How I’m learning to discipline rowdy children


rowdy boy screaming rawr

He was an unruly little boy. Four-and-a-half and quite the handful.

His mom called him things like “brat” and “annoying” and constantly whined about his whining. She threatened spankings and time outs and all sorts of punishments.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head and told him to, “get away and leave me alone!”

As hard as it was to watch her treat him this way, I had compassion on her.

Her husband was deployed overseas, her family lived across the country, she had another spirited (also unruly) two-year-old boy, and she was in that mind-blowingly-tiring first trimester with her third child. She came to playgroup so that she could have a break – adult conversation while different toys kept her kids entertained.

But as much compassion I had for the young mom, I felt even more for her young son.

He was overtly defiant, rowdy, loud, whiney, and—admittedly—annoying. He was constantly misbehaving or being just. plain. rude.

It was so clear that he was trying to get her attention. Our attention. Anyone’s attention.

During a pause in my conversation with his mom I asked him if he’d like me to read him a story. He wasted no time running to find a book about trucks and settled in next to me. I read a few stories to him, asking him questions about the book, and being silly and animated as I read in different voices.

We read for five or six minutes.

And then, just like that, he got up and began to play calmly, politely, and independently.

All he needed was some positive attention and interaction.

I don’t point my finger at this young mom – she had a lot on her shoulders (and who knows what else she was dealing with behind the scenes). But I hoped that day she might glimpse another way of helping her child to behave well.

Years ago (while still in high school) I worked at a childcare center. We looked after 80+ kids, ages two-and-a-half through grade school. One summer I was given charge of the kindergarten class for a few months while the teacher was on summer break.

There were a few boys in the class that were always in the office (the center’s go-to place for time outs). They were constantly being difficult, always in trouble, and relentlessly annoying the staff and other children.

I decided to make these boys my class helpers.

I acknowledged them in front of the class, gave them special assignments (like helping me to serve snacks or pass out instruments at music time), and spent a little extra focus and time playing with them during our free play sessions.

It was rare that I had behavioral issues with them.

The lightbulb went off: as long as I was paying attention to them—really paying attention (before they got “in trouble”)—they paid attention to me.

Several years later I used the same technique when I was working with college-age students in one of our training schools where students live on campus.

Students were staying up late every night being normal 19- and 20-year-olds – laughing loudly, yelling and screeching as they competed on the pool table, and shouting across the campus to get one another’s attention. They were having a blast but being incredibly selfish and disruptive to the community at large.

We tried instructing them about what was “right”. We tried persuading them with convicting reasoning. We tried threatening them with lost privileges. None of our lectures or threats seemed to work for long before the atmosphere would pick up and they were all whooping and hollering again.

Remembering my rambunctious five-year-olds back at the childcare center, I decided I would put the loudest and rowdiest of the college students in charge of keeping the volume down among the others.

I pulled him aside, asked him to be my right-hand man, and then told the others that he was in charge of keeping things calm and peaceful after 10pm.

Worked like a charm.

You see it turns out that most of the time people just want to be noticed, respected, and given some room to shine. Sometimes the “discipline” that they need is to be given a task, to be entrusted with something, to be modeled respectful behavior, or just to be believed in.

(Did you know that to discipline doesn’t mean ‘to punish’? It literally means ‘to teach or cause to learn or understand’.)

Now I am in the middle of learning how to discipline (teach!) my own rowdy children, and by no means do I have it all figured out.

learning to discipline rowdy kids


Some days I feel like I do a stellar job disciplining (teaching!!) my littles, other days I’m pulling my hair out and feeling like a miserable failure.

But this I do know – often when they are acting up and driving me insane, what they really need is more time, more connection, more affection, and more undivided attention from me.

Sometimes they just need me to stop all the multi-tasking and look in their eyes a little longer, listen to their hearts a little more intently, and believe in them a little more.

Sometimes all they need is me.

Dear friends, have you ever used this technique with rowdy or misbehaving kids? Has it been successful for you? Do you have other ways that you discipline rowdy children? Let’s share and learn from one another.

About Author

Adriel Booker is an author, speaker, and advocate based in Sydney, Australia who believes storytelling, beauty, and the grace of God will change the world. Adriel has become a trusted voice in areas of motherhood and parenting, Christian spirituality, and global women's issues. She's also known for her work with the Love A Mama Collective—serving under-resourced women in developing nations through safe birth initiatives—as well as her years spent as a Bible teacher and leadership coach. Her latest book is Grace Like Scarlett: Grieving with Hope after Miscarriage and Loss and she's made the companion grief journal available for free. Find Adriel across all social media platforms at @adrielbooker or sign up for LoveNotes, Adriel's 'secret posts' that aren't published anywhere else online. ✌️


  • Mothering From Scratch
    7 August 2012 at 10:23 pm

    {Melinda} Such a valuable post, Adriel. It is so easy to focus on the behavior and not see past it and address the real need. I found this approach worked really well with my teenage daughter, just this past Sunday. Our kids will strain to reach our high expectations of them. (High, but not unreasonable or unrealistic.)

    Thank you for the incredibly insightful reminder — your approach will come in very handy in the teen years, trust me! 🙂
    Mothering From Scratch recently motherhood starts todayMy Profile

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 12:47 am

      I’d be lying if I said the thought of having teenagers doesn’t intimidate me! But I know that once that season comes I will have grown into it. (Right??!) It’s encouraging to hear how this approach works with your teenage daughter. Thanks so much for sharing.
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  • secret mom thoughts
    7 August 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Great advice. I need to do this more for sure.
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  • Rachel J.
    8 August 2012 at 1:08 am

    All too often I have seen parents who consistently ignore their children, and the whole family suffers from it. I think your observations about the importance of relationship are spot on! I think many methods of discipline can work – some punishments may work for a particular child while others don’t – but discipline never works in the long run without relationship. Wise words, Adriel.
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    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 12:48 am

      “discipline never works in the long run without relationship” – Yes, I think if discipline is approached well, it’s actually a strengthening factor IN relationships. Not separate to it.
      Adriel Booker recently posted..grace for moms – you and i both need it.My Profile

  • LeiShell
    8 August 2012 at 1:08 am

    I liked how this was about preventing bad behavior from starting and not so much about how to deal with it. I felt slightly judged when person after person said they don’t do timeouts implying I’m making my son “fear” me with my “I’m the boss” approach. And it bothered me because we have a tender way about it. I agree giving attention helps stop it, but for those times in the store when they melt down…what then? I quietly remove him, take a moment to explain and we are on our way. And he’s such a sweet boy. I only wish you’d included how you handle it when attention doesn’t work…like when they need true discipline. But great post.
    LeiShell recently posted..Happy Monday!My Profile

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 12:58 am

      For us this often works for dealing with it when it’s happening too. Tantrums are difficult–don’t hear me wrong–and I know when I’m in the midst of trying to deal with one my immediate reaction is to want to put a stop to it in whatever way possible. (As fast as possible!) I’m finding that part of what I need to do is actually ride some of it out – let him get angry and a little crazy – and then help talk him down from that place and focus on reconnecting with him. I guess I don’t want to prevent him from getting angry necessarily, but help him to learn how to handle himself (learn self-control) when he’s angry. That’s teaching a life skill – not just dealing with an immediate problem.

      I’m sorry that you felt judged on the facebook thread. I can’t speak for any of the other women that commented there, but I don’t think they would have intended that as something personal toward you. 🙁 I’m sorry you felt that way, Leihell.

      I agree with you about quietly removing them from a store if they begin having a public meltdown. They obviously need attention, but we also need to protect them from humiliation. (Being “punished” by us in front of others where we might accidentally make them feel ashamed.) Always a good idea to calmly and swiftly remove them in my opinion! 😉 Oh, parenting is hard! I think we all have moments where we’re afraid of messing up our kids!! The important thing is that we love them so much and we try to listen to them and stay teachable, we do our best and we ask forgiveness when we get it wrong.

      Thanks for sharing. I really appreciate it.
      Adriel Booker recently milk? | in celebration of breastfeedingMy Profile

  • tracy
    8 August 2012 at 2:54 am

    great post. i find that this is always true of my girls. if they are having a bad day i can always trace it back to the fact that they are not getting enough interaction/attention. spending a few minutes reading or having them sit on my lap, having a dance party or doing puzzles together always works to calm them down.

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 12:59 am

      yeah, sometimes i think it’s too easy! but it really does help turn things around quickly. (so why can it be so easy to forget that when things get heated?!)
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  • Jennie {Clover & Violet}
    8 August 2012 at 3:43 am

    This is so true! I recently read the book Families Where Grace is in Place which has much the same idea, but it has helped me immensely! I highly recommend it, especially with little children because it gives such a great foundation. The premise is that you must empower children to make right choices, not manipulate them into behaving properly. It is a short, amazing read!
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  • gwen
    8 August 2012 at 4:29 am

    Helpful words for any age! As a grandma I’ll try to remember this. 🙂 I also liked Jennie’s words – you must empower children to make right choices, not manipulate them into behaving properly – wow.

  • Elizabeth
    8 August 2012 at 6:12 am

    i needed this. it actually got me thinking about my day yesterday. it was around 5 and i called josh at work. i started crying. ” i don’t know what has come over marley. she wont listen and she’s getting into everything she’s not supposed to.” see, yesterday i was sick with pregnancy stuff, josh was working, and the thought of getting on the floor to play dinos was not something i felt i couldn’t manage. i really believe in this post. marley thrives at making sure she is thought of. i know there is a balance. if i’m sick, i’m sick. but i think after days like yesterday i am thinking over some creative ways to not let it happen often while i’m pregnant.

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:07 am

      hey friend, i’m glad i could help bring some perspective. i really do find the little ones act up when they’re not getting as much attention as they crave. BUT, there’s grace for mama having off days too. like you said, when you’re sick, you’re sick. 🙁 it’s especially hard when you have littles. i had some really miserable days when i was pregnant with judah and levi was marley’s age. sometimes i just needed to cuddle up with him and watch some playschool. we’re not normally huge tv fans (for the kids at least) but on days like that it helped. even though it’s not face-to-face interaction, it’s better than just sticking a kid in front of the tely while you do something else. you can lay there and watch together, make comments, involve yourself in it, etc. she’s a bit young to be entertained for too long, but you never know. if you’re lucky (and “active” while watching, iykwim) you might get an hour!! could be an option to try when you have those days – just a thought. in any case, you’re doing such a great job. don’t beat yourself up! x
      Adriel Booker recently milk? | in celebration of breastfeedingMy Profile

  • Angela
    8 August 2012 at 6:15 am

    Oh, how I wish I could get all “my” parents to understand this! As a therapist who deals primarily with children in foster care, I see so many children who just need some positive attention. Yes, they also need boundaries and structure, I always say consistency and follow through are two of the most important components of effective discipline, but that won’t work without positive attention as well. One my parent aides says “you have to have adequate time in for time out to be effective”. With some of my younger clients (I see them as young as 3 years old), there’s not always a lot of treatment going on…their therapy is having one on one interactions, my undivided attention, for an hour. For some of them, I know that’s the only hour in the week that they will have someone’s attention, and that breaks my heart.
    What a wonderful post!!

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:12 am

      You’re in such a challenging position Angela! So many parents have grown up with authoritarian parents or permissive parents and they just don’t understand how to set loving limits or prioritize connection. With good reason! We need to see this stuff modeled for us, not just in our families, but in our extended families, our schools, our churches, our playgroups, etc. That’s when it will begin to come naturally. Good for you for helping to show these kids that they are worth paying attention to, and helping to bring change to the cycle. You’re work is so valuable!!
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  • Kerry @ Made For Real
    8 August 2012 at 11:29 am

    Such great insight, Adriel. Good reminders when we’re having those hair-pulling days, especially. So hard to stay positive some days. Supporting each other and talking it out is so therapeutic. 🙂 Our oldest son definitely has triggers, i.e. sugar and not eating enough smaller meals a day – he definitely needs the extra protein. He hasn’t quite been the same little boy since age four. Frustrating, but I find sometimes just sitting and hugging him, talking calmly, listening to him … It makes all the difference on some days.
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    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:16 am

      Oh yeah, it IS hard on hair-pulling days. I find on those days that sometimes the only thing that will work is a complete change of scenery. We just get out to the park or something like that. The new environment, combined with my focus and lack of multi-tasking, is usually enough to help steer the day back on course. (Not that it’s always easy to just pick up and leave the house though!) Good that you are able to recognize your son’s triggers. We’re still figuring those out, but tv can be a big one for Levi.
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      • Kerry @ Made For Real
        13 August 2012 at 3:46 am

        Too much free time, unstructured, is a huge thing that drives my son bonkers, as well. He functions much better with structured days. He is my major project guy – always creating.

        Btw – my youngest is Levi 🙂
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  • Katherine
    9 August 2012 at 6:39 am

    Great thoughts. I had a somewhat similar revelation a while ago:
    Also this one, when I thought I might lose it on my toddler:

    In short: I love the comment above that “you have to have adequate time in for time out to be effective”. Spending so much time and energy trying to fend off my kids is rarely effective. Sometimes I just need to sit down and be with them to reset the system, in a sense. Secondly, there are often other things at play with my kids that I need to see when they are having a particularly rough run- sleep, their eating, and any transitions, to name a few.

    Looking forward to reading more! We can all learn a lot from each other.
    Katherine recently posted..Spanx Alot.My Profile

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:19 am

      Thanks for the links Katherine. Will look forward to reading.

      “Fending off kids” – yes, those words! Not only does it not work, it is FRUSTRATING to try! A good reset is much more effective.

      And yes, I find it so helpful to hear perspective from other parents. Especially ones who share similar values. 🙂
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  • A Little R & R
    9 August 2012 at 8:40 pm

    Excellent post! To be sure, there are times when discipline is needed, but many times it can be headed off by simply taking time for our children. Many times they act out to get attention. 🙂 I am so glad you posted this. What a touching story and great example you shared.
    A Little R & R recently posted..You Gotta Give It Away – Dreams Of My HomeMy Profile

    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:23 am

      yes, i think there are times when it’s attention-seeking and other times when it’s almost just like an automatic reaction that they fly into – an age-appropriate (though frustrating to us) reaction. their brains are literally still developing to be able to react to stress, difficulty, emotion, and difference of opinion without train-wrecking into complete melt-down. in both cases we need to help them, but probably with slightly different approaches.
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  • Rachel
    9 August 2012 at 9:36 pm


    PS. love the new header!!!
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    • Adriel Booker
      12 August 2012 at 1:24 am

      oh geeze. thanks rachel. i keep changing it. i’m not design-savy enough to actually make something i like all that much. my skills don’t match my creative eye! (arg.) but yeah, thanks. 🙂
      Adriel Booker recently posted..grace for moms – you and i both need it.My Profile

  • Jessica
    13 August 2012 at 9:36 am

    Yes! I agree wholeheartedly. I think it’s the moment when my children are giving me the most headaches that I am the most stubborn to listen to them, or to really hear them. But listening and hearing is what they crave, what they need. I get that. Great post. And I like your new colors.

    • Adriel Booker
      14 August 2012 at 10:21 pm

      Yeah, when they’re being difficult I often *want* to shut them out – ignore them and “fend for myself” – but obviously that would make the problem worse. They aren’t little adults. They’re children… We all need to be heard and respected, but how much more do they as their little souls and spirits are being shaped?
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  • Kiran
    23 March 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks Adriel. This comes to me at a very difficult time when I’m trying to “discipline” my five year old who is very often publicly rowdy and defiant. It makes a world of sense to me.

  • Dessa
    22 July 2014 at 3:26 pm

    I do not have a website, but what i do have is a very bright, but energetic rowdy 4 year old that I just CANNOT control. I have tried time-outs, spanking, threatening to spank or do something, but to no avaiil. When we go anywhere, he just runs around, runs off, doesn’t listen when I tell him no or stop. I think I am a SAHM and too much of a pushover. We go to others’ homes and even when we tell him Not to do something, he continues to do it! I cannot get him to sit and do things with me like coloring or learning because he just ends up getting up and running around, drawing on the carpet or the walls, pretty much anything we say not to do. I tell him not to splash water all over the place in the tub and next thing I know, he has dumped a bucket of water all over the carpet or floor…etc. I am at my wit’s end and very frazzled. We never get a break and usually it is just me all day with him. We don’t have people really to watch him and when his daddy comes home, he is usually too tired to play with him or give me a break…

  • Nicole
    20 December 2014 at 8:53 pm

    Hi Adriel!
    What a small world. I was sitting down after a tough evening and googled something like “getting rowdy children to bed” and stumbled across your blog. After seeing your face and name I realized I saw you on the stage of Westside Church not long ago! 🙂 What an encouraging post. Thanks for sharing your insights. 🙂 I hope you and your family are doing well.

  • S
    30 January 2018 at 2:45 pm

    AND THEN… there are the really difficult children. Children that I could only manage with hand in hand teaching. Children that cannot handle being in large groups no matter the 1:1 ration in said large group. Yes some children will respond well to redirection or positive attention. Than there are the other ones. The ones that will take and take and take. These high needs kids are not your average. They are not your norm, they are not even the ones in and out of “time outs.” They are the ones that leave caregivers and parents breathless. I have two of these (out of 4). All of my child focused education and work experience barely scratched the surface on these two. All I can say is, be creative and find ways to get rest, peace & quiet, and breaks regularly. Find a person who connects well with your extra needs kid and make sure they spend as much time with them as possible. It does change (I’m not going to say better). Dr. Sears wrote about high needs kids, good read.

    • Adriel Booker
      3 February 2018 at 8:35 pm

      Thanks for sharing. I have so much respect for Dr. Sears’ work. Highly recommend for finding further support.

  • swati
    30 July 2018 at 6:49 pm

    Content child being agressive or misunderstood: I don’t have issues at home nor attention problem as I have left my job to pay attention to my child. My son 6.5 was born prematurely but has developed well and can talk also but is not very communicative in grps. He lives to talk n sings well. He is learning Indian classical music also. He is HYPERACTIVE but reads well. He doesn’t want to follow rules , he doesn’t want to be disciplined. He was typecasted in older school(preschool) and I am fearing the same in this big school also. His class teacher didn’t send him to play for 2 weeks .. painful right but he didn’t tell me. Today he hit someone slightly so they called me to inform. I am shocked n tearful at the same time for the lag in me. Can you suggest something.

  • swati
    30 July 2018 at 6:52 pm

    Content child being agressive or misunderstood: I don’t have issues at home nor attention problem as I have left my job to pay attention to my child. My son 6.5 was born prematurely but has developed well and can talk also but is not very communicative in grps. He lives to talk n sings well. He is learning Indian classical music also. He is HYPERACTIVE but reads well. He doesn’t want to follow rules , he doesn’t want to be disciplined. He was typecasted in older school(preschool) and I am fearing the same in this big school also. His class teacher didn’t send him to play for 2 weeks .. painful right but he didn’t tell me. Today he hit someone slightly so they called me to inform. I am shocked n tearful at the same time for the lag in me. He is very empathetic and loving and always wants hugs n kisses and we always give him ample that at time friends are amazed. Can you suggest something.

    • Adriel Booker
      31 July 2018 at 10:00 am

      Hi Swati. I’m sorry you’re going through this. I would suggest a couple of things: Speak with your child’s teacher and see if you can get more understanding. Since the teacher has kept him from playing for two weeks, I would assume this is making the problem worse because he has tons of energy that has no place to go. This would concern me as a parent. After speaking to the teacher you may also need to speak with their supervisor or the principal to understand school policies surrounding this stuff. It’s hard to comment on specifics without knowing your culture and school’s ethos etc. Also, do you have a doctor you can also speak with to ask questions about what’s normal childhood behavior and what isn’t? If your child has a true medical condition related to hyperactivity then you’ll want to speak with a professional. He may need some dietary changes or other adjustments in his care. In the meantime I would suggest lots of attention, lots of question asking to help him process his day, lots of outside play when possible, and some very clear boundaries around what’s respectful behavior at school.

  • Ariel Cole
    16 March 2020 at 8:43 am

    I just read this post and love it! This is such a clear concept to me…but what do you do when this is not something your spouse understands. My husband is all about the behavior and punishments. He yells, threatens, spanks, and thinks (and tells) our kids they are crazy and out of control. I love my husband dearly, but it truly breaks my heart. I am not sure what to do or say… anytime I try to say something he takes is as a personal attack. I feel stuck between loving and teaching my kids and supporting my husband.

    • Adriel Booker
      18 May 2020 at 2:06 pm

      Why don’t you send him an article and ask him his thoughts? Would he be willing to read and then engage that way? Learning to parent together is something my husband and I have worked hard on. It doesn’t always come as naturally as we think it should, but what we don’t realize is how many preconceptions we bring into parenting——things that are unspoken but part of our worldview. We don’t even know they exist until confronted with someone else’s ideas that contrast it. Parenting is hard. I hope you’re able to have some productive conversations with your husband.


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