Because I Said So! Dealing with Post-Discipline Guilt

By: Marie Williams

Almost daily, we’re faced with delivering the news to our kids that they are “not in charge” and yes, actually, they need to “do what I say because I am the parent!” And if they still refuse, you have to put some muscle behind it: curtail some of their freedoms, take away a privilege, or use stern language. If you are still struggling to find a positive way to discipline your kids, you’re not alone. It’s tough, and it’s a balancing act. As parents, we almost always want to give kids what they want and when we can’t, it may make us feel guilty. Read more >

One of the perennial battles in my household is to get my little one to keep her room tidy. A part of the problem is that it is a veritable paradise for a child her age: shelves crammed with books and toys line the walls, and two large, colorful toy boxes stand side by side, overflowing with dolls, blocks, and costumes. After school, my daughter generally makes a beeline to her room and begins the process of relocating everything from its proper place to somewhere—roughly in the center of the room—on her Strawberry Shortcake rug. Each toy is given its due attention and then discarded so that by the time I fetch her for dinner, her room looks as though a whirling dervish has passed through it. I pretend not to notice because the more immediate task of getting her to eat what’s on her plate is about all I can manage at one time. After dinner, I tell her to put away her toys and prepare to do her homework.

“Yes, Mama”, she says cooperatively as she heads upstairs to her room. But it never happens. And I mean never.

I may wait for ten minutes and go to check on her progress (by which time she has turned on her television and is watching Dora the Explorer). I turn it off, and gently remind her to clean the room. Again, she agrees, and again it doesn’t happen. I tell her that any toys remaining on the floor will be temporarily taken away and she will not be permitted to play with them for a week.

Cue the floodgates. She begins to cry and scream as though I’d threatened to remove her right arm. I, of course, feel terrible and occasionally wind up helping my sniffling child clean up a mess she is completely capable of cleaning up herself (and that I had no part in creating!).

Given this, you may wonder what possible advice I could have to offer. As it turns out, I have a fair amount. Even after parenting for four short years I am a veteran of the “Post-Discipline Guilt Wars”. Here are four quick reminders I keep in mind to hold the guilt at bay.

1. Remember that feelings are not facts. What this means, basically, is that even though your child may react to your disciplining them as though the world is over (and you may feel that way yourself when they cry, sulk, or give you the cold shoulder) the sun will, in fact, rise tomorrow. And when it does, you will regain confidence in the fact that what you do – no matter how much displeasure it causes them – you do for their own good.

2. This is good practice for the real world. When my daughter acts out because she doesn’t like a rule, I often think, Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if life were again this simple? The truth is, if being made to take a bath, put up her toys, or eat her broccoli is the worst she has to face, she has it pretty good. As you grow into adulthood, life becomes a series of responsibilities and obligations that only grow more weighty and significant with each passing year. Some we take on willingly, and others we endure to accomplish a greater good—like that business trip that will keep you from home for more days that you prefer. Teaching your kids early and often that they may sometimes have to defer their immediate wants or abide by rules will position them to function as healthy, responsible adults later on.

3. Remember that boundaries actually make your kids feel safer. As much as I hated having a curfew and complained about it, there was a part of me that was relieved to have rules. I distinctly remember feeling a little sorry for my friend who could hang out at my house until well past nine p.m. without so much as a check-in or phone call from her mother. Believing myself to be at the center of the universe, the restrictions my parents placed on me assured me that to some degree they believed I was too. I somehow knew that I was important enough to them that they fretted over every single minute past curfew that I was out. It reassured me that I was cared for.

4. You will make mistakes. One of the worst nights I’ve ever had in my parenting life (thus far) came after I yelled at my daughter for disobeying my warning to not stand on a kitchen stool. As I feared she might, she fell. Happily, she was not hurt. And though I was relieved, I raised my voice at her, partly because there was one nanosecond where I imagined she might literally break her neck. She cried. And later when she was asleep, I cried as well, deciding that I was wholly unsuitable to raise children. The next morning, unprompted, she said she was sorry she hadn’t listened to me, and I was able to say I was sorry for yelling and explain why I had. We hugged and within moments, she was asking to borrow my iPod to play Angry Birds. The teachable moment came later than planned, but we both learned something.

5. Hold the Line! That’s a phrase one of my brothers uses with me when he sees me about to cave on something, like an unreasonable request from my daughter for leftover birthday cake just before dinner (“Just a little, please Mama!” ) It’s tough sometimes, particularly if you’re tired and not so sure you wouldn’t prefer a little chocolate cake yourself. Be consistent but flexible; your child’s impulse to negotiate away rules will diminish over time and you won’t feel guilty if you offer them a mutually acceptable option. Birthday cake after dinner tastes just as good, after all.

Do you have other tips for dealing with post-discipline guilt? Share them with us!


1. Discipline: A Balancing Act; ParentFurther.

2. A Primer in Positive Discipline: Tips for Consistent Parenting.

3. “Ideas That Work with Young Children: Avoiding Me Against You Discipline.” Young Children (November, 1988): 24-9.


One tip is to remember that every time you give in, it will be ten times harder the next time the situation arises. Say want you mean, and mean what you say. Follow through even if it’s inconvenient. Readers may be interested in “Discipline for Young Children,” found at:

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