Parenting Tips > Raise a Self-Disciplined Child

How to Use Positive Parenting

Discipline has nothing to do with punishment.  Punishment is imposing something unpleasant on a person in response to behavior deemed wrong by the punisher.  Discipline comes from the Latin verb to teach or guide, as does the word Disciple.  Positive Discipline, therefore, is Positive Guidance. Some people also call it Gentle Guidance, to distinguish it from the more harsh training that often passes for teaching in our society.  Because we all grew up with such negative associations to the word "discipline," I prefer to use the words "Positive parenting."  That also encompasses everything we do as parents to connect with our child and support him so he's open to our guidance.   

This page gives you ten tips for practicing positive parenting at your house.  If you're wondering whether that's a good idea,  the short answer is that punishment undermines your relationship with your child, makes kids feel worse about themselves (which makes them act worse) and sabotages your child's development of self-discipline.  Isn't your goal to help your child feel good and act better?  Click here for more information on WHY positive parenting raises great kids

Here's how to use positive parenting, or Gentle Guidance, to raise an amazing, emotionally intelligent, child.

1. Positive parenting starts by creating a good relationship with your child, so that he responds to gentle guidance as opposed to threats and punishment. The most effective discipline strategy is having a close bond with your child.  Kids who feel connected to their parents naturally want to please them.
   
2.  Evaluate all teaching based on whether it strengthens or weakens your relationship with your child.  Think Loving Guidance, not punishment. Punishment is destructive to your relationship with your child and ultimately creates more misbehavior. Loving guidance is setting limits and reinforcing expectations as necessary, but in an empathic way that helps the child focus on improving her behavior rather than on being angry at you.

3. Start all correction by reaffirming the connection.  Remember that children misbehave when they feel bad about themselves and disconnected from us.  

  • Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye: "You are mad but no biting!"
  • Pick her up: "You wish you could play longer but it's time for bed."
  • Make loving eye contact: "You are so upset right now."
  • Put your hand on her shoulder: "You're scared to tell me about the cookie."

4. Don't hesitate to set limits as necessary, but set them with empathy. Of course you need to enforce your rules. But you can also acknowledge her perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits. 

  • "You’re very very mad and hurt, but we don’t bite.  Let’s use your words to tell your brother how you feel."
  • "You wish you could play longer, but it's bedtime. I know that makes you sad."
  • "You don't want Mommy to say No, but the answer is No. We don't say 'Shut Up' to each other, but it's ok to be sad and mad."
  • "You are scared, but we always tell the truth to each other."
   

5. In any situation posing physical danger, intervene immediately to set limits, but simultaneously connect by empathizing. "The rule is no hitting, even though she made you really mad by teasing like that. Let's sit down and talk about this."
   
6. Defiance is always a relationship problem. If your child does not accept your direction ("I don't care what you say, you can't make me!"), it's always an indication that the relationship is not strong enough to support the teaching. This happens to all of us from time to time. At that point, stop and think about how to strengthen the relationship, not how to make the child "mind." Turning the situation into a power struggle will just deepen the rift between you.
   
7.  Avoid Timeouts. They create more misbehavior. Timeouts, while infinitely better than hitting, are just another version of punishment by banishment and humiliation. They leave kids alone to manage their tangled-up emotions, so they undermine emotional intelligence.  They erode, rather than strengthening, your relationship with your child. They set up a power struggle. And they only work while you're bigger. They're a more humane form of bullying than physical discipline.  Click here for more information on why Timeouts don't work.
   
8. Consequences teach the wrong lesson if you're involved in creating them. On the face of it, Consequences make sense: The child does (or doesn't do) something, and learns from the consequences. Which, when it happens naturally, can be a terrific learning experience. But most of the time, parents engineer the consequences, and enforce the time out, so that any child can explain to you that consequences are actually punishment. Click here for more information on why Consequences don't work.

If the parent is not involved in the consequences (for instance, if they don't study and flunk their test, or they don't brush and get a cavity) -- and if you can handle the bad result -- kids can learn a lot from suffering the consequences of their actions. Of course, you don't want it to happen more than once, or their self image becomes that of a person who flunks test and gets cavities, and they have learned an unintended lesson. My own view is that it works better, if possible, for them to skip such lessons, but as a last ditch strategy, we all certainly learn from letting things go wrong.

Unfortunately, most kids whose parents use "consequences" as punishment don't think of them as the natural result of their own actions ("I forgot my lunch today so I was hungry"), but as the threats they hear through their parents' clenched teeth: "If I have to stop this car and come back there, there will be CONSEQUENCES!!" If parents are in charge of consequences, then the consequences aren't the natural result of the child's actions, but simply punishment.

To the degree that Consequences are seen as punishment by kids -- and they almost always are -- they are not as effective as positive discipline to encourage good behavior. Using them on your kids should be considered a last result and a signal that you need to come up with another strategy.

9. What you think and feel is more important than what you say in how your child responds.Kids will do almost anything we request if we make the request with a loving heart.  Find a way to say YES instead of NO even while you set your limit. "YES, it's time to clean up, and YES I will help you and YES we can leave your tower up and YES you can growl about it and YES if we hurry we can read an extra story and YES we can make this fun and YES I adore you and YES how did I get so lucky to be your parent? YES!"  Your child will respond with the generosity of spirit that matches yours.  

10. How you treat your child is how she will learn to treat herself. If you're harsh with her, she'll be harsh with herself. If you're loving with her while firm about setting appropriate limits, she'll develop the ability to set firm but loving limits on her own behavior.

Harsh discipline and punishment, ironically, interfere with the child's ability to develop self discipline. The problem with internalizing harshness isn't just that it makes for unhappy kids and, eventually, unhappy adults, it's that it doesn't work. Kids who are given discipline that is not loving never learn to manage themselves constructively.

To the degree that we're harsh with ourselves because of the way we were parented, we respond to it by rebelling (how many times do we cheat on our diets?) or martyring ourselves (trying hard to be good girls and boys but building up resentment and lashing out at those we love, or not giving ourselves a break and ultimately breaking down.)

To the degree that we can accept our own loving guidance because we've learned from our parents to treat ourselves that way, we are able to set goals and use our self-discipline to attain them. Ultimately, loving guidance and positive parenting result in the child's developing the holy grail toward which all child-raising is aimed: the child's own self-discipline.

Recommended Resources: