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Inductive self-discipline: Why it pays to clarify the explanations for guidelines

February 10, 2024
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“Because I said so” might seem like the winning conclusion to any conflict. But research indicates that inductive discipline — explaining the reasons for rules — is linked with better child outcomes. Moreover, as kids get older, they take an increasingly critical view of our policies, and they are more likely to accept our authority as legitimate when we offer them reasonable explanations.

Inductive discipline: How do researchers define it?

Inductive discipline is way of guiding children’s behavior through setting limits and explaining the reasons for these limits. Instead of issuing threats, or just insisting on obedience, the adult explains why the policy is important. The adult shares the reasons behind the rules – helping the child understand how a behavior could cause harm, or create practical problems, or hurt someone’s feelings (e.g., Krevans and Gibbs 1997; Tompkins and Villaruel 2022).

But how much does talking matter? Aren’t kids just going to misbehave anyway?  

Sure, kids will sometimes test our authority. That’s natural.

But, as I point out in another article, most kids are fully capable of cooperating. The trick is that they need to perceive our attempts to exercise authority as legitimate.

When they think we’re overreaching – trying to impose rules that are unethical, unreasonable, or a violation of their rights – they are likely to resist.

And while it’s true that you can take an authoritarian, threat-based approach to crack down on misbehavior or resistance (“Obey without question or you’ll get punished”), research indicates that this is counterproductive. Kids with externalizing behavior problems tend to get worse, as I note here.

Moreover, threats often have the effect of teaching kids to become sneakier – to defy the rules when we aren’t looking. (More about this in my article, “Punitive environments encourage children to tell lies.”)

So what’s a better way to provide guidance? A better way to foster cooperation and self-regulation, and avoid unnecessary conflicts that just make everybody get angrier?

It’s worth taking stock of what you are expecting, and making sure these expectations are realistic, worthwhile, and attuned to your child’s current developmental abilities. Then you can try applying the principles positive parenting, which I outline in this evidence-based article.

Meanwhile, here, we’ll focus on just one of these tactics: Taking the time to explain the reasons for the rules we want our kids to follow.

Why straight up power assertion (e.g., “Because I’m telling you!” or “Because I said so!”) can undermine your authority

For some adults, it’s the go-to tactic for getting kids to comply: Channel your inner drill sergeant, and, if somebody dares ask why you’ve issued a command, shut the question down. Because I’m your mom and I say so. Because I’m your dad and I make the rules.

For many other folks, this isn’t the way they normally want to do things. But sometimes it just happens. At one point or another, all of us get stressed, rushed, or exasperated. We’ve been in situations where misbehavior needs to be checked right now (e.g., kids fighting in the car while you are navigating through dangerous traffic). And of course there are times when kids play the “why” game as a stalling tactic (or form of entertainment) – responding to every explanation we offer with yet another “why.”

While I can’t cite any specific studies to back up this intuition (I don’t believe such studies exist at the moment) I don’t think we need to worry about these occasional slips into drill sergeant mode. However, there is a strong case to be made against channeling your inner drill sergeant on a regular basis.

The practical case for inductive discipline

First, kids need to learn about emotions — how to cope with their negative emotions, and how to interpret and anticipate the emotions of others.

When kids understand these things, it’s easier for them to self-regulate and get along with others. And research confirms that we can help kids learn through “emotion coaching” — an important component of inductive discipline. Learn more about emotion coaching from this Parenting Science guide.

Second, it can be easy to overestimate what kids know about our motives and goals.

For example, it might seem obvious to you why you would regulate time spent playing video games. But to a child – especially an indignant child caught up in the heat of the moment – your position might feel arbitrary, capricious – an overly intrusive, personal whim.

If you take the time to sit down and explain your reasons for enforcing limits (e.g., that your child needs to get physical exercise, keep up with school work, and maintain a healthy sleep schedule), your child might still might still dislike these limits. But he or she will understand your justification, and see that your concerns are legitimate. You might even trigger some self-reflection, so that your child comes to share your concerns – at least a little.

Once you’ve come to this understanding, you can refer back to it later. You don’t need to launch into a lengthy explanation of the rules each time a conflict arises. But you can issue a reminder. It’s time to wrap up your game. Bedtime is coming and you need to sleep.

Another point is that we need to keep re-adjusting our approach to inductive discipline, and recognize that kids need more sophisticated, age-appropriate explanations as they get older.

For example, we might not need to explain much when trying to teach toddlers to brush their teeth every day. Children this age naturally inclined to try new things, and to imitate us. Turning it into a game – harnessing their natural curiosity and goodwill – could be all that we need.

But fast forward a year or two, and now these same children may decide that tooth-brushing is a drag. Instead of trying to force the issue  – “do it because I said so!” – we are better off explaining why toothbrushing is important. Our teeth get dirty, and if we don’t brush, things can go wrong. We get stinky. Our teeth can decay and start to hurt…

What kinds of explanations are the most effective?

Studies suggest that children are inclined to recognize the legitimacy of policies that are consistent with moral norms, or designed to protect individuals from harm. By contrast, kids feel we’ve overreached when they perceive our policies as unethical, frivolous, or intruding on their right to make personal choices (Lagatutta et al 2010; Gingo 2012; Gingo 2017).

And a recent experiment suggests that we can influence children’s perceptions of a policy depending on the way we explain – or fail to explain – ourselves.

Matthew Gingo and Shiva Carver investigated this question by presenting 108 elementary school students (6-, 8-, and 11-year-olds living in the United States) with a series of stories –  short vignettes that each featured a parent talking with a child.

The stories all began the same way, with a child who wanted to engage in a recreational activity.

Within each vignette, the child wanted to participate in an everyday activity with a friend. The activity itself would vary from story to story, but it was always what you might call a “culturally acceptable” activity — like playing basketball, watching a movie, riding a bicycle, scrapbooking, or playing catch.

Then came the moment of conflict: The parent in the story would always say no, you can’t do it.

Now we should expect that kids listening to these scenarios would be inclined to take a critical view of the parent’s call. After all, the protagonist in the story isn’t asking to skip school, or go skateboarding on the freeway. The parent is exercising authority in an area that kids tend to view as a matter of personal choice (how to spend free time).

But that’s the beauty of this experimental design, because the researchers wanted to find out how a parent’s presentation might influence kids’ judgements about legitimate authority. So they tested a variety of different endings to these stories.

How did parent character justify his or her command?

In some scenarios, the parent offered no explanation whatsoever. The dialogue ended there.

In the rest, the parent either cited a justification that violates moral norms (e.g., “You’re a girl and basketball is for boys”), or provided one of these reasons:

  • Prudential or safety-oriented (e.g., “Basketball is dangerous and I don’t want you to get hurt”)
  • Pragmatic or practical (e.g., “You are wearing your nice clothes and they will get dirty”)
  • Parent’s personal preference (e.g., “Basketball is boring and I want you to do something fun…”)
  • Intrinsic authority (e.g., “Because I’m your dad and I said so”)

After hearing these stories, the children participating in the study were asked to judge the nature of the parent’s command, e.g., “Was it alright or not alright for the father to tell the child she couldn’t play basketball with her friend?”

And here’s what happened.

Kids were more accepting of authority when parents provided justifications about safety or practical concerns. When parents took a more power-assertive approach (e.g., “because I said so…”) children were much less accepting of authority.

Overall, kids didn’t really think any of the prohibitions were entirely “alright.” They often had mixed feelings about them.

But they came closest to rating a prohibition as mostly acceptable when the parent justified it with either a prudential or a pragmatic explanation. When the parent offered a reason that violates moral norms, kids – even the youngest, 6-year-old kids – tended to reject the prohibition. And they weren’t too crazy about the other types of reasons.

Among the 8- and 11-year-olds, prohibitions justified on the basis of parent’s personal preference and intrinsic authority were rejected as either partially or mostly not “alright.” In fact, using these types of justifications was just about as useless as issuing a prohibition without any rationale at all.

What are some promising ways to put this research into practice? Here are some tips.

1. Help kids tune into feelings — and learn strategies for coping with them — by honing your skills as an emotion coach.

As I explain here, this includes trying to notice your child’s negative emotions before they become intense, and then — when your child is calm enough to talk — you listen and validate your child’s feelings. This doesn’t mean you approve of misbehavior. But you acknowledge your child’s emotions, and help him or her communicate about it verbally. Then you can offer practical advice on how to handle these feelings, and resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression and anger.

2. Check out these guides to positive parenting tactics, as well as strategies for kids with ongoing behavior problems

In my positive parenting article, you will find examples of how to avoid getting caught up in power struggles — even with very young children. In my article about externalizing problems, I provide 12 evidence-based tips for dealing with aggression, defiance, and disruptive behavior.

3. If someone in your child’s life favors spanking or other forms of physical punishment, share this evidence with him or her.

The accumulated evidence is pretty clear: Spanking can cause harm, and, in the long run, it appears to be less effective than positive parenting. Read more about it here.

More reading

If you are interested in inductive discipline, you may also enjoy my articles about the effects of different parenting styles. This includes my overview of the 4 major styles, as well as these in-depth looks at three of them:

References: Inductive discipline and the legitimacy of authority

Gingo M. 2017. Children’s reasoning about deception and defiance as ways of resisting parents’ and teachers’ directives. Dev Psychol. 53(9):1643-1655.

Gingo M and Carter S. 2024. Subverting parental overreach: Children endorse defiance and deception as legitimate modes of moral resistance and social opposition. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 238: 105800. Published online ahead of text:

Krevans J and Gibbs JC. 1996. Parents’ use of inductive discipline: Relations to children’s empathy and prosocial behavior. Child Development 67(6): 3263–3277.

Lagattuta KH, Nucci L, Bosacki SL. 2010. Bridging theory of mind and the personal domain: children’s reasoning about resistance to parental control. Child Dev. 2010 Mar-Apr;81(2):616-35.

Tompkins V and Villaruel E. 2022. Parent Discipline and Pre-schoolers’ Social Skills. Early Child Dev Care. 192(3):410-424. 

Content last modifed 2/9/24

Image credits

Image of father talking with young son and daughter on the grass by imtmphoto / shutterstock

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