If your 4-year-old gets sassy at the dinner table, what do you do? Give her a time-out? Take away a prized possession? What about your fifth grader who is not doing well in school and refuses to do his homework -- do you take away his television or video privileges? And what do you do when your teen starts missing curfew?
Discipline dilemmas plague all parents. How can you tell if you are taking your discipline techniques too far or not far enough?
Elizabeth J. Short, PhD, associate director of the Schubert Center at Case Western Reserve University, says, "In America, we tend not to be strict enough, and everyone wants to be friends with kids." But being too strict is risky because it could undermine their efforts to do the right thing. "They are eager to please and worried about parental approval," Short says, "so you end up with kids that are anxious and indecisive. Or sometimes, they know there is no way they can hit the bar you have set so they don’t even try."
Here are 16 signs that you are too strict with your kids along with suggestions for what you can do about it.
1. You make too many rules.
Nancy Darling, PhD, a psychology professor at Oberlin College, says, "It's a sign that you are too strict for everyone’s good if you set so many rules that you can’t possibly enforce them all." Instead, she says, set fewer rules and be consistent in reinforcing them. "Follow-through," Darling says, "is really important."
2. Your threats are over the top.
"Saying ‘I am going to destroy all your toys’ or ‘throw you out of the house’ won’t work," Darling says. "If your kid says ‘fine,’ all you can do is back down. What you have done is make an empty threat and taught your child to misbehave." Think carefully about consequences before you spell them out.
3. Your rules overstep your parental boundaries.
"Parents can and should set rules about how a child does in school, how she treats other people, and safety issues," Darling says. But rules about personal issues -- for example, what instrument the child should take up -- may not be appropriate.
The problem is parents and kids don't always agree about which issues are personal and which are related to safety or morals. For instance, music with violent or demeaning lyrics may strike parents as something to set rules about. But teens may say it's just their personal taste. Because boundaries are not always clearly defined, it's important to discuss and weigh both sides when deciding what to do.
4. Your love is conditional (or your words make it sound that way).
Darling says you should s things like, "I always love you, but I expect you to behave in this way," or, "I know you can do better.'" But she cautions, "Don’t say, ‘You are garbage if you don’t behave in this way.'" When you do, you are attacking your child’s core.
5. You don’t watch your words.
It’s not just how you say it; it's what you say. Even if your tone is measured, your words matter. "Calm voices can say mean things," Darling says. "Content is more important than the way it is said."
6. You don’t put in the time.
When you ask your children to do something difficult, don't just order them to do it. Work alongside them instead. "Good parenting is about putting the time in," Darling says.
7. You are always the cop, nag, monitor, or reminder.
"If these are the mainstays of your relationship to the exclusion of other things that one could and should do as a parent, you may be too strict," psychologist Ron Taffel, author of Childhood Unbound, says.
8. Your child leaves you out.
"If your child talks to you less and less about the things that matter, this could be a sign that you are too strict," Taffel says. "You can win the battle, but lose the war. You can get your kids to do things that you like them to do, but they are not opening up to you about the things that make them anxious or uneasy."
9. Your children don’t bring their friends over.
"Kids want rules, and all kids will gravitate to a house with rules," Taffel says. "But if you spend your time reminding children about the rules, criticizing your child in front of other kids, and asking too many probing questions, your kids may stop bringing their friends by. If children do ask for return play dates, and other kids talk to you and approach you, you have made your house a home that kids want to be in."
10. Your child is seen and not heard.
"In the 21st century -- with kids tweeting and Facebooking everything -- they expect to be heard," Taffel says, adding that you're too strict if you don’t give your kids an opportunity each day to state their opinion. "You don’t have to agree with them or do what they are saying," he says. "But you should allow them the time to say it."
11. Your child is all work and no play.
Taffel says, "Kids need comfort time and downtime to synthesize what they have learned. If they are filled with skills, knowledge, and information that they can’t use and are just learning for the sake of learning, their brains end up like sponges absorbing things, but they have no idea what it all means."
12.You are the only one.
"Find out what other parents are doing," Taffel says. "When no other parents are doing the same exact thing as you -- such as not allowing your children to go online even with parental supervision -- you may be too strict."
13. You forbid anything.
"You don’t encourage something, but you also don’t forbid it," Short says. "Say, ‘I'd rather you didn’t do this for these reasons. But if you choose to do it anyway, I may keep a closer watch on you because of my concerns.’"
14. The rules are the rules, no questions asked.
"You have to have rules in place," Short says. "There have to be clear, consistent rules because it helps with predictability and expectations. But there also needs to be some wiggle room in special situations." For example, if your child has a midnight curfew but the designated driver is drunk, your child needs to feel comfortable phoning home to ask for leniency and a ride, she says.
If you are authoritarian not authoritative.
There’s a difference, Short says. Authoritative parents set clear expectations and can be hard on their kids. But they do it out of warmness and concern for a child’s betterment, whereas authoritarian parents say, "It’s my way or the highway." Authoritarian parents, Strong says, are "controlling and not warm. An authoritative parent is age-appropriately controlling and also warm."
16. You are as cold as ice.
"Nobody cares if parents are tough as long as they are warm," Short says. The problem, she says, is "when you are tough and cold."