How do I discipline my children age accordingly?

Disciplining children of different ages can be tough. Our advice columnist shares how a discipline chart can help.

Dear Is This Normal,

I have 4 daughters from ages 1 through 9. I struggle with my two older girls constantly fighting and being disrespectful. My youngest is very bratty and mean. She tries to run the house. How do I discipline all the children age accordingly?



Dear Outnumbered,

Oh mama. I feel for you, I really do. I have two daughters myself and sometimes I sit back and wonder WTF I did to incur this level of SASS. Just pure sass! And then I remember that they are probably just like me when I was that age and make a mental note to send my mom flowers. It’s the burden we bear, I suppose. But you are struggling with something that I think a lot of parents can relate to! Disciplining our kids (without necessarily ‘punishing’ them) is hard, and it can be REALLY hard when you’ve got kids of different ages. As much as we want to streamline things and make our lives easier when you’ve got kids, there are certain aspects of parenting that just require a more specific and individualistic approach, and discipline is one of them. The good news is, you can definitely strategize and tailor your discipline to each age group you’re working with. It’s just going to require some…discipline. And a really thorough and age-appropriate discipline chart.

So let’s start with your older girls. Now, having grown up with sisters, I can confirm that the fighting is (unfortunately) pretty normal. Sibling fighting just sort of comes with the territory. Don’t worry—they will age out of it! But in the meantime, they still need to follow the house rules, and more importantly, they still need to respect you and one another. So you need to lay down some ground rules. I say this word a lot, but that’s because I love it so: BOUNDARIES. There need to be clear and concise boundaries in your home—boundaries that identify behavior or actions that are unacceptable. And once you’ve established those boundaries, you need to have a set of consequences for when those lines in the sand are crossed. 

Actions have consequences, and kids are never too young to learn that. What you come up with as their consequences depends a lot on your girls; they should be reasonable, they should match (more or less) the action, and they should provide a chance for reflection and/or redemption. For example, if your oldest mouths off and loses her TV privileges, you may give her the chance to regain that privilege in some capacity by talking about the action that triggered this consequence, acknowledging that she crossed a boundary, apologizing for her action, and coming up with a game plan for the next time that situation presents itself. Her redemption needs to come from her, but as the parent, it’s up to you to communicate the boundaries, consequences and redemptions that you’ve identified so that she can make the choice to correct her behavior and make better decisions in the future. They also need to understand that the privileges they hold as older kids in the family come with an expectation of responsibility; they don’t just get to do certain stuff because of their age, they need to demonstrate that they are ready for and deserving of certain privileges and that those privileges are dependent on their good behavior.

Now, when it comes to the toddler, I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a little monkey see, monkey do going on. She sees her big sisters behaving a certain way (bossy, bratty, disrespectful) and is simply mirroring their behavior. But also, she’s a toddler? And bratty and bossy sort of sums toddlers up. She also may be trying to establish HER spot in the family; as the youngest, it’s not uncommon for her to want to assert her perceived dominance to be on more equal ground as her sisters. When she exhibits unacceptable behavior, you have two options: ignore it and do not acknowledge it at all, or (if it’s particularly egregious) correct it immediately and remove her from the situation with a time-out or quiet time. On the flipside, when she exhibits positive behavior, take the time to praise her for that! Positive reinforcement can be so effective with kids this age. Don’t just give her that attention when she does something bad or negative; make sure you’re gently correcting that, while also praising when she does something positive. (Psssst: positive reinforcement is a great tool for your older girls, too!)

I would recommend coming up with a behavior/discipline chart for your girls, something they can see and understand. Include the unacceptable behaviors (fighting, back talk, yelling, disrespect) along with the accompanying consequence. It’s not necessarily a chart you’ll need to update (although you may want to implement a reward system for your younger girls when they go X amount of days without a certain behavior). But it’s more a way for them to SEE that their actions have direct consequences, because that’s not always obvious or remembered in the heat of the moment. 

You got this, mama!

Be the Bigger Number,

Is This Normal


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