The X, Y, Z Method of Child Discipline

We thought Becky Bailey’s book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline was a mixed bag that contained a few good techniques; this is one of them.  Bailey talks about it in a more long-winded way, but I boiled it down to this formula, which I’ve found easy to remember and therefore to actually use in the heat of the moment sometimes!  Almost 8 years after reading the book, this is the one tip that’s really worked well for me.

This simple sequence can be used in any situation in which your child has done something he shouldn’t and you’re pretty sure you understand what he was trying to achieve with that behavior.  If you have no idea why he would do such a thing, use another method or (if you have time) ask him to explain what he was going for and then use this method.

“You wanted X, so you did Y. You may not do Y. Instead, when you want X, do Z. Try that now.”

This method achieves several things, efficiently:

  • You start by showing your child that you understand what she wanted.  This helps her feel like you’re on her side instead of attacking.
  • You show that you understand the connection of the motive to the action.  Then you condemn the action without condemning the motive.
  • You make a clear statement of what it is that is not allowed.
  • You explain what your child can do that is allowed.  It’s okay to want X, but she has to get it a different way.
  • You encourage her to practice the good behavior immediately.  This helps to reinforce it, as well as helping her to get what she wants.
  • The clear structure gets you to make your point quickly instead of going into an extended harangue about how bad the behavior is.


You tell your child that it’s time to leave the park.  He hollers, “No, poopy head!!” and starts swinging even higher.  You say, “You are angry about leaving the park, so you called me poopy head. You may not call people names. Instead, when you’re angry about leaving, say, ‘I’m mad! I want to stay on this swing all night!’ Try that now.”

He says, “I’m mad! But I’m done with the swing. But I didn’t get to go on the slide even once, so no fair, poopy head!”

You say (smiling through your clenched teeth), “You may not call me names. You want to go on the slide, so you can say, ‘I didn’t get to go on the slide. Can I please slide just once before we leave?’ Try that now.”  If he gets through that without adding any names to it, then you reinforce it by letting him have that one time down the slide.  Otherwise, you’re all done at the park and it’s time to go.  Now.

This is a summary of the example I used, in much greater detail, in the book review:

Nathan has a new book, and Ashley took it without asking.  You say to Nathan, “You wanted her to give back your book, so you hit her.  You may not hit people.  Instead, say, ‘That’s my book.  Please give it back.’  Try that now.”

If Ashley persists in wanting to look at the book: “Sometimes a new thing is very special, and its owner isn’t ready to share it right away.  When you want to use something that belongs to Nathan, say, ‘Could I please look at it for a while?’  Try that now.”

Here are two recent examples from my house:

Nicholas (11 years old) joined me and Lydia (almost 2 years old) on Lydia’s bed, where I was reading a story aloud.  Lydia twisted around and kicked Nicholas in the face.  I said, “Hey, no kicking!”  She said, “Nick get out!”

I said, “You wanted Nick to get out of your bed, so you kicked him.  Kicking hurts.  When you want him to get out, say, ‘Please get out of my bed.’  Try that now.”

She said, “Nick pease get out my bed.”  He didn’t move.

I said, “Nick, I’m sorry she kicked you.  Now that she’s asking the right way, you need to get up right away, to teach her that the nice way works.”  He got up.

“You wanted to hear the record, so you lifted the lid and grabbed the needle.  You may not use the record player–only big people can do it.  When you want to hear the record, say, ‘Please play the record.'”  (Yes, we have a record player!  Lydia’s current favorite record–in fact, the only acceptable record, in her opinion–is the 1970 Grammy nominee Susan Sings Songs from Sesame Street.)

It’s a great method for handling those situations in which your child did something you kind of can’t believe you have to explain, yet apparently you do:

“You were done eating, so you put the rest of your plum on top of my spaghetti.  It’s not polite to put food on someone else’s plate without asking.  Instead, when you have food left over, say, ‘Would you like the rest of my plum?’  Try that now.”

(If your child is like Nicholas, his response to this exact wording will be, “So, if I’m eating soup and there’s some left, I should say, ‘Would you like the rest of my plum?’  If it’s pickles, I should say, ‘Would you like the rest of my plum?'”  Either choose your words differently or anticipate this argument and prepare to explain patiently, “No, if it’s a different food, you should say the kind of food that it is.”  This kind of nitpicking is aggravating, but try to treat it as an earnest effort to understand the rule.)

You can even use this technique to prevent a bad behavior that occurred in the past from happening again:

On the way to the grocery store, say, “Sometimes you see a lot of things that you want but that I decide we won’t buy.  You may not argue and whine and pull on my arm.  Instead, ask in a nice voice and say please, and then if I say no, don’t ask about that thing again.”

You might want to reinforce that it’s okay to ask if she asks properly: “I like to hear about which things interest you.  We can’t buy everything, but sometimes you spot good stuff that I hadn’t noticed.”

All of the above examples direct the child to use words, but here are some for pre-verbal toddlers.  Some toddlers will respond better if you skip right to, “When you want X, do Z.”

“You were done eating, so you pushed the bowl off your tray.  No.  When you are done eating, hold up your hands for wiping.”  Demonstrate hands up.

“Your feet were hot, so you put them in Kitty’s water dish.  Kitty does not like that.  When your feet are hot, take off your socks and put them here.”  Point to location where you want socks to be when it’s time to go out.

The X, Y, Z Method doesn’t work for every situation, but it works for me a lot of the time!

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