting may also be due to today’s heightened attention to parenting, and greater expectations for parents. Women, in particular, are expected to “do it all”—to succeed in demanding careers while being perfect mothers and partners. But there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Instead, parents all learn to be parents through a process of trial and error, through close and careful observation. Children’s behavior is the guide, as well as parents’ experiences and the wider expectations of their communities and culture.

Nonetheless, some parental hovering may actually be on the rise. The world may be more dangerous in some ways, and the tolerance for risk is far less than it was when children were given more room to roam. Parents are also aware that their children are growing up in an increasingly competitive and overpopulated world with shrinking resources. When there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around—whether water, food, shelter, energy, spots on the soccer team, or seats in high-quality schools—parents may feel justified in intervening to make sure that their child does get enough and is not left behind, even if other people’s children are.

Many couples are also putting off having a child until later in life, and having only one or two. As a result, each child is felt to be precious in ways that are different from earlier eras. Parents are bound to be overprotective and to underdiscipline when children are few and long awaited. They may also tend to be single-mindedly focused on their own child, and less on all children, shaping their goals for discipline and the kinds of misbehavior they choose to respond to. (This is one of the reasonable concerns of teachers, pediatricians, and others who dedicate themselves to classrooms, waiting rooms, and busloads full of children.)

When parents come together in communities to share and reinforce their values and expectations for their children, they can increase each other’s effectiveness by disciplining in unison. Seeking special treatment for an individual child can prevent her from learning the value of hard work and the importance of making her own way. It may also interfere with learning to share, give, and sacrifice. When parents hover, they may prevent their child from experiencing the stresses that she will need to learn to handle on her own. When parents try to protect their children from the consequences of their own actions—for example, hitting a classmate or avoiding schoolwork—they are interfering with the role that the outside world plays in helping children learn to control themselves. Later on, when parents can’t be present and can’t insert themselves in these ways, older children and adolescents may flounder and find it hard to fit in.

Another reason for more parental hovering today is that humans have not evolved to raise children alone or in nuclear families. For most of human history, parents have raised their children with the help of many others, and still do so in most places on earth. The nuclear family is a relatively recent development that emerged a century or so ago, mostly in the United States and Europe. In recent decades, many parents have increasingly been pulled away from their families by their work. Declining real wages and the resulting need to hold down multiple jobs, as well as digital technology that brings work into the home at all hours, may finally be tipping a precarious balance. As we reach the limits of what one or two parents can do to raise their children by themselves, it is only natural that parents would increasingly seek help in settings outside the family. Whether in doctor’s offices, classrooms, or childcare or neighborhood centers, parents may be reestablishing lost traditions of cooperative childrearing, transforming them for the twenty-first century. As parents seek more support by rekindling relationships beyond the nuclear family, sharing the care of their children with others is bound to lead to some temporary challenges in knowing who, when, and how much to trust.

A “Science” of Parenting?

In recent years, “brain science” has been frequently invoked by parenting “experts,” who point to the truly astounding growth and growing complexity of the young human brain in the first three years of life. As one of the pioneers in identifying neuroplasticity in infants, I (TBB) am thrilled with the attention that these discoveries, and the role of the earliest interactions in stimulating brain development, have finally begun to receive.

Unfortunately, this recognition of the critical role of the early years for brain development has also added to the pressure that parents feel. Parents and other caregivers have always needed to be present and sufficiently tuned in to engage in predictable, meaningful, and increasingly elaborate communications with babies—from the beginning of life, long before they can speak. The form that these interactions take varies from family to family, culture to culture, and context to context. Yet many parents have been led to believe that early brain development hinges on one right way to raise a child. It is no wonder that parents may feel competitive with each other, and may measure their self-worth through their children’s achievements, such as early reading or test scores.

Happiest Kid on the Block Parenting

Another pressure on parents is to produce the happiest kid on the block, and with that comes competition among parents to produce a happier child than the neighbors’. Unrealistic goals like this make it even harder for parents to accept their role as disciplinarians who must inevitably, at times, impose limits and enforce rules that will make their children miserable—temporarily.

Many parents working long hours wish that they could be with their children more than they can, and of course would prefer to have fun together during the time they do have together. They also worry that they are missing out on important moments of their children’s lives—the first word, the first step, the first friendship. It is easy to see how parents yearn to see a happy child and want the reassurances that happy moments might bring.

Of course we all want our children to be happy, but this is not entirely up to parents, and we can’t possibly expect children, or parents, to be happy all the time. Not only is this goal unrealistic, but it interferes with other important goals: learning to stick to hard work, coping with disappointment and failure, and caring for others who may be less happy. Many moments of happiness are likely to be the rewarding by-products of these.

It is our hope that in the discipline-as-teaching-not-punishment approach of this book parents and children will find, in addition to reassurance, understanding, and plenty of fun, a sustaining joy in their relationships with each other.

Introduction: Your Child’s Road to Self-Discipline

Discipline is the second most important gift that a parent provides for a child. Of course love is the first. But the safety that a child finds in discipline is essential, for without discipline, there are no boundaries. Children need boundaries, and find comfort in them. They know they are loved when a parent cares enough to give the gift of discipline.

Discipline is teaching, not punishment. It won’t happen overnight. It takes repetition and patience. Parents’ long-term goal for discipline is to instill self-control, so that children eventually set their own limits. This will take many years. In this book we hope to give parents a map of the first steps—the “touchpoints” of discipline. By setting a pattern of firm, loving limits in the early years, parents help a child form the internal standards they will need throughout life. Opportunities for teaching discipline begin far earlier than many parents might think—in the very first days of a baby’s life.

When parents learn they are expecting, they hardly imagine that there will ever come a time when they must say “no” to this much-wanted child. But somewhere around 8 months of age, a typically developing child makes it clear that she is doing wrong, but knows better. As she heads for the stove on all fours she pauses and looks up at her father’s face, knowing where to find his disapproval. She cocks her head to one side, smiles, and lunges ahead, almost sure that her father will follow and stop her.

This is a rite of passage for every parent. The parents’ image of their child’s innocence is shaken as they face their new responsibility. Providing for the baby’s needs and protecting her from the environment is no longer enough. Now they will have to limit the child’s desires and protect her from herself! Saying “no,” intentionally limiting a child for her own sake—behaving as a parent in a way that causes a child distress but is necessary for her healthy development—is not what most parents had in mind when they first got started. The child’s distress is bound to be matched by that of the parents. They must endure the child’s anger at them as they realize what their child needs from them, and what it means to be a parent.

We reveal ourselves in the ways we discipline our children. We reveal how we ourselves were disciplined and how we reacted to the kind of discipline we were brought up with, or missed out on. Among the things beneath the discipline we offer our children are our beliefs about what they are capable of, our dreams about whom they will become, and our hopes and fears for the world for which we are preparing them. Our discipline also reflects our society’s values, for as parents we know we will be held responsible for our children’s “bad behavior.” We know that our efforts to raise “well-behaved” children will be judged by others.

Discipline has different goals in different societies. In life-threatening situations, discipline must teach survival skills. Where individuality is prized, parents will use discipline to reward self-expression. Where individual achievement is admired, discipline will be used to reward a child’s efforts to stand out from the crowd, and might not be used to prevent her from stepping over others to get there. In societies that expect individuals to place the needs of others above their own, discipline helps a child to understand the demands on her to fit in, but might punish nonconformism and even initiative.

In a society like ours, made of many cultures, parents and professionals may need to understand that disciplinary practices are shaped by culture, and follow—in a clear and consistent manner—the values and traditions of that culture.

Discipline needs to be individually tailored to each child and must strike a balance. Clear, consistent rules and expectations—with firmly applied consequences when these are not respected—are necessary. But so is an understanding of the child’s motivations, of what—at each age—she is able to know, of what she can bear to feel. This, of course, is far more challenging for parents than any merely strict or permissive approach. But to raise a morally developing, emotionally competent child will ultimately be more rewarding than raising a simply obedient one.

Child development expert Selma Fraiberg said that “a child without discipline is a child who feels unloved.” But discipline is not something parents are likely to receive thanks for from their children, unless they can wait until these children experience the joy and challenges of having children of their own.


The Touchpoints of Discipline

Discipline, as we’ve said, means teaching. Fortunately, in the first six years of life, there are unique opportunities for learning. Later some of these lessons may still be learned, but often in more difficult and painful ways for the child. Among the early accomplishments in which discipline will have a key role are:

       1.    self-control—recognizing one’s own impulses—what sets them off, the ways in which they can hurt others, and learning to hold back from acting on them;

       2.    recognizing one’s own feelings and what brings them on, naming them, expressing them, or keeping them under wraps when necessary;

       3.    imagining others’ feelings, understanding what causes them, caring about how others feel, and recognizing one’s own effect on others;

       4.    developing a sense of fairness and the motivation to behave fairly;

       5.    altruism—discovering the joy of giving, even sacrificing for another human being.

All of these vital abilities will serve a purpose in adolescence and throughout life. They will be more difficult to acquire later. Without them, the challenges of future years will be even greater.


Throughout this book we’ll refer to touchpoints, which are times when a child regresses in anticipation of a developmental leap ahead. These are times when parents are bound to feel anxious, even irritated. The psychological balance of the whole family may fall apart—temporarily. When parents have reassured themselves that the child is not ill, they can stand back and turn over the challenge to the child, or offer encouragement when needed.

Though we specify times when these changes are likely to occur, children whose disabilities affect their development may proceed through these changes at their own pace. For any child, touchpoints are times when a parent will wonder whether discipline is more necessary than ever, or if a little slack is in order.

The Building Blocks of Discipline: First 6 Months

Right from the First: Getting Organized

From the very beginning of life, a baby must learn to use the states of sleep, alertness, and fussing or crying to balance his needs with the demands of his environment. He will learn to get himself to sleep in order to refuel or to protect against loud sounds and bright lights. He will learn to cry out to make his needs known, and cry differently depending on what these are. He will learn to gaze intently into his caregivers’ eyes, letting them know how important they are and learning as much as he can about them. Each baby will strike this balance in his own unique way.

Soothing and Self-Soothing

Some babies quickly learn to soothe themselves with a thumb in the mouth or by fingering a blanket, while others may need to be held or spoken to softly, or rocked. Each one learns to combine his own soothing strategies with those that you as a parent offer. This is perhaps the earliest precursor of discipline and self-discipline. This early learning about handling crying and other states can be a foundation for later learning about managing impulses and feelings. Parenting is a process of trial and error. Parents of newborns soon learn not to react immediately to each whimper with a massive effort to comfort the child. It’s wise to lean in and watch briefly to see how your baby handles his distress on his own. Often, you can then settle back, having witnessed your baby’s resourcefulness in soothing himself. At other times, you may know within a matter of seconds that the baby will need to be picked up, held, and crooned to softly.

When your baby has responded to your soothing, you may then need to watch again. Is the child ready to sustain his new, more buoyant mood on his own? Or is he destined to fall apart all over again as soon as he is set back down? Perhaps the infant strokes his cheek with the back of his hand. Or he may gaze at the leaves of a houseplant. You might decide to try to settle him back down.


On Sale
Jul 14, 2015
Page Count
192 pages

T. Berry Brazelton

About the Author

T. Berry Brazelton, MD was professor emeritus of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and adjunct professor of psychiatry, human behavior, and pediatrics at Brown University.

Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., child psychiatrist and supervisor of inpatient psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston, is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Associate Director of Training at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. He is co-author with Dr. Brazelton of Touchpoints Three to Six and several titles in the Brazelton Way series.

Learn more about this author