My 5 year old son receives and fears punishment but repeatedly exhibits the same unacceptable behaviors. He's always been strong-willed, and is usually the kind to view a statement like "Don't do that" as an open invitation to do it. We've tried redirection or distraction tactics, but he is still so narrowly focused on doing the original behavior. Even worse, he will typically do the prohibited behavior and flagrantly tell us or show us that he's done it. Repeatedly, even after punishment. (He's in time out right now for this very thing). He's consistently punished, yet he continues down the same self-destructive path each time. When he is punished, we explain what he did wrong, why he's being punished, and why he shouldn't do what he was told not to do. Sometimes he'll even tell us first why he's in trouble, so it makes me wonder if he's acting out for the inevitable negative attention he gets. I think he gets plenty of love and positive attention- he's an only child and stays with a relative during the day. We're trying to give him a good, fun childhood, but we need to figure out how to effectively discipline him.

His repeated misbehavior includes:

  • Yelling at the top of his lungs in public (stores, friends' houses, etc)
  • Running away from us (at parks, stores, parking lots, etc)
  • Talking back and disrespecting authority figures
  • Hurting animals even after we explain why it's wrong
  • Repetitive nuisance behaviors (repeating himself, banging his fists, kicking walls, intentionally crumbling food on floors, etc)
  • Repeatedly asking us why he can't do something even after it's been explained to him
  • Basically, most bad behaviors that young children may do, but repeated over and over again, even after discipline

He gets a warning to stop the behavior, then depending on the severity of what he's done (and where we are), he'll either go to time out or lose a privilege (such as taking away a favorite movie or missing out on an activity). Going to time outs and losing privileges really upset him, but still do not ultimately deter him from the bad behavior. It's like he can't help himself.

My spouse and I are getting worn down. We try to model good behavior and encourage him to be well-mannered and respectful. This behavior mortifies us. It seems we can't even enjoy life as a family because our son is so disruptive and unresponsive. Most public outings have to be cut short or eliminated because he consistently misbehaves and doesn't respond to our discipline. After he's misbehaved, when we try to have heart-to-heart talks with him about his behavior and why we expect him to mind us, he usually has a little trouble expressing himself, and a lot of times we get the same nonsensical responses from him (Us: Why did you do [bad behavior]? Him: Because I didn't want to). He also doesn't like to make eye contact. We don't usually feel like we've gotten through to him.

Is there another discipline tactic we could try? Or does it sound like we need to see a professional at this point? We're at a loss, and don't want things to spiral further out of control as he gets older (and even begins school). We just want him to understand that his behavior isn't always acceptable.

Thanks for reading.

Update (from comments below): My spouse and I disagree on spanking, as we had different experiences with it. He feels it's necessary sometimes. Since our son failed to improve after time outs and taking away items/privileges, I grew to agree with him and we used it for select bad behaviors. It didn't work any better. However, when he was spanked, he was always told why. I didn't mention that we have used it because I was afraid it would distract from the original question, but since it has already come up [in comments], yes, it has been explored, but with no better results than our other tactics.

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    I'd start with looking into what occurs during the "stays with a relative during the day" time period. :/
    – good luck
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 1:51
  • I should specify, they are his grandparents (dad's parents). I think they're great people. I could only fault them on being a little lenient in the past, in that they get worn down by him and give in sometimes. Lately, his behavior has gotten so bad that they are usually forced to discipline rather than ignore or let it slide. But they do discipline him and lately are fairly well in line with what we do at home. They're concerned by his behavior too, and we have had discussions about discipline so we know we're presenting a united front. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 2:01
  • @JaneTaekwonDo: Some of that reminds me our situation, especially the "Because I didn't want to." I don't have an answer, we're also still working on that. If you can't connect to him, professional help might be a good way. I recently discovered the Danish Author Jesper Juul jesperjuul.com/forside_uk.asp and his theories and I am impressed by his way of understanding both sides and really being able to describe the problem (from what I read and saw in interviews). I don't know where you live and if his "familylab" exists there also, but in such a case I'd try it out if I could.
    – BBM
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 6:23
  • Thanks for the link. Good to know he's not the only child who responds that way. I was really puzzled when he first started saying "Because I didn't want to" as a response to our asking why he did something. Now he says it almost every time he gets in trouble, and it pretty well goes in circles from there. I feel so sad for him because it seems like he knows he shouldn't have done it but just can't, or won't, stop doing it. It makes figuring out "why?" even harder when that's more or less all he will say in those discussions, too. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 16:12
  • @JaneTaeKwonDo: our son is only 3.5 years old, so it is even more difficult for him to express himself in such a situation, however he seems to use the "because I didn't want to" like an excuse - it's really strange.
    – BBM
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:18

8 Answers 8


I'm glad you are concerned with your son's behavior, it shows you are on the ball and caring. I am an elementary school teacher (32 years), a parent and grandparent and suggest you seek professional help. Two of your comments are especially concerning: The fact that your son, at age five, has difficulty making eye contact can be an indicator of issues which need to be addressed sooner than later. The second is the fact that your son continues to hurt animals (this is NOT something that most young children do), although you do not say how he hurts them this is a big red flag when working with/caring for children that there are concerns. I believe you should begin with your pediatrician, be honest with them and they can refer you to a specialist.

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    By "hurting animals," I mean that he treats them a little too roughly. He holds them or picks them up by a leg or in other uncomfortable ways, and squeezes them too tightly, enough to make the animal yelp. We catch him in these behaviors and immediately correct him and/or take away the animal, so I think he knows what behaviors we won't allow. We've had to take away his "puppy privileges" with our dog because he was handling her so roughly. I've never seen him strike or abuse an animal. And thanks, he's due for a yearly physical soon, so I plan to bring these things up with his pediatrician. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 13:20
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    @JaneTaeKwonDo This is not normal behavior -- by age 5 a child should be able to observe such obvious discomfort in the animal and not repeat the behavior. It's a function of social awareness and empathy that are typically developed by now. I absolutely recommend you take Laurel's advice and seek a professional evaluation. (By the way, picking up an animal by one leg is abuse.)
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 17:54
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    @JaneTaeKwonDo I never suggested that your child was acting out of hate or to get joy from causing pain -- that does not mean he hasn't abused the animal. This typically happens due to a failure to develop age-appropriate levels of social awareness (i.e. your child doesn't understand that he his hurting the animal) or empathy (i.e. your child doesn't understand that the animal has feelings and can be hurt). Both of these are better addressed sooner than later, and may explain why he doesn't respond appropriately to discipline...
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 8:27
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    ...For example, a child lacking in social awareness may not understand the difference between talking back and appropriate interaction (he doesn't know when he is talking back so he can't be disciplined not to do it). The combination of inadequate social awareness and/or empathy, lack of appropriate eye contact, etc. can indicate anything from a learning impairment to autism to a psychological disorder and without having an expert evaluate your child there is no way to know what's wrong (a prerequisite to fixing it).
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 8:31
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    I've marked this as the answer since his behaviors seem to be some parts "normal kid stuff" and other parts "maybe you should talk to someone about that." His behavior is veering more and more toward the latter category, and the need to find a way to effectively discipline him (since he seems immune to all the traditional types) is becoming even more important as school begins for him this fall. I will be speaking with his pediatrician next week so this thread has been helpful in getting all the important concerns together to tell her. Thanks. Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 20:59

Have you tried connecting with your child and developing a positive relationship?

All I can hear from your post is that you've tried hurting him - from taking away privileges to the physical. If all you are teaching him is that when you are bigger you can hurt somebody smaller, is it any wonder he hasn't yet developed empathy for things smaller than him? (For the record, I don't think holding animals too tightly sounds particularly a-typical, I just don't think you've done anything to teach him otherwise).

Instead of teaching him how to hurt people smaller than you, teach him social-emotional skills by role-modeling them. When he experiences respect, trust, listening, empathy, compassion etc he will be able to develop them himself.

Instead of punishing him, ask him questions (with genuine curiosity and respect!):

"what was happening for you [in this situation]?"
"do you feel like people hear you better when you yell?"
"what happened that made you leave the park today without telling us?"

Also, try using nonevaluative "I notice" statements to help him learn to reflect on his own behavior without relying on others judging him (who's going to punish/praise him when he's 25??) and it will help him feel seen and heard!!!!!

"I notice you tried using an inside voice first at your friend's house today" "I notice you seem pretty upset today" "I notice you didn't eat much today" "I notice you are working very hard to build that lego structure"

I recommend Positive Discipline for being able to foster a home environment that is kind and firm. It will teach you how to teach him social-emotional skills necessary for participation in a mutually respectful, peaceful family environment and will equip you all as he enters school and beyond.

Positive Discipline is grounded in Aldlerian psychology and believes that all children (and adults) seek a sense of belonging and significance. Are you providing opportunity for him to feel like he belongs in your family? And, are you providing opportunity for him to feel important? (special jobs, asking for his help, etc)

For what this looks like in a family, check out the following blog (her son is around your son's age too and is also particularly spirited): Can We Hug It Out. Its fun and quick to read!

I have worked with kids in gangs, refugees, kids with special needs, kids everyone else 'threw away' and the number one way to make a difference is stop seeking control and start seeking connection. A strong-willed, spirited child is a gift.


I just would like to mention some notes from the book Nurture Shock. Their review of relevant research on spanking suggests that it is harmful when it is used as a special, last-ditch punishment. I know that your question is not primarily about spanking, but I hope this information can be helpful to you as you decide whether and how spanking will be part of your disciplinary style. Here is an excerpt (emphases in original):

In a culture where spanking is accepted practice, it becomes "the normal thing that goes on in this culture when a kid does something he shouldn't." Even if the parent might spank her child only two or three times in his life, it's treated as ordinary consequences. In the black community Dodge studied, a spank was seen as something that every kid went through.

Conversely, in the white community Dodge studied, physical discipline was a mostly-unspoken taboo. It was saved only for the worst offenses. The parent was usually very angry at the child and had lost his or her temper. The implicit message was: "What you have done is so deviant that you deserve special punishment, which is spanking." It marked the child as someone who has lost his place within traditional society.

It's not just a white-black thing either. A University of Texas study of Conservative Protestants found that one-third of them spanking their kids three or more times a week, largely encourage by Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family. The study found no negative effects from this corporal punishment—precisely because it was conveyed as normal.

The conclusion was:

Children key off their parents' reactions more than the argument or physical discipline itself.

You can read the whole section directly in Google books if you are interested.


Since writing this post, I've had several more years parenting experience, and that as a far-less-than-perfect parent. In that time, I've concluded that despite my best intentions, spanking was harmful to my own child, and it is not used in our house currently—and this has been made clear to my son that spanking is off the table.

In another household where the parents are far superior to me, I could see spanking. But I'm not good enough to use it properly--my son was responding in fear to spanking even though it had been many months since the last time. That made it clear it just had to go away as an option.

So, take the above study with a grain of salt.

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    Oh my god plus a million for having read this book! I'm reading it right now! I don't know why we as a culture have decided to hit our children in order to teach them not to hit. And we wonder why we have such a problem with bullying?! Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 2:20
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    Frankly, as a child I could have seriously used a little coaching to hit other children back. The extremely excessive spanking I received (at age 5 one time I was hit 60 times by a wooden spoon, as counted by my 12-year-old sister) didn't teach me how to hit, it taught me never to fight back. At age 12 I finally fought back physically against my tormentors and this was the first time anyone thought twice about roughing me up. I honestly think you have it a little mixed up. It isn't hitting that is necessarily the problem. It's the child receiving the love and resources he needs. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 8:30
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    And my answer is that I don't think hitting is the love and resources the child needs. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 11:37
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    You may be right. It obviously harmed me. I just don't think that "hitting is bad" is a good global rule to follow rigidly. I was trying to show also that hitting actually can be an effective way to teach children not to hit, and that a "NEVER hit" rule can actually be harmful to a child--it was to me. You wouldn't stand by and let a grown adult bash your face in over and over, and children shouldn't have to tolerate being hit by other kids, either. Perhaps the most loving thing some bullies need is to get punched back a few times. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 16:01
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    I agree with you. Yet, I don't think simply calling it "hitting" and thinking that ends the discussion makes sense--doing so is "reasoning by innuendo". At the risk of repeating myself, you can teach your kids to not hit, by hitting (and it may or may not be appropriate). And you can teach your kids to hit, without hitting (and it may or may not be appropriate). Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 19:12

I have hit much of this same behavior with our son, although with others his behavior tends to be on the best side and we get glowing reports from others, at times at home we get some of the worst. Mostly it seems like normal Five Year old behavior, and although we have a younger one I at times thought it was mostly due to the younger brother that we got some bad moments. Generally it seems to be an attitude/anger problem where we say No to something and that will set my son off, we do time out's, a toy time out and so on, but it doesn't seem to change the mannerisms at times. We emulate the behavior we want, and stress at times that he needs to set a good example for his brother, but many times we get the "attitude".

I can get his attention with a loud, stern voice and that will sometimes scare him enough to give us his attention or stop what he is doing. I've also spent time getting on his level, but make him look up at me a little, and try to make him understand what it is he is doing wrong. Many times the result is limited choices, you can do this or nothing or some option that gets what you want, and keep at it - kids can try to wear you down and in some ways I think we all did the same thing when we were young and trying to asset ourselves.

For things that you mentioned what I would do is:

  • Yelling in public, bring him home or to the car unless it stops. I've sat in the car at the store waiting for my wife when he has misbehaved, after a couple times this has stopped. I give one warning, I find that my son has a short attention span on warnings, once and then we have punishment otherwise he takes it as an opportunity to continue.
  • Running away, same options. Although if it continued you might want to get a child harness, personally I do not like them and think they are awful but a couple of times I did it with my oldest when he was younger. After the second time out he never strayed again.
  • Talking back and disrespect gets a timeout and whenever he begins to talk I shush him, not loudly but sternly, only with a shush or "no talking". I found saying "shut up" or certain variations tended to backfire on me.
  • Hurting animals I have never seen, although this tends to be a red flag for many things, maybe you can elaborate on what you mean by it. Still, I'd try to have him respect animals and be kind or keep him away from them.
  • Repition, this is where you get the contest of wills. You HAVE to keep it up otherwise once you relent they take advantage. We did this on a couple things with my oldest last year, and are still trying to get him back on track to helping out and doing chores at home. We let him slide a few times then it was like starting over. It's hard, but whenever you let it go then it seems like everything resets.

Hopefully this is momentary for you and you can get through it. Good luck!

  • Sounds like our sons are similarly strong-willed, and yes, it could be an anger or attitude problem since being told no or corrected only fuels him to misbehave more. I also understand what you mean by him being well-behaved when he wants to be. My son is capable of being well-mannered and affectionate, but once he's been set off (usually by being told no), the day is pretty well shot. Thanks for the supportive words. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 16:00
  • @JaneTaeKwonDo: this is pretty much the same for our son (3.5 years old): he can be extremely kind, polite, friendly and affectionate and in the next moment, if something is not as he wanted or expected, he loses control and it's very difficult to get back to a normal communication and behavior. However, things got much better during the last months and I personally think that it also helped that I changed my behavior and developed more comprehension for his situation. ...
    – BBM
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:21
  • just to make clear, what I mean with understanding his point of view I'll cite another example from J. Juul: parents want that their child now sleeps in his own room, and not in their bed any more. Child is frustrated because "for all my entire life I have been sleeping here with you and now suddenly you want me to leave and spend the night alone." Just for emphasizing the very different view points of parents and child.
    – BBM
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:26
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    +1 for the clear and actionable response! However, don't get carried away with the warnings. Once the child knows that (for instance) shouting in public is not OK, stop warning and go directly to punishment.
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 5:23

Disclaimer: I'm not a medical doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist or even a certified counselor. Though I can't speak for anyone else I would bet that these types of individuals would not be lurking on sites like this waiting to dispense free professional medical advice to someone across the aether. If you think, as a parent, that you need to consult a professional, then I would do so and not waste time with advice (however intelligent and informed) from perfect strangers.

Some of this sounds like normal testing of limits. He's wondering if there is any point at which you'll "give up", and is systematically trying to figure that out. Unfortunately, that requires you to outlast him; you have to consistently punish him for misdeeds that harm others, including animals (I decline to pass judgement on the question of "abuse", save to reiterate that if what he does to animals concerns you, you should seek immediate in-person guidance from a professional, not from Internet commentators).

The first sentence in your question seems to be refuted by the rest of it; not the part that he receives punishment, but that he fears it. He does not seem to want to avoid punishment. This may indicate he perceives it as "normal", which may in turn indicate you are overusing punishment. Examine the boundaries you have set for him and the punishments for crossing them. If the punishment is consistently "one warning, then time-out" for any offense, that's unrealistic; you don't get a warning for dangling the cat by the tail. Conversely, screaming or other undesirable verbal calls for attention can simply be ignored until they become destructive; reacting to undesirable but non-destructive behavior reinforces a lesson that it's easy to get a rise out of you. Consistently enforcing the rules and implementing punishments where they are expected is key, but the punishment must also fit the crime.

If the punishment is always the same regardless of the bad behavior, then all things bad are "equally bad". His reaction to the punishment then becomes normalized; no matter how light or severe the standard punishment is, it's "normal" because that's what he always gets when he does something. Varying the punishment according to the severity of the bad behavior, while keeping the penalty for specific misdeeds consistent, will teach him that some things are bad because they are annoying and disruptive, while other things are bad because they hurt people, and the first category isn't "as bad" as the second, though because there is a punishment it's still "bad".

I hear a lot of "stick" in your disciplinary method. What about the "carrots"? How do you positively encourage and reinforce desirable behaviors? The absence of punishment is not a reward. If he takes your hand and walks by your side across the street, tell him that you like that and verbally praise him. That reinforces what he's doing as he does it. When discipline becomes too much about punishment, a child may genuinely not know what they SHOULD do. This is especially true if they try good behavior and are snubbed. If your child comes up, takes your hand or shirttail and says "Mommy?", you need to respond to that immediately and positively. If you say "not now sweetie" and try to continue what you had been doing before, that's a snub; that didn't get the result he wanted, which was you paying attention so he could ask you something. That discourages the good behavior; he knows it doesn't get results. The fact that you may be on an important call trying to take down facts and figures for something else important doesn't matter in the slightest to him; his next step will be bad behavior, because even though it'll get him punished, you turn to face him when he does it.

This can in fact become a game; Do A, get ignored (even though that was good behavior, because Mommy has other things to do). Then, do X, get warned, do X again, get sat down on the naughty step. It's formulaic, predictable cause-and-effect; exactly the kind of stuff 5-year-olds like in their entertainment. By provoking punishment, he's getting a predictable rise out of you. The solution is to not make it worth his while. By going through this Kabuki theater of getting down to his level, saying "no", picking him up and depositing him on a chair in the corner, getting down to him again and telling him why he's being punished, then watching him serve his sentence, you're giving him a relatively big reaction to anything bad he does, and at that age it can be fun to press Mommy's "mad button". If, instead, you simply pick him up, plop him on the seat and say "5-minute time-out for pulling the cat's tail" while heading back to what you'd been doing, that's trivial for you, but now he has to sit on the seat for 5 minutes straight. Now the punishment is obviously more inconvenient for him than you, when previously it was evenly divided if not actually biased against you.

Other than this strong-willed disregard for rules, how is he doing developmentally? Is he reading and counting (or at least learning his letters and numbers)? How well is he talking? Has he been potty trained? If so, has he regressed any with regards to accidents? If there's just one area where he seems to not be getting with the program, that's one thing that indicates a need for correction, but if overall he seems a little behind other kids his age, then I would seek further help.

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    +1 for the carrots. I had the same thought. As parents, we focus so much on correcting behavior that we often forget to tell our children what they are doing right.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 29, 2012 at 3:20
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    They are already in a power struggle, expanding it won't solve the problem. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 2:32

I also have a 5 year old son, whose behaviour isn't very different from what you've described. In fact, what you've described is normal 5-year old behaviour so the first thing to say is that there's nothing to be massively concerned about in the long term.

Meanwhile, handling his behaviour is a painful experience. Many will tell you that it's all about getting attention. Kids crave attention, and if they don't get the "positive" attention (playing & reading with them etc) they will misbehave in order to get your "negative" attention. There's some truth in that, so it's work making sure you're spending enough quality time with him.

But we've found that by far the biggest factor is tiredness. If he's over-tired, you can guarantee this kind of behaviour from our son, especially at bed-time (which of course only exacerbates the situation the next day) so I would suggest trying an earlier bed time. Linked to this, if he doesn't get enough activity (exercise) during a day, he finds it harder to get to sleep and will probably misbehave the next day, so that's a factor to consider too.

But also remember at all times that this is typical behaviour for kids, especially boys, at this age, and it will not last forever. In particular, you're not a bad parent for having a child who behaves this way, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the child. Contrary to one of the earlier answers, I don't believe for a moment there's any cause for alarm that requires medical or psychiatric attention.

  • We often wonder what might be motivating his misbehavior, and why he continues to do it even though he knows punishment inevitably occurs. (Sometimes, right after he's acted up, he'll quickly say, "Don't take away [item/privilege]!" so he knows.) We read him a bedtime story each night, have fun activities at home, play sports, and take him to the park for a bike ride. We want to spoil him a little, but he throws this bad behavior back at us. We agreed that we wouldn't let him walk over us, so we're still battling with how to treat him to fun times together without rewarding his bad behavior. Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 15:33
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    -1 Hurting animals, lack of eye contact, and not responding appropriately to correction are not normal. These are early warning signs for a number of potential problems, all of which are more correctable if diagnosed early.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 17:29
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    @HedgeMage .. not responding to "correction" is perfectly normal, when said "correction" consists of nothing more than parental admonishment. It is very possible that hurting animals is not a symptom of an underlying problem, but rather something else that can get attention from Mommy. See my note on my own answer. And as to eye contact .. shying away from eye contact with an angry parent is not "not normal".
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 14:31
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    We make it a point that we don't talk to him when he/we are still angry, though he can probably still associate the talks with being "in trouble." I use an even, calm voice when talking with him and ask things like, "Do you know why you're in time out?" and "Why did you do that?" He can make eye contact when regularly talking with us. It's when we are trying to be serious and discuss his bad behavior one-on-one, he seems very uncomfortable, won't make eye contact, tries to pull/walk away, etc. It's that way when his grandparents attempt it, too. Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 20:37
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    @HedgeMage, @Jane .. how comfortable are you talking when you know you are in trouble? Seriously, you are making too much out of the lack of eye contact. If the child can make eye contact during normal conversation but not when having tough conversations, that isn't abnormal.
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Jun 21, 2011 at 19:52

Let me start by saying that some of the things you mention are not normal for a five year old (in particular, the animal abuse, banging of fists, and kicking of walls). Some of these things are indicative of more serious things going on, whether it is something he is doing as a result of being abused by someone, bullied by someone (which is really abuse perpetrated by a peer) or some other challenge within him such as oppositional disorder or one that prevents his development of social awareness (such as Aspberger's - in which case, he may honestly not understand about your feelings, the animal's feelings or how his actions effect others. You may take some of the previous advice and get some professional help from a family therapist or psychologist. Have him evaluated to figure out what is going on. Then, depending on the prognosis try the following:

I particularly recommend the "Motivation and Control" workship here:

The workshop will basically go over the following idea and how to apply the idea with your child in your home. I would tweak this a little depending on the route of the problem, but this is the gist and with the help of a professional, you can do the "tweaking" neede for your particular circumstance.

Quite a few kids are motivated by control rather than rewards or punishments. For these kids, they especially need to feel in control of their own life in some fashion (thought all kids are going to be better off with this feeling than without anyway) For the kids that are motivated by control, if they don't feel in control, they'll control whatever they can eventually. This may mean their caloric intake (anorexia/bulemia), their pain threshold and tolerance (cutting), you (by making you frustrated, worn down and upset), others through bully behaviors, and things smaller than themselves (animal abuse). All of these things can also have other causes and are fairly complex, but this is one piece of the puzzle in all situations.

For kids motivated by control, the traditionally upheld systems of reward or punishment absolutely WILL NOT WORK (physical or otherwise). It sounds like your child MIGHT fit into this category.

The good news for you is that discipline is, contrary to popular belief, not really about control at all. Instead, it is about building mutual trust and respect. A parent should be a lot like a mentor to a child. Some one who can offer up advice and suggestions in a respectful rather than dictatorial way. In order to do this, you have to truly understand the child and his thought process FIRST. As Christine Gordon says, find out about your son's thought processes. Find out what he notices, thinks about and puts first. Find out what he is capable of adding to the family experience and find joy in working on things together.

It sounds like if you relinquish a little control and offer him some choice, he may feel better about himself and his life situation rather than feeling as though he is being controlled. Obviously, you have to have certain boundaries (you are his parent, teacher and guide after all), but perhaps a little loosening of the reins will go a long way toward fixing this young boy's attitude toward you a little. Is he crumbling the bread all over because he is being told he MUST eat it? Why not, "Would you like a slice of bread or a little rice?" Then, he gets to choose, and help you make the food of choice. You know he is still getting a little grain with his meal, he is learning a little about how to cook and you are having some quality time together.

Discipline is really about making good choices that make good consequences more likely as opposed to choices that will result in bad consequences (I am speaking of natural consequences here not parent imposed consequences). Let your son learn the difference without "bad consequences" be punishments from you. Instead, put yourself in the role of empathetic guide.

Let me give you an example of what this looks like. My daughter was given a 3DS by her grandparents for her sixth birthday. When she wasn't keeping her games, charger and player together one day, I warned her this type of care (or lack thereof) often led to loss of the thing not being cared for, but she made the poor choice of bringing it and not keeping it all together. I saw the situation, but instead of saving her and picking it all up for her I just let things play out. She mis-placed the player and it got stuck in a prop drawer where it stayed until 2 weeks later when she finally found it (with some help from the theater manager who she then had to write a thank you letter to). In the mean - time she didn't have her player. I empathized with her and genuinely expressed that I understood how sad she must feel. However, when she asked if I'd buy her another one. I pointed out how expensive they are, number one, and that she had shown she wouldn't take care of it, so I wasn't about to buy her a replacement. Special toys and treats like that are for people that take care of them. When she wanted to borrow stuff from me (like my ipod) I simply said, "I'm so sorry, but I don't think you are trustworthy to keep track of your stuff. Why would I loan you my ipod? I want it to be well cared for. I'll loan things like that to you when you show me you'll take care of it." It may sound harsh but these are the realities of life once you don't have a parent following around and cleaning up after you. She has kept track of her stuff quite well ever since.

People who crumble bread all over the place wind up having to clean up the stuff. When some one is being super loud, other people don't want to hang out in the same space. When a kid runs away in public spaces, that kid isn't trusted to go to those public spaces anymore (and he has to figure out how to win back your trust too). It isn't a punishment, simply a consequence - you don't trust him.

The book: Parenting with Love and Logic stems from the same basic idea and works nicely in conjunction with what the Mecham family outlines in their workshops. I'd recommend reading this book as well.

  • +1 for Love and Logic. I have not heard about the "Motivation and Control" explicitly, as such. However, it makes sense, and seems to be one of the common elements missing from struggling parents. That and not shielding your child from the consequences of their own decisions and actions, unless, of course, such consequences would lead to loss of life, loss of limbs, disfigurement, or psychological/mental trauma. Also, although you can LEARN consequences (of an action) from being told what they are and know it to be truth, sometimes it takes learning it the 'hard way' to actually GET IT
    – Adam White
    Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 13:41

Read Dr. James Dobson's The Strong-Willed Child; it will change your approach.

Strong-willed children need strong, courageous parenting to learn self-control and discipline so that the energy and drive they possess can be productive not destructive. Dr. Dobson emphasizes discipline, structure, routine and mutual respect.

Note: @HedgeMage .. the OP asked about disciplining .. other answers dealt with possible other issues. It is very likely that the child is acting out as a test/response/provocation of the parent. Much undesirable behavior is made more interesting by parental disapproval,particularly is that disapproval comes without a price.

If discipline stops the "ordinary" undesired behavior but some more troubling issues remain, then some form of counseling or professional evaluation is in order. But jumping there without trying strong discipline is premature.

  • 1
    -1 The problems the OP related are not indicative of "strong will" but of a different sort of problem. One doesn't hurt pets because one wants one's own way.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 9:29
  • Thanks for the suggestion, my mom-in-law actually read this book. We feel like we've been pretty strong and consistent in disciplining him (we almost feel like we're on him like hawks but we have to be since he repeatedly disobeys). He has lost all of his "fun" privileges and has been spanked and sent to time out. But each day is on repeat as he does the same things over and over again. We need to break the cycle, but honestly, as I hinted in the OP, I've wondered if there is something wrong. I do hope there is some type of discipline left that might change him, so I will check into this book. Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 21:09
  • 4
    I think jumping to strong discipline is the problem. Or rather jumping to the idea that discipline equals hurting the child in some capacity. The word discipline actually relates to teaching. What actual skills are you teaching him? Do you hit him for not being able to tie his shoes or do you practice and practice and practice? It is no different with social-emotional skills. Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 2:48
  • Downvote for recommending a pro-spanking approach.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 16:20
  • @HedgeMage I'd suggest that hurting pets in this case is likely the result of modeling what the child perceives as frequent hurting of the child by the parents. Personally I think the answer is correct in saying this may not require professional help; the thing I don't like about the answer is that it's close to a link only answer, referencing a book without outlining the approach covered in that book.
    – Warren Dew
    Commented Sep 18, 2016 at 20:22

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