Children possess full personhood, just as adults do, and thus deserve to be treated in a way that protects their personal dignity. At the same time, compassionate, empathic parents are responsible for disciplining their children. Is this a contradiction in duties? Gentle discipline might seem like an oxymoron to us if we view discipline in punitive terms. But, for attachment parents, discipline is grounded in the child’s right relationship to her parents and in her sense of well-being.
I reviewed the foundational positions on discipline in several parenting resources that take a gentle, respectful approach to discipline, including Dr. Gregory Popcak’s Parenting with Grace, Dr. William Sears’s The Discipline Book, Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline, and Attachment Parenting International’s website. I found common themes that can help us understand how to discipline our children in a way that recognizes their need for loving guidance without crushing their spirits.
Gentle discipline is founded on the following principles:
1. The heart of gentle discipline is the connection between parent and child.
Every resource I reviewed — without exception — stated that the most important factor in effective discipline is the connection or attachment between the parent and the child. Your child must trust you unequivocally; she must know that you love her wildly, as far as the east is from the west. The time you spend playing together, praying together, eating together; these are moments that not only build a history for your family, but they give you credibility. When you choose to be present in this intense and devoted way, your children naturally want to hear what you’ve got to say and they want to heed your words.
Dr. Jane Nelsen writes on her website that:
Extensive research shows that we cannot influence children in a positive way until we create a connection with them. It is a brain (and heart) thing. Sometimes we have to stop dealing with the misbehavior and first heal the relationship. Connection creates a sense of safety and openness. Punishment, lecturing, nagging, scolding, blaming or shaming create fight, flight, or freeze.
Intuitively, we parents know this to be true. Without a strong sense of trust and respect between our child and us, any attempt to correct inappropriate behavior can turn into an uphill battle between annoying nagging on our end and arrogant eye-rolling on their end. If this connection is weak, then we need to focus on this first before we can begin to think about shaping our child’s behavior in any effective way.
2. The goal of gentle discipline is for the child to develop a conscience and self-control.
The goal of many parenting approaches is very clear: to get the child to obey the parent. If the child complies, the approach is deemed a success. For attachment oriented parents, the goal is not blind obedience to our authority, but rather helping the child develop a conscience and the ability for self-control.
Dr. Popcak explains that “[t]he more you use punitive methods with a child (lecturing, removing privileges, spanking, grounding, screaming, etc.) the more you set yourself up as your child’s conscience, so he or she never learns to develop his or her own.” Parenting with Grace, 77. We won’t always be there. Is our child following a rule out of fear of punishment or out of a deep sense of what is right and wanting to follow their convictions? There’s a big difference there.
I also like the emphasis in Dr. Sears “The Discipline Book” on sensitivity and empathy. By helping our children understand the effect of their behavior on others, and not just controlling their behavior through threats of punishment, we help them develop sincere empathy.
3. The starting point of gentle discipline is prevention not punishment
As with most things in life, when it comes to discipline it’s far more effective to be proactive than reactive. Gentle discipline begins with routine, rhythm, boundaries, clear expectations, and of course connection. We don’t want to wait until there’s a problem to address behavior. We shape behavior through love, respect, and gentle guidance; we do this on a daily basis, not as part of relationship triage.
While preventive discipline is our starting point, it doesn’t end there. Sometimes things go wrong and we need tools to address bothersome or problem behavior. After we’ve established our connection with our child, and practiced preventive discipline by creating clear rules and boundaries, we can turn to corrective discipline when we hit a rough patch.
Corrective discipline is the subject of my next post!
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