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 intentional, attachment-minded 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 & Lisa Popcak’s Parenting with Grace, Dr. William Sears’s The Discipline Book, and Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline. 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, rapport, 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 child and parent, 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 self-control.
Dr. Popcak explains that “[t]he more you use punitive method 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 loving in the situation at hand? There’s a big difference there.
I also like the emphasis in Dr. Sears’s 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 Christian compassion.
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 (or they aren’t going well) 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. When our child is being rude to us or doing something inappropriate, we might feel ourselves becoming indignant and frustrated. Take a frustrated parent and put her together with a child digging in her heels and you have the perfect formula for a garden variety power struggle. You’re bigger, louder, and stronger, so you’ll eventually win, but the costs are high. It’s not worth it.
Forget the power struggle.
If you find yourself heated up and angry, take a moment to cool off and consider a few of these tips, gleaned from my favorite resources on gentle discipline, including Lawrence Cohen’s Playful Parenting, Dr. William Sears’s The Discipline Book, Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline, and Dr. Gregory Popcak’s Parenting with Grace. These are what I consider the best of the many tips and insights that can be found in these resources. The focus here is on teaching your child rather than punishing her.
1. Merciful Listening
The best parenting advice I ever read was to try to see the world through my child’s eyes and the importance of letting him know that I understand his point of view. To do this, we try to look beneath the surface of a child’s behavior to his feelings and unmet needs. When things are going awry, bar none, empathizing with our child is the most powerful corrective discipline tool. When I began to put myself in the shoes of my children, trying to see things from their perspective at their particular developmental stage, I not only became a more effective mother, but I became a better wife, friend, and neighbor.
Your child’s troublesome behavior is really a coded message. Dr. Cohen suggests that we ask ourselves what feelings and needs our child is trying to communicate to us with her behavior. Playful Parenting, 243. If my daughter is ignoring me or storming off and slamming the door over minor stuff, what feelings or needs might she need me to recognize? Did I hurt her in some way yesterday? Is she trying to get me to come to her room to talk about something that happened with a friend?
Sometimes our child really may not know why she’s misbehaving; she might need our help expressing her feelings. Dr. Sears explains that “[o]ne of the goals of discipline is to teach children to be sensitive to others. Yet in order to understand others children must first be sensitive toward themselves. They must recognize their own deep feelings and feel comfortable expressing them when appropriate.” The Discipline Book, 105. If you’ve been practicing gentle, intentional, or attachment parenting, your child has grown up with a sense that he can trust you, and that he can communicate his needs and you will respond. Such a child can learn to express his emotions without fear, even if he needs guidance in how to communicate them appropriately at times.
When your child is expressing big feelings, be responsive and approachable. Meet the little ones down on their level, eye to eye. Show that you want to understand his point of view by nodding your head and mirroring his emotions. In mirroring his emotions we have to avoid being too logical: “You have nothing to be sad about” or “You’re over-reacting”. Instead, show your disappointment over his disappointment, or your sadness at his sadness, even if it seems irrational in your adult mind.
By empathizing in this way, we can discern what Dr. Popcak calls the positive intentions behind a child’s negative behavior. Children are frequently unable to get their needs met or to express their feelings in an effective way, so they act out. The needs and emotions are not bad. Peeling away the layers of our child’s behavior to reveal the real problem is an act of mercy. It’s harder work than whacking him for sticking out his tongue at us, but it’s worthy work, loving work, holy work!
2. Cool Off Time and Couch Time
I once saw an episode of the television show “The Super Nanny” featuring Jo Frost, a no-nonsense but cheerful British nanny. Now, Jo Frost isn’t all bad. She is opposed to spanking, believes in clear boundaries and rules, and emphasizes the importance of families enjoying play time together. But some of her techniques or recommendations are hard for me to accept.
One of her trademark discipline techniques is “the naughty chair” where wayward children are sent when they disobeyed the household rules and parental expectations. The naughty chair is a punishment for not following the rules. The child is required to sit in the naughty chair for the required time, after which the parent requires the child to apologize for the behavior, followed by hugs and acceptance.
What if the child doesn’t want to sit in the naughty chair? As was frequently the case on the Super Nanny series, in the episode I was watching, the child did not want to comply, so he got up and began running around. The parent brought the child back to the naughty chair. Again, child got up. Again, mom brought child to chair. Back and forth, back and forth. At one point, the child was screaming on the floor and refused to budge. The Super Nanny directed the parent to physically pick up the child and plant him in the naughty chair. I wondered what would have happened if the child had been a bit bigger and the mom a bit smaller. What if the parent was disabled?
Aside from the ridiculous sight of seeing the poor mother dragging the child to the magical spot, it was clear this particular solution is flawed. First, when time-out type solutions (like the naughty chair) are used as a punishment, we are isolating a child when he is already feeling isolated, disconnected, and plain yucky. By showing him who’s boss and forcing him to comply against his will, we may eventually gain compliance, but at a high price. Secondly, as was often seen on Jo Frost’s show, we’re bound to begin a power struggle that further breaks down the connection between us and our child. On the Super Nanny, the child eventually complied, but only because he gave up struggling. He was just physically or emotionally tired.
Time-out type solutions can work if we view them as cool-off times. When emotions are running high – your children are fighting, tempers are building, etc. – have a safe, comfortable place for your child to relax until he calms down and is ready to talk through the issue. We all need a break from conflict when our emotions are getting out of control. Modeling such breaks, and allowing our children to have them, is beneficial to them now and in their future relationships. Present the cool off spot as an opportunity not a punishment. It should be comfortable and appealing– think pillows, books, cuddly toys, gentle music, not a hard chair turned toward a blank wall.
Dr. Cohen doesn’t like time outs or cool off times, because even a “positive” cool off might send a message of rejection to the child. He suggests “couch time” when the problem is disconnection. Sit down on the couch, snuggle up, and talk it over. He says that “I always assume that whatever the problem is, disconnection either caused it or made it worse or made it harder to solve the problem.” Either the child or the parent can call couch time where you can talk about what’s going on. Present the issue as a “we” problem rather than a “you” problem, so that the child feels like you’re on the same team trying to come up with a joint solution to a family problem.
I love the couch time idea and I do think Dr. Cohen has a point about cool offs, especially for older toddlers and young children. For them, any separation from mom and dad may be painful. I think we have to assess our child’s temperament to know whether a pre-arranged cool off spot will be welcome by our child or perceived as rejection.
3. Logical Consequences
Imposing consequences is nothing new. Children suffer consequences all the time for their misdeeds. After all, a spanking is a consequence. Grounding is a consequence. But they aren’t logical consequences. Parents often impose consequences that are ineffective because they seem arbitrary to the child and they aren’t connected logically to the child’s misbehavior.
Dr. Popcak believes that imposing appropriate consequences is “critical for teaching a child what to do instead of simply correcting inappropriate choices.” Parenting with Grace, 115. However, our goal shouldn’t be to punish or hurt the child. Our goal is to help the child correct the effect of his choice or misstep and to learn what he should have done instead. Dr. Popcak emphasizes the importance identifying the virtue that would have been helpful to the child in the situation she found herself in. We can guide her in understanding that virtue and give her a chance to practice it in new situations.
4. Physical Redirection
Use this approach very sparingly and only for young children; it wouldn’t be appropriate for an older child or teenager. Dr. Popcak lays out this technique in clear, step-by-step directions in Parenting with Grace (pages 134-136). If your child is refusing to comply with your directions or the house rules, sometimes you can help her along.
For instance, if it’s time to come to the dinner table or to take a bath, and the child refuses after several requests, try the previous techniques first. If those fail, tell your child she can either comply on her own or you will help her. If she refuses to answer or doesn’t want to comply, take her gently but firmly by the hand and lead her to the table or the tub. This isn’t the kicking and screaming redirection I witnessed in the Super Nanny episode. In fact, Dr. Popcak specifically states that you shouldn’t physically force your child – you are merely helping her along. He also advises against using this technique when you’re angry. If necessary, have a cool off or couch time.
I use this technique but I combine it with Dr. Cohen’s playful parenting advice. I often turn it into a game. For example, to get a stubborn little one to the table I might say, “Of course you don’t want to come to the table because there’s a purple frog under the table trying to get our broccoli!”, then I’ll take my child’s hand and tell her we need to tiptoe very quietly and look under the table for the frog. Or I will invite my child to jump with me to the tub and I’ll bet him that I can find the towels before he can get undressed. I act like a big goofball, falling on the floor and laughing. Did I forget to tell you that parenting requires you to surrender your hard-earned dignity on occasion?
You’ll find many more ideas and insights in the resources mentioned above. I especially like Dr. Popcak’s book because it covers all the ages and stages of child development and it deals very clearly with preventative (everyday) discipline and corrective discipline.
The Discipline Book by Dr. William Sears
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
Discipline Without Distress by Judy Arnell
A Few Words on Spanking by Kim Cameron-Smith. A look at spanking and why we don’t spank in our house anymore. I provide some good links at the end of the article.
Negotiating with Our Children by Kim Cameron-Smith. Can negotiation be part of wise parenting or should we lay down the law? How to negotiate wisely and effectively.
Helping Our Children Make Amends by Kim Cameron-Smith. What to do when your child is the offender in a conflict with another child.
Taming Chaotic Parenting Moments by Kim Cameron-Smith. The 3 human hungers and how they can help us get control of wild parenting moments.
Marian Mothering: Gentle Discipline Rooted in Respect by Lisa Stack.
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