I recently got into a heated argument with my sister over her not admonishing her 5-year-old son. Sometimes he does things that really need a firm warning. For example, doing things that might cause physical harm like trying to walk on the couch's arm rest. Or running around opening all the doors - fridge, wardrobe, all the rooms, etc. Or eating while running around the house.

Although opening doors or eating running around isn't something wrong but it just isn't good manners.

So she tells me that he is not at an age that deserves admonishing. That's because that would hinder his mental growth. She says that warning a kid deters them from exploring and learning. I am of the opinion that manners should be taught from an early age.

  • What is the right amount of warning?
  • Does it really hamper a child's mental growth?

And by warning I do not mean threatening. I mean something along the lines of "Don't try to walk on the arm rest. You'll hurt yourself." or "No TV for you if you dont sit at the table and eat".

  • Hi! Welcome to the site. One thing to remember is that praising positive behaviour, rather than talking about negative behaviours, is probably more effective. So when ever he's doing something nicely tell him that, effusively.
    – DanBeale
    Nov 12, 2015 at 21:41

2 Answers 2


What is the right amount of warning?

This is purely opinion, as the argument between your sister and yourself shows.

Unfortunately, I believe you picked bad examples to ask about. Children learn about the world by taking chances (what your sister calls exploring.) If he doesn't fall, the child feels more capable and competent, which is good. If he does fall, he learns about adverse consequences, which is also good. (It is unlikely that he will injure himself seriously by falling from something the height of an armrest.) In many cases, your sister is correct. If it's your sister's couch, it's your sister's child, and her call to make. If it's your couch, your wishes to not to have the child walk on the arm rests should be respected. But respect for the wishes of others is not synonymous with obedience. It's based on empathy, something which even 3 year olds are beginning to be able to understand.

Some children are rowdy, some are reticent, many are somewhere in between. I think a parent has to take into account the nature of the individual child in nurturing them to be capable, confident, compassionate adults. Many parents feel that forcing a rowdy child to meet someone else's definition of "manners", if those "manners" are restrictive and unreasonable, is just teaching them to cower to authority and not think for themselves.*

Discipline is a complex affair involving a lot of time, thought, respect for the feelings of the child, consideration of the setting, culture, etc.

There is a great deal of controversy about the appropriate ways to discipline children, and parents are often confused about effective ways to set limits and instill self-control in their child... To be effective, discipline needs to be:
- given by an adult with an affective bond to the child
- consistent, close to the behaviour needing change
- perceived as ‘fair’ by the child
- developmentally and temperamentally appropriate
- self-enhancing, ie, ultimately leading to self-discipline1

The goal of discipline is not to keep children safe** or unobtrusive. It is to raise healthy (physically and mentally) adults.

*Adam Walsh was a tragic example of this. His father, wanting his child to be 'polite', taught him to obey adults. As a direct result (even his father admits this), the child was abducted, abused, and murdered.
Effective discipline for children
**My children were allowed to jump on their beds, climb on the shed roof and jump off of it, climb trees, even to jump off the house's porch roof into deep snow drifts. Yet I treated children's injuries as part of my living. Did they ever get stitches or break a bone? Yes, they all got stitches, and one child broke his thumb rolling down a hill. They are not perfect, but they are law-abiding, responsible, compassionate adults supporting themselves with meaningful work.

  • Perhaps we are not so far apart. But what do you do when a child goes beyond bad manners and starts doing something that is clearly and completely unacceptable, like hitting another child? Eventually you have to impose some kind of boundary, and the position of that boundary actually matters a lot less than its existence. Nov 14, 2015 at 13:24
  • Very well thought out answer.
    – pojo-guy
    Nov 25, 2018 at 3:59

I believe your sister is dangerously wrong. Learning boundaries, acceptable behaviour, impulse control and personal safety are absolutely vital elements in the cognitive development of children. If your nephew doesn't get this at home then he will get it at school (is he going to school, or is he home schooled?) or whenever he goes out into the world. The longer she waits before starting to teach her son discipline, the harder the lesson is going to be for all parties. At some point this boy is going to run smack into some wall that your sister cannot cushion for him, and he is going to be really surprised at how much it hurts. Hopefully when this happens he will be both young enough and smart enough to learn from experience.


The consensus in the Western world is that children need effective discipline. Advice from medical and psychological authorities emphasises the need for discipline that is based on respect for authority, the rights of others, and the consequences of ones actions, rather than merely on fear of punishment. See for example http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719514/ and http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/discipline-tactics.

Ineffective discipline can have long term negative effects. For instance http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/dev/41/1/30/ looks at the relationship between poor parental discipline and problems in early school. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359178997000207 (full article behind paywall, but you can read the abstract) also looks at longer term issues from poor discipline.

A really thorough literature review is beyond the scope of this answer; the above are what I found through some quick googling on "ineffective child discipline", but I don't think they are in any way atypical.

  • 5
    I only clicked on your first link, and it does not support what you state. "Effective and positive discipline is about teaching and guiding children, not just forcing them to obey." Perhaps a short summary of what does support your statements would be better than random links on discipline which discuss diverse techniques, not the absolute need for it. Nov 7, 2015 at 19:38
  • I'm having a bit of trouble with your answer. I agree that children like clear and firm boundaries - this is supported by lots of research. But I think I disagree with the "discipline" parts of your answer - perhaps you could explain a bit more what you mean? (I'm strongly anti hitting children, so if that's what you mean I won't make any more comments).
    – DanBeale
    Nov 12, 2015 at 21:39
  • @DanBeale, I absolutely do NOT mean hitting children. See parenting.stackexchange.com/a/22814/7798 for more on that. Nov 12, 2015 at 23:09
  • @PaulJohnson thank you for the clarification! (I upvoted your aanswer. I'm not sure why you got downvoted.)
    – DanBeale
    Nov 12, 2015 at 23:56

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