Discipline for Preschoolers

I found it frustrating when, after I had used all the ‘right’ words in disciplining my preschool children, one of them would say, “I was bad.” Often they needed a hug afterwards to reassure them that they were still loved.

I remember a school of thought that preached, “If you hug children after they have been disciplined, it undoes the discipline. You’ll spoil them.” I disagree! A hug can be accompanied with, “I still love you. I just don’t like what you did.” It is best to specifically describe the unacceptable behavior. Many times, my children’s understanding of what they did wrong was totally different from mine.


Children of this age are conscious of rules and see them as sacred and untouchable, although they may not always follow them. They obey rules out of a fear of punishment or a fear of losing someone’s love and support.

When they disobey, it is often because they are in the moment, following their impulses and curiosities. They do not have the cognitive ability to analyze consequences of their behavior ahead of time. Preschool children have difficulty seeing cause and effect. It is hard for them to understand how their behavior affects other people.

They often cannot predict what impact their actions might have on someone and, once they have acted, may be unable to look back and connect the behavior to the consequence. They also have extreme difficulty explaining why they did something. They truly don’t know. It is better not to ask. Asking “Why?” is an exercise in futility.

When a rule is broken, it is the size of the consequence, not the intention of the rule breaker that is important to preschool children. They are very literal and concrete. If someone steps on a child’s toy and breaks it, it is the broken toy that is focused on, not the intent of the person who stepped on it.

Whether the toy got broken accidentally or intentionally, the toy’s owner will react the same. Conceptually, “He did it on purpose” or “It was an accident” are not clear statements to the preschooler. The vocabulary in itself is problematic for preschoolers. My son would do something accidentally and tell me he did it on purpose. The concepts of ‘deliberation’ and ‘accidentality’ were too abstract for him.


Preschool children want to be accepted, liked, and loved. Consequently, teachers and parents often hear (or see) from the child as a reaction to discipline, “You hate me!” Because children’s primary goal is to be loved, their reaction to disapproval of their behavior is to fear that love has been withdrawn.

For this reason, it is very important that children not be labeled ‘bad.’ “You are a bad girl” means to the preschooler, “You are not accepted” or “You are not loved”. Children aren’t bad; behavior is bad, and as such unacceptable. I cannot emphasize this distinction enough. Even if you are diligent about speaking to children about their behavior, reassuring them that they are OK and loved but that their behavior is not OK, children of this age will still have difficulty separating the two.

Excerpted from Free the Children by Susan Gingras Fitzell.

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